Cities

The pleasure of small streets

Peter Sirr

The drawings show, in great detail, the junction of Goldsmith Street and Geraldine Street. They are architectural drawings, designed to pull us in to observe the specific details of the chosen scene. In the first we see a recessed doorway with a generous fanlight and the brickwork of the narrow porch ranged fan-like on the arch. There is a narrow garden outside and spiked, wrought-iron railings in front. Across the junction a row of similar red-bricked houses continues, a terrace made up of symmetrical pairs of houses, each with its elaborate door and single large front window. The houses are low, with a double pitched roof like two pleats of an accordion, each with its own chimney stack. The spiked railings continue around the end terrace, enclosing an area no more than a step wide. If you jumped up in the air a little you could see over the roof, or at least it feels like that. The tower of St Joseph’s Church on Berkeley Road with its four turrets completes the view of the terrace.

The second drawing foregrounds the end of a terrace, drawing the eye to decorative white bricks on the corner and the eaves cornice that gives a clean finish to the façade. Around the corner we can see how the arch of the porch is defined by light coloured bricks at its edges and centre, and the vertical splay of bricks above the parlour window. The houses were built between 1830 and 1860, and they are so typical of a certain kind of Dublin city street that they often go unnoticed. Yet here they are, these streets I know well from lunchtime strolls when I worked in the area, drawn twenty-five years ago, occupying pride of place in a special supplement on the city published by The Architectural Review in 1974.

The drawings are by Kenneth Browne, artist, architect and townscape editor of the Review who co-wrote the supplement with Lance Wright.[1] Why did Browne choose these streets? They were, apparently, chosen ‘almost at random among hundreds of possible alternatives’ to show ‘the nineteenth century Dublin builder’s racy adaptation on the idiom of the century before’ and ‘the skill of today’s Dublin householder in picking out and colouring up the telling architectural detail’. The writers also comment that ‘To walk among these little streets is one of the world’s classic architectural pleasures’. It’s an architectural pleasure because there’s a certain formal coherence in this small group of streets that forms an island between the Great Western Way and the North Circular Road – Fontenoy Street, Auburn Street, Primrose Avenue, Geraldine Street, Goldsmith Street and O’Connell Avenue; the streets relate to each other meaningfully, and their aspect and details are pleasing to the eye.

There is too the human scale of streets and buildings like this, which are far from the designed-for-show elegance of the visitor’s city. If they take their stylistic cues from the earlier century they scale it down to a level where the less than lordly can enjoy it. It may be architecturally fascinating to observe these features, but you don’t have to be an architect to enjoy these things – they’re part of the everyday experience of living in a city. You walk through a residential area you don’t live in and have no particular business to be in either because you’re on your way somewhere else or because you have chosen to enjoy a part of the city for its own sake. You want to enjoy the particular urban mood that the combination of light and soft red brick conjures up; you enjoy the details, the workmanship, the sense of continuity that comes from old buildings and streets that have been laid out and undisturbed for generations. You enjoy the quiet of places out of the clamour of the city. Part of the point of a city is to cater for the spontaneous strolling pleasure of its citizens. Dublin offers many streets like this, a quick walk from busy thoroughfares, relatively unregarded or unvisited spots.

It’s also true that certain eras get all the attention. In Dublin, the period spanning the late eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth century is the undoubted cock of the walk. The grander Victorian suburbs get their share of attention too, but streets like these rarely figure on the aesthetic map. Maybe it’s just as well, I think as I walk down the equivalent of those streets in my own neighbourhood: Raymond Street, St Alban’s Road, Greenville Terrace, Washington Street. These were built later than the Phibsboro streets – in the 1870s – but the idiom is exactly the same: impressive doors with scaled down but still elaborate doorcases and fanlights, and the one window on the front lights the tallest and grandest room, the parlour, which, when they were originally built, would have been where all the social aspirations were concentrated. Each house has a tiny area in front marked off with wrought iron railings. The area enclosed is so small you might think it is hardly worth distinguishing the frontage from the pavement. But the point of having the small area in front is to have beautiful railings around it; it is part of the theatre of entrance and a way of subtly differentiating each house from its neighbour. And although the houses seem to be the same the closer you get to them the more you begin to notice the differences, the more each house quietly asserts its own distinctiveness.

Sometimes the house type changes, so that a large basement appears below the railing; often it’s the smaller details that change. These are long streets – long, narrow and lined with trees, giving them a tunnel effect – and would have been built by different developers. But they would have used the same builders, the same craftsmen, and the templates were so well established that it would have been unthinkable not to work with them. Walking the street, observing the decorative brickwork above windows and doors, and the subtly different decorative touches, you begin to develop an affection for those craftsmen. Maybe this has to do partly with the fact that so much modern housing is built on replication, without difference or distinguishing feature, without any real streets or sense of a city as a series of coherent spatial relationships.

All around this area, and in many other areas in houses of this era, even the tiniest cottages have a richness of detail unimaginable in most modern builds; they are meant to be looked at and enjoyed. The artisans and craftsmen were working together in a public form; they had, you feel, a clear vision of the city as a meaningful space. And this is why, walking here, I feel a proprietorial warmth, as if all these bricks, fanlights, doors, windows and railings are intended for me as much as for their owners. This is another way of considering the success of a city: how much of it can be said to belong to all of its citizens – not just parks and public spaces, but the public aspect of the private dwellings where its people actually live. For much of the time we are conditioned by economic circumstance or a certain kind obsessiveness to think of the city as ‘property’; to only truly pay attention to a house when it is for sale. We are exposed to housing as a commodity in which we may or may not have a vested interest; we’re encouraged to think in terms of the single valuable commodity rather than the townscape or cityscape it occupies. Our interest begins when the front door opens, and the street is simply where we park our cars. Privacy like this is where cities are lost.

*
I go back to Kenneth Browne and Lance Wright’s view of Dublin in 1974. There’s a specific context for their concern with Dublin: a sense of the exhaustion of ‘the modern city’ with its ‘tall buildings clustered in the middle, fast roads leading up to them, the segregation of uses by “zoning”, the dispersal of the community into one-class suburbs.’ They call for a changed vision of urban possibility and they choose Dublin ‘because she retains more of the earlier city pattern than any other metropolis.’ They come to Dublin with a certain urgency since the city seemed at the time to be wilfully indulging in its own destruction. The city, at this point, seems to them to be at a critical point in its history, where it can opt to restore urban fabric and urban community and ‘become the first truly modern city, fashioned on all that is best in Western experience’ or, like Liverpool or Birmingham, ‘reshape herself on the image which reflects the tycoon, over-centralised government – and the motor car.’

The subsequent and ongoing development of Dublin still struggles between those two extremes – the greater Dublin area expanded by over a quarter of a million people, most of whom live in the commuter belt of Meath, Fingal and Kildare – but it’s fascinating to see how the city appeared to these writers twenty-five years ago to embody the battleground between two opposed urban ideologies, one of which seemed to have the whole massed and irresistible force of modernity behind it. The disfigured Dublin that was evident in the seventies would fare even worse in the decade ahead, before its fortunes began to improve somewhat in the nineties, and yet the final motive they give for their choice of the city was its persistent beauty which made it ‘at once the most personal and the most surprising metropolis in Europe.’ And, interestingly, they locate that beauty not only in the classical elegance of the eighteenth and nineteenth century legacy but ‘in the Dubliner’s own, continuing visual gift.’ The aesthetic heart of this perception is in the nineteenth century city, when the visual knowledge gained in the previous century was retained and deployed to good effect. Modest terraces of houses are prized because of the way in which they work together – seen as something typical of the Dublin ‘visual sense’:

Time and again you find groups of [buildings] which, taken one by one, have no special claim to architectural quality but which, when taken together, produce an effect which is just right.[2]

This is another definition of the ideal city: a place where, as far as the physical fabric is concerned, the different elements work together, where the visible city operates harmoniously. Yet attempting to describe a city can be fraught with difficulty. If this were a walk in the hills I might pause here to admire the shape of an ash or the smell of the bracken or listen to a wren or chaffinch and set it all down naturally in a language familiar and comfortable to anyone who might read it. The city, though, is always half imagined, and a great deal of its soul resists articulation. You can talk about buildings, you can say things like ‘the stucco projects in front of the wall face and a cable-mould is added to it, the consoles are more deeply cut and are festooned with swags’ but this is the language of the specialist, even the impassioned specialist, and our minds may not digest or retain or engage emotionally with the information. This is partly because we are not ever trained to experience the city; we don’t have a tradition of careful and impassioned observation. Culturally, our sense of place is of rural places. The city, inevitably, eludes us.

The beauty of Kenneth Browne and Lance Wright’s writing and photographs is the way they alert us to the familiar and encourages us to develop our own habits of noticing and maybe our own language to express it in. To look at streets like Auburn Street in Phibsboro or St Alban’s Road off the South Circular Road with their freshness and excitement is to recover something we might only have subliminally possessed. And it isn’t simply about an architectural flourish or style – it’s the sense of human pride and interconnectedness that gave rise to these streetscapes, a vision of the city as a series of small scale interactions. All those Victorian builders and craftsmen draw us back, if we let them, to their quiet celebration of individual distinction and collective coherence, and invite us to enjoy the city with their eyes: ‘they offer a manifestation of a “popular” conception of architecture.’ Popular architecture here means the dispersal of good architectural principles and visual elegance across a whole spectrum or workmanship. We don’t quite know who did what in the hundreds of small Victorian streets around the city – there’s no single voice that can be isolated in the chorus of craft. Trying to attribute the achievement is ‘an art historian’s nightmare’:

Was it an architect? Or a builder? An architect copying a builder? Or a builder copying an architect? Or a householder thinking something up on his own and getting a blacksmith down the road to make it for him?[3]

Whoever they were, they probably didn’t anticipate the extent to which market values would remove these houses from the reach of the kind of people who would originally have lived in them, or who were living in them at the time Kenneth Browne and Lance Wright were writing about them. The 1911 census shows the occupations of the residents of Geraldine Street as follows: two milliners, two tailoresses, a cooper, four seamstresses, two motor mechanics, a shirt maker, a slater, a pantry maid, a post office worker, two insurance agents, two draperesses, three cattle dealers, a horse dealer, three drapers, a typist, a van driver, three commercial travellers, four brass finishers, a furniture dealers, a chemist, an assistant chemist, ten dressmakers, a laundry packer, a sculptor, a charwoman, a stonemason, a cook, ten carpenters, a carpenter’s apprentice, eighteen clerks, a cabinetmaker, a medical student, a drapers’ assistant, two nurses, an agricultural student, a bookkeeper, a distillery labourer, a telegraphist, a detective sergeant, three railway checkers, four general labourers, a police constable, two waiters, three brewer’s labourers, three school teachers, a corset maker, a collar maker, a postman, a printer, a cycle mechanic, a hotel porter, an Irish lace examiner, a gardener, a confectioner, a brush maker, two messengers, three shop assistants and a Dublin Corporation inspector.

These were the houses of trades and crafts people, the solidly employed – only one person is listed as out of work. They could well have built the street as well as supplied most of the furnishings and a large proportion of them must have been direct inheritors of the visual knowledge that enriched the physical fabric of the city.

Market forces can cause a ‘popular’ architecture all too soon to lose contact with the generality of the populace. Still, though, we can at least hang on to the democratic vision of the art historian’s nightmare; we can enjoy the streets into which so many skills have flowed, a river of energy purpose, and try to incorporate their modest pleasures into our own sense of what a city should mean.


[1] issued as as separate publication, A Future for Dublin, By Lance Wright and Kenneth Browne assisted by Peter Jones, The Architectural Press, 1975
[2] op. cit. pp. 326/327
[3] op. cit. p. 329

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