In Dublin's fair city
Dublin has been described as 'a city of houses' and, at its centre, from grand Georgian houses down to the orderly weave of Victorian and Edwardian terraces and villas, these houses are made of brick.
Traditionally, a variety of red bricks and the once-ubiquitous but now vanished Dolphins Barn brick, a sandstone-yellow stock, allowed a variety of building styles and urban gestures to blend into a satisfyingly coherent whole.
Typically, only the most subtle of architectural moves mark these modest houses from each other. On an autumn evening, the long slanting light shows to best advantage the gently modulated colour and texture of each building within a strong urban framework of streets and squares. It is this subtle dialogue that gives Dublin its modest but memorable architectural character.
The now vibrant centre of the city was not always as well fostered as it is today. From the 1930s onwards, politicians seized on the vote-grabbing potential of building houses cheaper, quicker and in ever greater numbers at the city's edge. From the 1960s a series of disastrous and mostly unrealised road proposals blighted their putative routes while universities, hospitals and other institutions drifted to the suburbs.
Close-knit urban communities fearing final displacement from their traditional habitats took to the streets to demand proper housing at the heart of the city. From these protests arose Dublin Corporation's ongoing commitment to an urban-infill programme of housing.
These projects began when the building of domestic accommodation in the decaying city centre was an unlikely venture. In this light, the choice of brick as the primary building material (as well as responding to context and reducing future maintenance) represented a firm commitment to highquality construction. These schemes, typically deploying a range of flexible house types to optimise brownfield and backland sites, showed it was possible to build well and, more importantly, to live well in the city centre. This lesson, reinforced by tax incentives from the mid-1980s, has led to a residential influx to the heart of Dublin that is slowly repairing the enormous physical and social damage inflicted in earlier years.
Backland idyll Father Kitt Court, a recent housing project in the 1930s suburb of Crumlin, places terraced accommodation to the edge of a backland site, forming controlled public spaces within, linked in turn to the outside world.
The existing community had a longstanding wish to reinforce the village quality of their neighbourhood and to find physical expression for a supportive community network. The project is arranged as a series of linking courtyards, rigorously composed and centred on a community facility - the 'town-hall' of this metaphorical village.
The spaces created vary in size but are carefully proportioned to their enclosing buildings. Pinch points, emphasised by deeply overhanging gables, mark the transitions from space to space.
The community hall has two bold columns gently pointing up its claim to civic status. This building generates a longer courtyard with a cranked end condition (courteously acknowledging St Agnes church beyond). Enclosure is the primary concern here and the brick is used to wrap the spaces created and to establish a datum line at upperwindow sill height, formed by a distinct but muted cornice with a brick biscuit used as a creasing tile in a very traditional manner.
The brick used throughout is a red multi with a distinct, soft texture.
Detailing is simple. Only the large window in each dwelling is allowed a relieved brick arch. Well-detailed railings at balconies counterpoint the stretched quality of the long brick facades. The evident quality of the scheme made it a finalist in the Brick Awards 2000.
At the scale of the city The Corporation's infill programme has concentrated primarily on two- and three-storey own-door houses in the city centre. These schemes frequently ran into problems of scale, often failing to match the height and massing of larger urban neighbours. Changing demographics and more complex living and family arrangements suggested the growing importance of more typological choice.
This tendency was reinforced by the imperative of sustainability to increase density and maximise land use. The scheme at Bride Street/Golden Lane is a particularly innovative response to these concerns. It includes a four-storey brick terrace on two streets with a strong, highly modelled corner. A large archway allows layered views into a courtyard of two-storey houses; in some ways a mews to the four-storey terrace of maisonettes fronting the street - a condition readily comprehensible in Dublin.
Large paired access stairs, reminiscent of New York brownstones, set up a stately rhythm along the street. Generous south-facing balconies decorate the facade and encourage the tenants to interact with the street and enjoy the gardens of St Patrick's Cathedral beyond.
The height and length of the terraces required a careful balance of detail to ensure scale. Brick, a practical choice to reduce maintenance, is used tellingly to offset the adjoining Iveagh Buildings and to warm the grey granite of St Patrick's Cathedral opposite.
It is a pre-mixed blend of red and buff multis with a distinct orange hue.
Specials are used at eaves, sills and in the elegant semi-circular arches over entrances. Sculpted terracotta discs, with scenes from Gulliver's Travels (Jonathan Swift was Dean of St Patrick's) add wit to the elevations.
This radical high-density scheme uses a readily understandable built language while avoiding the soft option of reinstating a street frontage.
These concerns are taken a stage further at Wolfe Tone Close on Jervis Street. Here, an entire city block has been constructed. The ground floor was designed for commercial use to enliven the adjoining streets. The fiveand six-storey high buildings follow the site perimeter and have indented bullnosed corners at the junctions with Parnell Street. The corners are formed in sand-coloured reconstituted stone, which continues as an attic storey.
The mix of stone and brick is less sure here than in Bride Street: the poorly proportioned balcony panels and vertical 'structural' stripes weaken rather than order the long brick elevations. On Wolfe Tone Street, the block rather agreeably defers to the street, creating a lunette-shaped suntrap. Adjoining, a city-scaled stairway leads under a giant arch into the secluded, but still public, courtyard beyond. This is a confident and meaningful piece of place-making.
The courtyard is informal, with powerful brick terraces on two sides, articulated and colonised by generous balconies and stairways. The other sides, rendered in a yellow ochre, step down in height to ensure maximum sunlight penetration. The brick is a preblended mix of red, buff and orange multis, producing a satisfying effect.
The project's mixed use encourages street life. Adherence to the urban scale and street pattern reinforces enclosure and quality, while the clear linkage between the courtyard and the city beyond promotes integration between existing and new.
There is political and public pressure to move away from the considerable achievement of such schemes into the comfortable, if illusory simplicity of two and threestorey houses and gardens.
Such a step (rooted only in nostalgia, for it fails to address the real, changing needs of the people and the city) would betray the honourable role Dublin Corporation has forged in ensuring that public housing has a proud and useful part to play in the story of Dublin city.