Herbert Simms – Social Activist Architect Extraordinaire
We all wondered why the section of skirting board gripped firmly in her left hand had a smattering of rusty nails hammered into its vintage far end. During a Heritage Week Walking Tour 2016, Dr. Ellen Rowley, architectural and cultural historian, took an original Herbert Simms skirting board, circa late 1940s Ballyfermot Housing Estate, out of her haversack and began smish-smashing people over the head with it. Metaphorically speaking, of course. You see, the rusty nails at the end draw blood and searing enlightenment almost instantaneously when shillelaghed over someone’s head, thereby, precipitating a quicker response and epiphany to her architectural questions than otherwise would have been forthcoming organically. Time is of the essence on modernist walking tours. Best. Heritage. Week. Walking. Tour. Ever.
‘Hands up who’s from Cabra, Crumlin, Ballyfermot, Henrietta House or Chancery House?’ she’d asked. An eager battery of paws shot up.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Who designed and built your house?’
‘Who designed and built your house?’
The rusty-nailed skirting board came out and over my head and across my face repeatedly until I screamed, ‘Herbert Simms! Herbert Simms!’ in a mouth-foaming fit of spewing sputum.
‘Correctamundo,’ she intoned from behind Samuel L. Jackson Pulp Fiction sunglasses.
Herbert Simms is the most important architect Ireland has ever seen. Or is likely to ever see. It’s hard to disagree with such a hypothesis once privy to the brute facts. For a start, he was born foreign – and he architected and built my house –and the house I was brought up in – probably yours too on average if you’re a Dub. Shut the door – he’s now designing your window.
Herbert Simms was Housing Architect to Dublin Corporation from 1932 until 1948. Born in London and from a very modest background he studied architecture at Liverpool University with the aid of a scholarship earned as a result of his service in the imperialist First World War. He designed and built approximately 17,000 new dwellings in Dublin during that time. i.e. loads. His works encompassed striking flat blocks in the city centre (Henrietta House, Chancery House, Marrowbone Lane Flats) to herculean housing schemes of Byronic two-storey cottages (houses) in Crumlin, Cabra and Ballyfermot. They called this type of Corpo house, a cottage, back then for some unknown romantic reason to die for.
This was at a time of mass state construction and provision of social housing. After the recent introduction of draconian new mortgage lending guidelines and consequently the chances of any working-class person being able to afford a home ever again going up in flames for generations to come, Herbert’s oeuvre astounds and deranges the senses to the point of sentimentality. i.e. it’s hard not to cry (or sooth yourself numb with water syringed directly from the river Lethe in mourning for the loss of a not-too-distant sort of prelapsarian Arcadia of astonishing housing plenitude we’ll never see the likes of again).
If you grew up in Cabra, Crumlin or Ballyfermot who’ve probably heard people say many, many times over that although the areas may have had their problems in the past, at least the houses were very well built. Solid. Of substance. And this is where Dr Ellen Rowley confirmed this widely-held belief by bringing her rusty-nailed skirting board out as proof of the pudding by way of anecdote. Unlike every Irish architect that came after him, Herbert, was a stickler for decent building standards. A determined fussiness. Like what Nye Bevan in England was doing when he wasn’t busy creating the consummately-unimaginable-in-Ireland NHS. Most of Herbert’s buildings are still standing to this day.
On one occasion when his superiors tried to obviate the requirement for skirting boards in a housing scheme of his, Herbert went bananas to such an extent that he threatened to chop off his left ear and post it to Archbishop McQuaid in protest. Metaphorically speaking, of course. However, he may have won the battle of the skirting board but he eventually lost his long war of attrition with the archbishop of Dublin, Charles McQuaid, that had highly significant sexual consequences for the people of Dublin as a whole in the years to come (see below).
So there was a strong flavour of a Van Gogh about his temperament which is quite apposite since his buildings display a huge Dutch influence by contemporaneous modernist apartment blocks by de Klerk in Amsterdam and J.P. Oud in Rotterdam. In evidence of this, he took part in a space-cake fuelled study trip to Amsterdam and Rotterdam in 1925 with his Dublin Corporation colleagues which proved quite illuminating. Therefore, the first mod in Dublin wasn’t Paul Cleary from Ringsend band, The Blades, it was Herbert Simms, a sort of re-contextualised Paul Weller of Irish architects and as sharply dressed as the peacock suit facades of his city centre apartment blocks. Vincent Van Gogh’s work wasn’t appreciated, either, until after he passed away by shooting his brains out with a revolver and splattering them over his four living rooms walls. In a similar fashion, the way in which Herbert kissed the moon was all ravelled up with Archbishop McQuaid, Michael O’Brien (Dublin Corporation Town Planning Officer), housing schemes ‘n’ wheezes, population control, pills, thrills and bellyaches.
During the 1930s, 1940s and beyond Irish Catholic “thinking” was that high rise flats were bad and two storey cottages (houses) were good like in George Orwell’s two-legs-good-four-legs-bad novel, Animal Farm, except slightly more sinister. The “rationale” underpinning this was that people have more opportunity for sexual profligacy and indecency in city centre apartment blocks than in far-out, deracinated housing estates in which all public spaces are strictly controlled. And that’s how McQuaid and O’Brien killed Herbert; their obsession with sex.
Each detail of any proposed social housing scheme in Dublin had to go first and foremost for approval to McQuaid and O’Brien who at the time were great friends in faith. They regularly polished each other’s rosary beads and drank each other’s holy water. The archbishop wanted to control people living in these new areas so they’d be match-fit for his multifarious religious purposes. This meant that he obsessed about the location of any proposed church or religious-run school in relation to the dwellings. He had to personally rubber-stamp every architectural plan and design which at a time of frantic state house building meant Herbert was frazzled and worked to the edge of all physical and mental endurance fighting against and sadly encompassing some of their ever-changing diktats into his plans. Basically, the archbishop wanted to strictly limit any public spaces on which people might congregate to those that were under the direct auspices of his church. Anything else was communism and he would physically destroy any such ideologically poor plans presented to him with his very own bespoke length of rusty-nailed skirting board.
‘What do you mean a library? This is an outrage, a Trotskyist plot! What we need is another church, Herbert. One with a longer transept and a commensurate curving apse. Rendered in Portland stone methinks. Can’t you see that, boy?’
Which meant very poorly socially-serviced housing but very closely regulated and ruled. To within an inch of people’s lives. Which is Dr Rowley’s theory and current thinking on this subject as far as I can ascertain.
Another possible reason for the above heavy-handed control and Stasi nit-picking interference with state housing plans and designs, I posit, was so that the church could set up paedophile rings within communities facilitated by respectable primary and secondary school teachers, doctors and the Gardaí. As documented by the Ryan Report, The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, this systematic raping and sexual abuse of Irish children by the Catholic Church persisted for generations thereafter.
Anyway, all this extra work and hassle by the church led our social activist architect and hero, Herbert Simms, to tragically commit suicide by jumping onto the railway tracks at Dun Laoghaire in 1948. The suicide note found on his person advised that overwork was threatening his sanity. But perhaps he had a premonition that frescoed the church’s future “plans and uses” for his Brutalist artworks in sinister sfumato. Or perhaps the archbishop told him out straight, he was a forthright man who always told it like it was, according to the history books.
All that remains is for me to cherry this piece like all articles I’ve read about Herbert Simms, with the following quote. Warning: There will be tears.
“A tribute by Ernest F.N. Taylor, the city surveyor, was published in the Irish Builder: ‘Behind a quiet and unassuming manner there lurked a forceful personality; and Mr Simms could uphold his point of view with a vigour that sometimes surprised those who did not know him well. By sheer hard work and conscientious devotion to duty, he has made a personal contribution towards the solution of Dublin’s housing problem, probably unequalled by anyone in our time…It is not given to many of us to achieve so much in the space of a short lifetime for the benefit of our fellow men.’”
Things to do now: Look out a window of any of Herbert’s 17,000 dwellings at end of day and you’ll be able to see an iridescent reinterpretation of Van Gogh’s Starry Night smiling before you. Then please do press play and listen to The Jam: “In the city there’s a thousand things I wanna say to you.”
Camillus John was bored and braised in Dublin. He has been published in The Stinging Fly, RTÉ Ten and Headstuff.org. Recently he killed the Prime Minister of Ireland in fiction in the Welsh literary magazine, The Lonely Crowd, with a piece entitled, The Assassination of Enda Kenny (After Hilary Mantel). He would also like to mention that Pat’s won the FAI cup in 2014 for the first time in 53 miserable years of not winning it.