You were the future once… Tower blocks and social housing in Ireland.

I was interested to read an article in the most recent edition of Magill by Tom Farrell on Ballymun. On foot of that I had a discussion with some colleagues about the death of the grand visionary social projects which sought to reshape our cities and towns.

The seven tower complex in Ballymun was entirely typical of such projects. They were a well intentioned attempt to relocate people from the inner-city of Dublin to more modern high rise accommodation on the then outskirts of the city. The symbolism of the names of each block, Pearse, MacDonagh, Clarke, Connolly, Ceannt, Plunkett and MacDermott, each a leader of the 1916 Rising was indicative of efforts to re-imagine an identity for the Irish state during the late 1960s. Their very modernity was such that it embodied a shift away from the rural towards the urban.

As Farrell notes: “When the National Buildings Authority (NBA) first built the seven towers, 18 eight-storey and five four-storey blocks, the Ballymun flats with their central heating and spacious bedrooms, were enviable dwellings”. And he further notes that the blocks were not just “cutting-edge as edging on the experimental” since the systems used to construct them were either entirely new or had only been introduced a couple of years previously.

The influence of Corbusier and earlier modernist projects (particularly those of the Popular Front governments in Spain and France) suffused this endeavour. Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with the vast projects designed, but never implemented, by Eileen Gray will see something of her spirit here too.

But it failed. As the wiki entry puts it, ‘the area suffered from many social problems such as drugs with rampant crime as well as many other problems’. The reasons for this social dislocation are not hard to pinpoint. The towers were serviced by lifts – a necessity for structures fifteen stories high – but these were subject to maintenance and security issues. The brutalist style of the buildings was a paean to modernism, but the concrete structures rapidly assumed a damaged and degraded look.

Farrell argues “Ballymun didn’t and doesn’t contain very poor quality flats but failed miserably to provide adequate infrastructure and community support…in July 1969 the Irish Press reported that Ballymun was to have shopping facilities, office accommodation, an entertainments centre, cinema, skating rink, meeting hall and a swimming pool. But by December 1972, the Evening Herald had run a series of articles: ‘Ballymun: community or chaos?” It was noted that, so far, only a swimming pool, snack bar and two pubs had been provided”.

This lack of infrastructure immediately hobbled the development of a community spirit – although a strong community spirit was to emerge through adversity as the years went on with a remarkable array of community activists working on the ground. The location, at the fringe of Dublin Airport, was arguably a serious issue. This distance from both the city and the communities many of the residents had come from led to a detachment, a sense of isolation, particularly in a society where the public transport links used by the residents were far from adequate.

And it’s worth noting that as they moved towards the end of their usage as residential accommodation they became something of a curiosity. The recent Hotel Ballymun, where a floor was given over to paying guest who could stay there for a night perhaps tells us something about their place in some niche of the Irish psyche.

Their failure was in part symptomatic of a broader retreat from utopianism in social architecture – a retreat some of my colleagues were decrying. And, perhaps too, a retreat from a faith in concepts of mass public or state generated housing schemes. The contemporary period has seen much less interventionist efforts by the state or subsidiary bodies – perhaps indicative of a greater belief or dependence upon the market. Certainly schemes such as shared ownership have sought to blend concepts of private ownership with a degree of state provision.

As an interesting contrast take the suburb of Cabra due north of the inner city in Dublin. This was built in the 1940s, part of an extensive building public housing program undertaken by Dublin Corporation.

The layout of the suburb was centred on a Church, schools and along the north eastern fringe was a business park, most notably containing the Bachelors beans factory. A drive around it today is revealing. In the main one can see how streets and houses were designed in a relatively integrated fashion with generous gardens, well constructed terraced houses and areas of green open space. The sense of community is reinforced by the curved roads which loop through the space. This pattern is replicated across other parts of the city as in Fairview and parts of Crumlin. One might argue with some of the implicit relationships generated by this layout but the idea that one could live and work within a reasonably circumscribed social space is uncontroversial.

Now, there’s no point in pretending that these areas avoided the social problems which blighted Ballymun (incidentally, it’s also important to note that Ballymun had stratifications between low rise Corporation housing and purchase housing and was never an entirely cohesive area). Cabra, Crumlin and elsewhere bore the brunt of unemployment, drugs and the degradation of already relatively weak social services particularly during the 1980s. But whereas in Ballymun there was literally nowhere else to go but up the more open spaces of Cabra and elsewhere were able to diffuse, at least to a degree, these problems, to make them more rather than less containable. This leads to a different discussion as to the nature and distinction between private and public spaces and shared areas within communal living – the difficulties of negotiating a modus vivendi in the public corridor, the lift, the green area in front of a tower block as against the more easily inhabited space of the private front garden.

But even if we ascribe some element of ‘solution’ to social housing problems through low rise, lower density projects it may be that in the near future period it will be simply unsustainable to build programs like Cabra or Fairview.

This is of greater significance during a period where environmental concerns are assuming a greater primacy, particularly as regards housing density, distances from home to work and a society which of necessity may have to curb the greater excesses of the petroleum based society. Or as Tom Farrell notes: “Curtailing the northward roll of the suburbs isn’t just a matter of less carbon emissions. Rising oil prices in years to come will make it a matter of necessity. The prospect of hours commuting to and from work is hardly conducive to attracting foreign and expatriate Irish workers, and we need both to sustain our high growth rates.”

I’ve already noted the social housing projects initiated by design companies such as FAT, amongst others. There, perhaps, lies a way forward to a future which can avoid utopianism but retain the social and sustainable aspects of such projects…

Ciarán Swan

About this entry