Architects: Delaney, McVeigh and Pike
We have a troubled relationship with public housing as a society. Representations of social and affordable housing tend to depict neglected and alienated places, think of the isolated tower blocks of Ballymun or the myriad sink estates of repetitive pebble dash cardboard boxes that dot the suburbs. There are, however, a number of housing developments that are wholly urban in character, that intertwine with the built and social fabric of Dublin, that contribute a great deal to the city and city life.
In the Liberties there is a block and a half of public housing, Ashgrove, designed by Delaney, McVeigh and Pike. It was procured through an architectural ideas competition and completed in 1978. It is a scheme of sharp lively forms, constructed from dark brown brick, softened through time, use and appropriation.
The main block of the scheme consists of dwellings and shop units facing onto Meath Street and the Coombe. The dwellings open at the back into a terraced landscape of private, semi-private and communal outdoor spaces. This brick interior, accessible through covered passageways, is softened by a few assertive trees and bushes in the communal spaces and contrasting manicured shrubs and flowers in the private and semi- private areas. The upper terrace offers a sunlit space for children to play where adults can fold out a table and chair and chat with neighbours. Repetition, often the bane of housing design, has been tempered by the variety of dwelling types and uses, the sloping ground and urban constraints. Encounter and delight are provided by benches, stairs, steps and terraces, opportunistic cantilevered volumes, small projecting balconies, straight and curving low level walls and planters.
I had the good fortune to live for a time in one of these homes. While space was tight, all rooms were bright and well-proportioned. A sheltered doorway off the Coombe led into a small hallway. There was one room on the entry level and another at each half level thereafter, the house rising to three and a half stories in total. A kitchen and utility were located at the first half level, with a small fireplace and dining table, opening out back to a shared courtyard. Ascending past bedrooms and bathrooms, a private and intimate south facing terrace overlooked the street at second-floor level. It captured the sun from early until late, ideal for green fingers and tanned shoulders. A room above was lit from both sides, with full-height glazing facing south across the local roofscape, over the suburbs, and towards the Dublin mountains. A modern counterpart sat to the right of this view, O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects’ Timberyard housing on Cork Street, the large ope of the covered double height balcony on the Brabazon Street corner offered a knowing wink.
The paucity and low quality of housing is the greatest problem facing this city. There are important lessons to be learnt from Ashgrove. Good housing fosters great communities, a sense of identity and place, it can be the physical infrastructure of a strong society, a diverse and flexible economy, and a thriving urban culture.
Ronan McCann is an architect with McGarry Ní Éanaigh Architects. He is also Vice President of the Architectural Association of Ireland and a member of respublica.ie, a collaborative group with a shared interest in public space, modernity and the city.