A Forgotten Architect: champion of the 1930’s Dublin Social Housing
On Friday 1st October 1948, page four of the Irish Times reported the demise of Herbert G. Simms, housing architect of Dublin Corporation. Cause of death – suicide! After the consumption of a bottle of whiskey, Simms had driven to Dún Laoghaire and thrown himself in front of an oncoming train. Although found alive, he died in hospital later that day. The cause – ‘pressure of work’ – confirmed afterwards in a note found on his body. Today, it is possible many are not familiar with the name Simms – an Englishman and son of a London train driver – who studied architecture at Liverpool University, and who would eventually come to work in Ireland. Here, at the beginning of the 1930’s, he was appointed to the newly created post of housing architect of Dublin Corporation. In this capacity, Simms would devote many years of his life to the restoration of a city that was not his.
His legacy – almost every flat complex built under his guidance still stands today – underpins the current City Architects’ credo “work to achieve excellence in the ordinary.” Despite the urgency in the 30’s to create housing for the poor, no members of this class were given an opportunity to become involved in the building of their future accommodation. Indeed, contemporary thinking deemed such people were incapable of expressing any valid opinion in relation to their everyday needs. Even as late as 1937 the Government was still dictating the minutiae of the workings of social housing wherein central heating could not be warranted in flats for the working classes (presumably they did not feel the cold). Even the type of cooker to be used was vetted prior to installation – the working-class apparently consumed more stews than roasts. Whilst this is probably true, were such people never to be permitted to relish the finer points of life or given a chance to improve their lot? Were they not entitled to laundries, open spaces, convenient shopping areas? In this respect, it is most likely any views members of the working class had on the subject were negated by the constraints their ‘betters’ imposed upon them!
However, Simms was determined to create a more acceptable form of living space than the over crowded Dublin tenements the new builds were replacing. To this end, he had, with other Corporation officials, made study trips to Amsterdam and Rotterdam to view the methods used in the construction of blocks of flats in those cities. Places where consideration was given to the needs of the tenants, including the importance of inner courts as a spatial allusion. Accordingly, a high proportion of the work noted by Simms was incorporated into his designs for social housing in areas such as Hanover Street, Henrietta Street, Chancery Place, Townsend Street, Mercer Street and Wading Street. Flats that were visually inspired by the architecture of the Amsterdam School and the work of de Klerk especially, that Simms greatly admired, which may be noted in the accompanying pictures. Given the long duration of the aforementioned Dublin inner city housing schemes, it is lamentable that “pressure of work” deprived the city of additional architecture by Herbert G. Simms. He did nonetheless find time to design the art deco bathing shelters at the The Bull Wall in Clontarf.