The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2018
Berkeley Prize 2018

[ID:1581] Henrietta street - The forgotten birthplace of Irish Georgian architecture, and a type of society now lost.

Ireland

‘I was already dressed when I saw the first workmen passing and heard a young voice calling ‘chimney sweep’ and perceived a tiny chimney-sweep boy, six years old, running along barefoot at his masters side, his soot bag on his back, shouting for all he was worth; then I saw the milk-maid calling in the district, and some youths from the apothecary with china pans, and the maids coming up from the basement through the railings in front of the house to but their milk’ – Sophie Van la Roche, c.1785.

The image of a Georgian city conjured up by Van La Roche’s quotation is one full of the noise of shouting people, smells of smoke from chimneys and bustling bodies moving to work early in the morning. A Georgian city would have been a lively place, one which offered enjoyable olfactory, tactile and aural sensations to its occupants as they moved about their daily chores. The rational, ordered Georgian buildings would have served as a beautiful backdrop for various contrasting lives to intermingle, as rich aristocrats moved through streets inhabited with traders, orally selling their wares. Today, as I stroll down Henrietta Street in Dublin, a sense of sorrow overwhelms me as I gaze up at the boarded-up windows and flaking brick façades of the derelict and largely unused Georgian houses that were once the heart of grandeur in Dublin city. I feel that it is a travesty that a street which was one of the catalysts for the development of Georgian Dublin has fallen from the thoughts of modern society, and thus into disrepair.

Henrietta Street, Dublin was built c.1721, and was once home to residents who had a significant political and social status, a fact that marks the grandness of this street. It is of unique European significance, being the only intact remaining example of an early 18th century street of houses, which was at the forefront of what became the Georgian style. It is evidence of Dublin's 18th century Georgian roots, a culture that still effects the development of Dublin today. If the street were allowed to fall into further disrepair, the city would lose a trace of its architectural origins, as well as a link to the type of society that once existed within the city.

Carefully and lovingly hand drawn historic maps of Dublin city lent an added level of aesthetic pleasure as I tried to understand the reasons for the creation of this street. A patchwork grid of solid hatches and voids depicts 18th century Dublin as a medieval city with narrow winding streets. This city was thought not to adhere to the stereotypical view of a European capital city, and so the ‘wide streets commission’ was established to re-plan the city layout. Narrow streets were merged to make larger, more formal ones. In a similar move to that which occurred in 17th century London after the great fire, plots of land were allocated to individual property developers. Luke Gardiner was in charge of the development of Henrietta Street. Houses were designed by the architect Sir Edward Lovett Pearce; with early houses including Gardiner's own residence, house number 10.

A glimpse of life in 18th century Dublin is seen from these beautiful buildings in a manner found in few other places. That said, it is a polarised view, as Dublin in the 1700’s was a place with obvious class distinctions. Protestant gentry controlled the runnings of the country, ensuring the Catholic Gaelic population remained an impoverished class. Lavish entertainment was the predominant theme in the life of the aristocrat, and this grandeur is still potent on the street today. The scale of the houses and proportions of the street evoke images of revelry and entertainment and of horse drawn carriages drawing up to houses, and delivering beautifully dressed gentry to parties. The list of previous inhabitants portray this as a ‘des-res’. In the mid 1700’s Henrietta Street was inhabited by five peers a peeress, a peer's son, a judge, a member of parliament, a Bishop and two wealthy clergymen as well as Luke Gardiner himself.

Emerging anti-British thought at the beginning of the 20th century sparked an emigration from Dublin’s Georgian buildings, seen as a sign of foreign rule. This mass desertion in turn gave rise to the most interesting era of the street's history. The now vacant houses were taken over by landlords, and began a new life as ‘tenements’. The population density on the street reached remarkably high levels in the early decades of the 1900’s, with up to 850 people living in just 15 houses. A paradoxical scene was fashioned in which the impoverished families were huddled together in the same ornate chambers where upper-crust society once dressed lavishly and danced the minuet in a carefree manner.

Reading the 1911 census records for Dublin city, the density that once existed on the street becomes evident. Taking house no.7 as an example, it can be seen that this dwelling was inhabited by 19 different families, totalling an disproportionately large number of 104 people. Considering that each house has around 9 bedrooms, these statistics outline the uncomfortable conditions that people had to endure at that time. Yet surprisingly many accounts suggest that the poor tenement dwellers were far from unhappy. Paddy Casey, a policeman on a Dublin beat half a century ago, recalls how the tenement dwellers were ‘extraordinarily happy for people who were so savagely poor’. This incongruous condition is explained by the security and closeness the poor found in their tightly-knit community. Family ties were strong and neighbours unfailingly looked after one another. When times were hard they always found solace in their religion and community. The tenement streets were a grandiose stage upon which all sort of human drama was enacted. The exuberant social life of the tenements was widely renowned and the people famed for their raw wit, rousing hooleys, and spirited wakes which became a part of Dublin’s urban folklore. Valuable lessons about how communities function can be learnt from the streets history.

The austere red-brick houses played host to a variety of intermingling generations. Grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren orally shared their life experiences, with knowledge being absorbed in a mitosis-like manner. This linear block of houses was home to a large extended family, as the close living conditions meant that neighbours were thought of as brothers, aunties or nephews. Today’s fast-paced, sterilised social paradigm has forgotten the values of this innocent society. Technological progression has come at the cost of a devolved society. The development of this street would provide a flicker of hope for the re-kindling of lost lifestyles.

As one of the most intact examples of Georgian Architecture in Europe, the street boasts numerous examples of architectural beauty. The wide, cobbled street is flanked on each side by austere, un-decorated, red-brick houses built on a palatial scale. The houses have beautifully proportioned facades, with the solid bricks and window voids setting up an appealing rhythm. The brick facades describe the interior structure – i.e. the structure is the aesthetic. The buildings are quite moderate dwellings, three bays wide, with a frontage of about 28 feet and a depth of nearly 50 feet. The external proportions of the building are based upon those of a classical column. Window height increases from the basement through to the first floor. From that point it decreases as far as the attic storey. This not only sets up a sense of rhythm on the facade, but also describes the interior living arrangements. The smaller windows, found at basement level, would have provided light for the servant quarters. The largest windows on the facade illuminated the areas of the house in which the gentry would have entertained guests, the ‘Piano Nobile’. The use of brick has generated the material context for the development of contemporary Dublin, with many new developments choosing to use brick on the facade to knit the new build into the urban fabric. Architects working within the city do so with a great respect for the scale, rhythm and increment of the beautiful houses with which their contemporary projects juxtapose. This street is a vital urban model, and its repair is essential, not only for the benefit of Dublin’s streetscape, but also as a reference for future development.

The families who once slept, ate, and worked within these houses have long since left. Silence now fills the empty rooms in the houses, which have only the memories of their past inhabitants to keep them company. They patiently await the arrival of new occupants, slowly showing a sign of age as mould grows on their elaborately decorated interiors, and their stained brick-facades flake and crumble. At present, not the entire street is derelict. A few of the buildings are inhabited with a variety of uses including a nunnery, a law library, and a school of music. As such, there is a pleasant variety of culture present on the street. Young students of both law and music can regularly be seen on the street. The problem with this, however, is that none of these students actually live on the street. They only pass through en-route to somewhere else. They offer only fleeting moments of cultural diversity, with their presence being somewhat seasonal, depending on the academic year.

The era of tenement life on the street was the time when it possessed its greatest social wealth. The uncomfortably dense living conditions created the canvas for friendships to thrive. To recreate a similar situation on the street today could be brought about by increasing the population on the street. Whilst I would not advocate a return to the living conditions of 1911, there is scope to comfortably reach a population of about 150 people on the street. By renovating each building to its original condition, the dialogue between the houses and street would be revived. Each building could easily be converted into a trio of flats, and in turn increase the population of the street. With more people living on the street, the nature of the streets social condition would become one of blossoming friendships rather than anonymous individuals passing through.

These social conditions could be improved further by providing a social catalyst to enable the generation of friendships, and provide the opportunity for chance meetings with unknown neighbours. The gardens at the rear of each house are currently unused but were once a communal exterior room to be used by the occupants as stables. The south facing gardens on the street provide scope for the growth of vegetation. By knitting a communal allotment space along the rear of the houses, a new public space would be formed. This would spark a return to social conditions read about in Joycean-Dublin. This activity would be sustainable both socially and economically, providing cheap produce and free conversation with neighbours.

By re-stitching the urban fabric, the social conditions of the locality would be improved. A shift in current lifestyles would be needed from the dependency on supermarkets to a self-sufficient, sustainable approach that would be healthier, cheaper and present the potential for social networks to be formed. Sustainability refers not only to environmentally friendly actions, but also to the creation of social links that last. By creating a sustainable community, the chance of the street falling into disrepair once more would be reduced. The changes that occur on this street would ideally spark a sort of social paradigm shift within the community, wherein a move from exterior dependency to self sufficiency would promote a better lifestyle. This type of community-orientated lifestyle would be a welcome alternative to the anti-social communities that often can be found in other housing developments.

The street is a cul-de-sac, with the road terminated by the presence of the ‘king’s inns’ library. As you walk east along the street, you eventually reach the large Portland limestone walls of the king’s inns library. An archway leads through to the king’s inns park, yet the general feeling when standing on the street is still a pleasant one of an enclosed, mini-community. The street has the distinct feeling of a public space, to which the width and proportion of the street add to. The public realm of the street could be further improved by adding an activity or function to the barren street by creating a direct link from the street to the proposed allotment park at the rear of the houses. With this added activity, the street would become a major public space in the run down local context. The completion of this proposal would act as a catalyst for the regeneration of an area of Dublin that has become a derelict wasteland in the heart of the city centre. There are at present no large public spaces in this sector of the city, and thus no space for important social activities. There is scope to include this in the proposed development, as the site of no.16, formerly part of a single, large 4 bay, 5 storey house constructed as part of a uniform row of three houses in the 1740’s, is now vacant as the house was torn down in the 1950’s, thus providing access to the proposed communal allotments at the rear of the houses. By adding a public space such as this to this urban fabric, it would stitch together disconnected parts of the community that have no exposure to social spaces at present.

This proposal’s potential for success is emphasised by the numerous Georgian buildings that are restored and re-used every year. With so many cities in Europe being composed of buildings in this style, it is inevitable that many Georgian buildings in urban settings are successfully re-used. An example of such preservation is the Royal Crescent, Bath, England. The houses on this street have been maintained in excellent condition. Whilst the facades remain the same as originally, the interiors have been adapted for use as flats and offices. The manner in which the royal crescent is used today, and its popularity, verifies my proposal for the development of Henrietta Street would prove to be of value, both socially and culturally.

Sustainability, both architectural and social, holds the key for the future of this street. The houses themselves are objects of timeless beauty that will always possess aesthetic value. By combining this with a sustainable social function and lifestyle, that would be of benefit both culturally and economically, the street would have an optimistic future in which it could once again become an integral thread in the fabric if Dublin city.

References:

1911 Irish census

‘Dublin tenement life – an oral history’ – Kevin C.Kearns.

‘Life in the Georgian city’ – Dan Cruickshank and Neil Burton.

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