It stands to reason that the intractable wreckage of our housing crisis should be accompanied by a minor boom in books about houses. These tend to focus on policy (with some even written by political hopefuls), sometimes at the expense of logistical and material detail; given folksy titles like Home or Gaffs, many gesture towards the emotive charge of houses, even as they fail to account for the social or cultural landscape they propose to transform. With its revisioning of an actually transformative housing trend of the past, Adrian Duncan’s Little Republics arrives as a welcome corrective to all of this.
It started as a book of house designs, self-published by architect Jack Fitzsimons in 1971. Arguably the most impactful Irish book in recent history, Bungalow Bliss would inspire the construction of tens of thousands of homes over the course of its twelve-edition run. Largely self-built using off-the-shelf materials, these designs answered a need at a time when the only two routes to home occupancy, for most, were inheritance or emigration. Dubbed ‘little republics’ by John McGahern, these ‘fractal-like reflections of the (greater) modernizing Republic’ proliferated well into the late eighties, by which time the tide of opinion had turned against them for the jarring effect many had made on the landscape.
This is a first nonfictional outing for Duncan, whose most recent novel, The Geometer Lobachevsky, explored the exile, in the Irish countryside, of a Soviet mathematician. While Duncan draws even more extensively on his own engineering background here, he is equally sensitive to the psychical as to the physical properties of place. Thus, his inclusion also of his childhood memories feels justified in this survey of ‘what these durable bungalows are and how their use and meaning has accumulated on the land.
“Duncan is equally sensitive to the psychical as to the physical properties of place.”
This personal approach fuels Duncan’s ultimate attempt at a vindication of the bungalow as the ‘authentic’ domestic vernacular of the period. He defends the referencing – rather than actual use- of indigenous stone in their facades, for instance, in terms of cost and available materials. But by the neoliberal eighties, the mood had shifted from reference to pastiche, and even he must concede the excesses of an increasingly brash and self-regarding phase: follies had begun to spread invasively over the countryside like so many simulacra of the Ewing Mansion from Dallas. Crucially, these more elaborate designs required a degree of specialised labour that nullified the DIY ethos of their predecessors, clearing the ground for the developer-led model to follow. Still, Duncan is forensic in his deconstruction of the ensuing chorus of condescension, reverberant with the accents of an urban elite in its elegies for the traditional thatched cottages, whose damp dark interiors they would never deign to endure.
Bungalow Bliss – and, for that matter, Little Republics – shows the Irish people’s expressed desire to choose the form and manner of their own habitation, a fact too often ignored in the current discourse around housing. In this book about a book, Duncan is faithful throughout to the axiom of another student of the postmodern moment: always historicise!
Words: Diarmuid McGreal