Embedded within the north-inner city of Dublin since 1934, the St. Michan’s social housing scheme – also known as the Greek Street flats – marked the beginning of a new architectural era on the island of Ireland. Today, this scheme and the other flats of the same age are in desperate need of refurbishment: for the residents, for the city, for our environment, and for our built heritage.
Looking at plans and sections alone, the obvious conclusion is that the 1930s flat blocks are no longer fit for purpose. However, assessing the building as a series of stacked homes / refuges / dynastic legacies, it is clear that they work very hard indeed.
As a platform for new and archival journalism, TYPE was established to add to the national conversation on architecture, planning, urban design and landscape architecture. As part of this, the article series Working Hard / Hardly Working endeavours to discuss and draw attention to design features in our everyday urban environments; calling on contributors to identify two examples of a design move - one which works well, and one that hardly works at all. While typically the series title was applied by holding two spaces in direct comparison, this article instead considers that much of our building stock is working hard, while not really working at all. As is explored in this essay, a space can be manifested using typically successful design principles, with a dedication to the experience of the end-user, but through the barrage of time, modernity, and reality, can still become a less than successful space to be in. Casting an eye across Irish towns and cities, this contradiction is palpable in many a built form; from the Georgian terrace to redundant mid-century office blocks and social housing flats. And what frustrates those of us with affection for the built, is that many of these buildings hold such potential. However, with an obligation to make all built form accessible, insulated and fire-proofed, the task of refurbishment can become insurmountable (i.e. too expensive). The knock-on effect on our urban realm is that this refurbishment doesn’t happen, and the building persists and struggles to work hard for its inhabitants, while ceasing and ceding to work at all. Nowhere is this more apparent than the flats of St Michan’s.
Completed in 1934, the St Michan’s scheme – known also as the Greek Street flats – is embedded within the north-inner city of Dublin. Found a block north of the Liffey, the St Michan’s social housing apartments are four-storeys tall and contain 112 flats divided across three blocks; two west of Greek Street and one east of Greek Street. The scheme is understood to be one of the first of twenty-something social housing blocks designed by H. J. Simms as Dublin Corporation Architect in the mid-twentieth century. According to minutes from a meeting held by Dublin Corporation on 14 August 1931, the approval for flats to be designed and erected on Mary’s Lane was granted. The record highlights that this type of building – four storeys tall and approximately 80m in length, with two circulation cores – was hitherto unknown and “not manufactured in the Free State”. This tiny record – just another note among thousands in the many dusty green leather volumes of the archive shelves – signifies the architectural heritage and importance of the Michan’s blocks. While the flats in the twenty-first century have become an emblem of built apathy and slow dereliction, this does not reflect the intent of the 1930s. These schemes represented an ambition to provide high-quality, liveable city homes to replace the squalor of tenement Dublin. St Michan’s flats (recorded as Mary’s Lane flats at this time) were the first of its kind in the republic – something reflected in its simplistic ornamentation and crude construction. Following widespread slum clearance, the flats represented a new way of living. St Michan’s are just one of the many original ‘Simms blocks’ that are falling into dilapidation – in dire need of considered refurbishment and attention. For the purpose of this article, the flats were analysed under the headings of space, access, and services.
Only through knowing the intersection of our buildings’ historical, geographical, architectural, cultural, urban, and sociological heritage can we assess and value our existing building stock. Looking at plans and sections alone, the obvious conclusion is that the 1930s flat blocks are no longer fit for purpose. However, assessing the building as a series of stacked homes / refuges / dynastic legacies, it is clear that they work very hard indeed. An expectation that our spaces should serve us was a standard set by the architects from the scheme's inception. Through drawing, anecdote and archive, we know that Dublin Corporation, with Simms at the helm, asserted that these stacked homes should be equal to their two-storey terraced neighbours. Skirting boards throughout were insisted upon. Every flat had its own WC with a small window. While the hearth continued to act as the focal point, each flat was equipped with a separate scullery. Measuring under 6sqm, this represented a psychological move of the place of the kitchen within the home from a secondary, ‘serving’, room to an everyday space with light and functionality. While it is clear that these flats represent an endeavour to provide homes of value (sections drawn of the Cook Street flats scheme from the same time depict detail such as fold-up counter tops and coat hooks), where the corporation failed the residents was in understanding the size of families who would reside in the flats. As opposed to the three or four-person units the flats were designed for, families were more likely to have eight or ten members. This is a problem that persists today. The flats are too small for the number of occupants they hold.
The plan above is a survey of a resident’s apartment. Joanna lives here with her two adult daughters. The plan closely represents the suspected original layout – two bedrooms and a scullery off a main living room, with the 1930s coal shoot and WC converted into a bathroom and shower. There is no space for a dining table. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, Joanna’s girls completed a Leaving Cert and third-level degree sharing just the small make-up table in their bedroom. Even the depth of the walls is paltry: next door drilled straight through when hanging a painting. Storage is a limited luxury.
At each level, the flats are accessed by a gated deck off a central stair. Delineating the brick facades, the external decks are a quintessential feature of these blocks. Typically there are four doors per deck. They are a fundamental extension of the floor plan; used to store bikes, buggies, and laundry. The decks act as private outdoor terraces for the residents who have bedecked the walkways with compact outdoor furniture, and, most importantly for the residents, they enable the community to monitor the comings and goings of the scheme. Visting the flats, no sooner have you turned the corner when you are beckoned from one height or another. Their children grow up as children of the flats, loved and looked after by many – not just direct family members. This passive surveillance allows for both the casual monitoring of the children playing below, and secures their private world within the city.
Yet, using these decks is a daily drudgery. The drawing above depicts an occasion where baby was enjoying the view, as he was precariously lifted over a clothes horse. Having a baby in a Michan’s flat involves lugging a buggy up and down the four storeys several times a day, navigating the bikes and laundry. There are no provisions for limited mobility.
From surveying Joanna’s flat, the room that frustrates its family the most is their tiny bathroom. A shower has been added to the original WC by eating space from the master bedroom. However, the head height is too short to fix the shower head to the wall, and so you must hold it aloft when showering.
There is no storage and no space – the girls stick a leg out onto the sink to shave their legs. Worst of all is the noise that travels – if someone in the flat below is having a rough time, you know about it. The single waste pipe runs vertically from the top floor to the bottom. If there is a plumbing issue or problem on one floor, there is a problem on every floor. It is the same for the drainage in the kitchens. The services to Michan’s were not designed to cope with everyday modern life. The washing machines cause water to come back up into the sink – a resident explained that she can’t leave while her washing is on as she spends the spin cycle running to and from the kitchen sink, emptying buckets of water down an external drain. There is only a countertop fridge, with just a freezer shelf. Even an air-fryer can’t succeed in Michan’s; it blew the sockets and almost went on fire.
What links this essay to all other pieces in this Working Hard / Hardly Working series is that there are but a few minor moves that will take this building from hardly working to one which is a successful home for its residents. Flats could be amalgamated or extended to create a suitably sized apartment [space]. The whole building would be dramatically improved should the pipework and electrics be re-done [services]. An elevator would make the scheme navigable, and an extension of the deck would only enhance the precious external space already enjoyed by the residents [access].
The architectural principles of the building are strong – the flats were designed to have minimal internal corridors, are all dual aspect, and with a maximum of four doors per deck access, they hug the street edge to create generous interior courtyards. These buildings work hard for their residents, and in turn, they the residents do the same for it. You cannot leave the flats without feeling the depth of pride towards the homes and communities made. The residents who live here overcome daily physical obstacles in order to maintain their flats. And through this careful care, the home-makers also act as cultural custodians. But they can only do so much; the building cannot continue to work so hard. The Michan’s scheme and others of the same age need to be refurbished: for the residents, for the city, for our environment, and for our architectural heritage.
The architectural principles of the building are strong – the flats were designed to have minimal internal corridor, are all dual aspect, and with a maximum of four doors per deck access, they hug the street edge to create generous interior courtyards.
Working Hard / Hardly Working is an article series designed to promote the use and organisation of public space. By presenting two examples – one which works well, and one which needs to work harder – it highlights the importance of clever design, and how considered decisions can make our shared spaces better. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Working Hard / Hardly Working is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.
1. E. Conroy, “No Rest for Twenty Years”; H.G. Simms and the Problem of Slum Clearance in Dublin, M.Sc.Arch Thesis. University College Dublin, Ireland. 1997.
2. E. Rowley (ed.), More than concrete blocks : Dublin city’s twentieth century buildings and their stories. Vol. I, 1900-40. Dublin: Dublin City Council with UCD and Four Courts Press, 2016.
Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell
Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell holds a Bachelor of Architecture and has worked in practice for the past two years. Currently on a leave of absence from the Masters of Architecture in University College Dublin, Doireann has a strong interest in the city as a place for all. A contributor to ‘Architecture Ireland’, she is the former editor for ‘The University Observer’ and ‘OTwo’ culture supplement in UCD. Having held the role of features editor for two years previously, as editor she established the ‘Art & Architecture’ section of the newspaper. She views architectural writing and criticism as essential to the improvement of our shared spaces.
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