Fintan O’Toole: We need Ireland’s world-class architects to design great public housing for Dublin

Capital ideas: Irish architecture is part of the solution to a major social problem

Illustrator: Fuchsia MacAree

hereOpens in new window ]

Dublin is becoming uninhabitable. For many people, especially the young, it is impossible to find a place to live at a rent they can afford. For many others working in the city, the only way to afford a home is to live in north CoDublin or Wicklow or Kildare or Meath or Louth.

This is brutally hard, especially on young families: in 2016 there were 43,372 parents with preschool children who spent an hour or more commuting every working day. Mostly, they were commuting to Dublin. One fifth of commuters left for work before 7am.

Even in a little place such as Derrinturn in Co Kildare, the census tells us that 113 people are on the road before 6.30am. The city becomes, for many of those who grow up in it, an impossible dream and, for many of those who work in it, a kind of half-place that sucks in their economic lives but will not allow them to actually inhabit it. Dublin is just the most boring, endless road movie ever made.

And yet, if I walk around the part of city I grew up in, all of it itself within walking distance of St Stephen's Green, what do I see? Across the Grand Canal, on the South Circular Road, there's the huge Player Wills factory that closed 13 years ago, sitting empty ever since. Beside it there's the old Bailey Gibson packaging plant, also long closed. Both sites are in public ownership through the National Asset Management Agency and between them they could have 600 houses.

The Player Wills factory on South Circular Road in Dublin, which has lain empty since it closed 13 years ago. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Behind it there’s the old Boy’s Brigade football pitch, now owned by Dublin City Council. As I go along the South Circular Road to Dolphin’s Barn, there’s another derelict site. When I walk down Cork Street towards the city centre, there’s a big empty site at the back of Emmet Square and another just opposite it on the far side.

A little further on, there’s the old Donnelly’s sausage factory, the vacant site now owned by another public body, the Health Service Executive. There’s a privately-owned derelict site opposite it.

All of these sites are within a few minutes’ walk of each other. All of them are within the fabric of the old city. They have roads, utilities, bus services, schools, hospitals, shops, churches, pubs and restaurants within easy reach. You could walk to most parts of the city centre from here or cycle along the canal.

At a very rough guess, just in this small patch, at least 3,000 more people should be making lives for themselves, growing up, enjoying the city, feeling at home. And this is not unique. As Olivia Kelly has reported, there are almost 200 vacant and/or derelict sites in Dublin city and county, most of them within the city itself.

Golden period

Now consider something else. Irish architecture is in a golden period, its worldwide impact recognised by the fact that the most prestigious international exhibition in the field, the 2018 Venice Biennale, is curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects in Dublin.

And yet last year the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland did not award its Silver Medal for housing design. Why? Because there were too few eligible Irish architects who had actually completed a housing project to make for a meaningful competition. Admittedly the award is retrospective, and the period in question was 2011 to 2013. But it is still shocking that the architects who are making great buildings all around the world are an unwanted resource in their own country and in many cases in their own city.

Let's take Farrell and McNamara as an example. They won the World Building of the Year Award for their work on Universita Luigi Bocconi in Milan. Their new university campus building in Lima in Peru seems, from photographs, a work of breathtaking beauty and visionary scope.

But could they do the humbler job of making beautiful houses and apartments within the old texture of Dublin’s streetscape? Of course they could: go and have a look at the simple, elegant block of 82 apartments on North King Street that they completed in 2000 for Dublin City Council and Zoe Developments. Unlike so much of the development of the Celtic Tiger era, it is modest, thoughtful and respectful of its surroundings. It looks in a way like it was always there.

So why is this their only major housing project in their own city?

We have the sites, we have the money (there is no problem raising finance from, for example, the European Investment Bank for high-quality public housing that will appreciate in value over time) and God knows we have the need. What we don’t have is the vision.

The vacant sites tell their own story – development must wait on the whims of a commercial developer; social and affordable homes can be supplied only as a by-product of market-led initiatives and public housing procurement has to go through slow, tedious processes in which human needs and physical beauty are equally low priorities.

But if we lack the vision, we do have the visionaries. Dublin has superb architects, many of them with a real commitment to the social fabric of urban life. And this is not a marginal question: if we are to tackle the housing crisis, we need to get over the prejudice that public housing is second best, that if we want to avoid creating ghettoes for the poor we can’t really build it directly at all.

So let’s make it beautiful. I’m not talking about egoistical starchitects being let loose to indulge their high concepts without responsibility to the people who have to live in and with their creations. The good architects know how to start with real needs and build from there.

Public housing commission

Dublin at its best is the product of a vision, that of the Wide Streets Commission that made the city beautiful in the 18th century. We need a Dublin Public Housing Commission headed by one of our leading architects and bringing together planners, councillors and local communities to take over vacant and derelict sites and reimagine them as exciting places to live, both socially and aesthetically.

In the little triangle I’ve described between South Circular Road and Cork Street, for example, there is a tremendous opportunity, not just to house people, but to add vibrancy and gorgeousness to a part of the city whose industrial base is gone. Piecemeal, developer-led projects on individual sites will give us pretty much what the city has too much of already: prohibitively expensive mediocrity. We are getting the worst of both worlds, paying through the nose for housing that lacks style, beauty and joy.

It doesn’t have to be like this – we should be building public housing so lovely that people who can afford not to nonetheless wish they could live in it.


Each of the proposals in this "Capital Ideas" series has been put to a group of three experts for an initial "back of an envelope" evaluation. They are: Frances Ruane, former director of the Economic and Social Research Institute; Caroline Spillane, director general of Engineers Ireland; and Cliff Taylor, Irish Times economics columnist.

Frances Ruane

We have failed to address housing needs in Dublin for a long time, and not just recently with the increase in homelessness. Historically, planning has failed to link housing properly with other services – schools, transport links, retail services, etc.

The idea of an architectural competition for ideas for modern housing would be invaluable especially as we have not built much by way of urban housing in recent years. We need to start with “place design” and follow that with “home design”.

Many cities are being challenged by urban population growth and Dublin could now take advantage of being a late mover to look at how other models might work. We need to look at a range of models and not merely copy something that would not properly transfer here.

Where there is public housing owned by the city, resources must be available locally to maintain the properties and support the communities who move into these new dwellings. While this will increase costs, it will ensure more sustainability long-term.

Caroline Spillane

Land availability and cost are major features of our housing crisis. Urban land redevelopment offers fantastic potential to rejuvenate areas of our towns and cities.

A new Government agency, the Land Development Agency, has been provided with €1.25 billion in capital funding to manage State-owned lands, develop homes and regenerate under-utilised sites. The agency will also buy private land adjoining existing prime sites held by State and semi-State organisations in order to assemble land holdings that will then be developed for housing. The agency is to unlock the State-owned sites for private development to facilitate the construction of 150,000 homes by 2040. Under the plan, developers will have to agree to requirements such as ensuring the site has 30 per cent affordable housing and 10 per cent social housing.

There are several successful international examples of the active management of public land. The Land Development Agency should, for example, consider the work of Transport for London, which has majorly expanded its capacity in land value capture and property development. It is now a key actor in urban development and affordable housing supply in London, forming strategic partnerships to develop areas around its transport hubs, including affordable housing, commercial, retail and parks.

The Land Development Agency could transform whole districts of our cities, but it must be well-staffed with the necessary professional competence, must and maximise the public good and achieve value-for-money.

Cliff Taylor

There is no doubt that one of the outcomes of the housing crisis will be more public housing. The current mix of private, local authority and various partnership models just isn’t providing enough. And if we are going to build, why indeed not do it properly.

The State through various arms will spend billions on housing in the coming years. Almost €1.9 billion is being set aside for public housing alone in 2019, and other budget headings are also directed at housing. The key issue is getting the best economic and social return from the money being spent

At the moment a lot of the public housing budget is being spent supporting people living in private accommodation. Using public money and public lands to build houses could provide a better solution.

Housing is the top priority for social and economic reasons. If this is not tackled it will limit future investment and growth as businesses realise employees can’t afford to rent or buy.