Saturday 16 February 2019

Mark Keenan: 'Instead of preserving 14 Henrietta Street because it once housed 100 in 1919, we could have actually housed 100 in 2019'

Dublin Tenement Museum
Dublin Tenement Museum
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

Dublin City Council has announced that its recently opened tenement museum project at 14 Henrietta Street in Dublin 1 has just been shortlisted for the prestigious Mies van der Rohe European Architecture Award.

Dating from 1748, No 14 was one of the last great Georgian townhouses built by Luke Gardiner on the street. Over the following 120 years it would be occupied by lawyers and gentry. But in 1877, as the rich were leaving the city centre in earnest, No 14 was converted to a tenement consisting of 19 flats. By 1911 the census showed more than 100 people living in the building.

Following a €5m spend over 10 years the former tenement house has opened for guided tours at €9 a pop.

Now we can learn what it was really like for ordinary Dubs to be crammed into tiny rooms in dreadful conditions whilst rack rented by greedy landlords. Ahem.

In its own right this is a commendable project. But can someone please tell me that I'm not the only one who thinks there's something extraordinarily Pythonesque about the Dublin city authorities completing a €5m slum museum during a housing crisis? Consider that on the day of the announcement, the very same Council was also defending itself against media reports of widespread and gross overcrowding amongst its own tenancies.

The reports highlighted DCC tenancies in the city centre where people are living up to 11 in single bedroom apartments. In response, Dublin City Council, which is a landlord to 6,500 tenants, revealed that 2,000 tenants are currently on its official "overcrowding list". Two thousand people overcrowded?

But instead we're spending €5m backscratchers for an authentic slum experience to show school children what it was like to have a whole family crammed into a single room?

Absolutely wunderbar; just so long as none of those children happen to be among the 10,000 homeless. Or among the 1,000-plus hapless mites now housed by the same DCC (along with their entire families) in single hotel rooms. I see them on my way home each night, sitting in their pjs on the street to get air. And families are living in single rooms because the very same Council that brings us our new €5m slum museum says it hasn't got the money to house them. Ahem again.

The hotel children live with their families in one-room poverty, where there's nowhere to wash clothes or to cook or to study, and where mothers claim their young children's growth and development is being stunted because they've nowhere to play or even crawl. This is more authentic stuff surely?

We can also presume the Henrietta house tour won't be atop the must-stops either for the young singles being charged €200 to €300-plus per month for a bed only and in rooms stacked floor to ceiling with bunks, as shown through investigative reports by this newspaper through the past year?

The recent overcrowding charges levelled against DCC tenancies suggest you could simply save yourself the nine quid and call in to some council tenants a stone's throw from Number 14 in order to experience the more immersive one room living experience to boot.

While it's 10 years since DCC started its slum recreations (at Henrietta St), it's just one since RTE screened Nightmare to Let. This revealed more than half of rental properties in every single county failed to meet national standards if and when inspected by local authorities. In some counties, 100pc of registered properties failed inspections.

RTE investigators showed a Crumlin property in which an undercover researcher rented a bed at €250 per month. It had 40 tenants in 10 bedrooms. The building hadn't a properly maintained fire detection system.

Meantime at the Henrietta Street slum project, surviving former residents from one family had been revealing to project researchers the intricate details of how 13 of them lived in a single room - to enable a fully detailed, fully authentic and no expense spared recreation. Totes slumthentic.

Did researchers also pop into the local hotels for a bit of in-depth experimental archaeology - single rooms as tightly packed as Mountjoy's cells? To discover how DCC one-room children do their homework? What do DCC one-room children really have for their breakfast?

The architectural awards jury chair Ms Dorte Mandrup was effusive about their shortlist. She said the projects "highlight a new agenda that asks for a new way of thinking. Excellence and skilfulness are inherent in all of them. But this is not enough!" she added. "It is necessary that they also make an impact and make architects themselves think differently about the profession."

We cannot fault the excellent team who brought No14 to fruition, as it is undoubtedly a remarkable achievement. Those who carried it through should be commended. But the restoration of 14 Henrietta Street as a slum museum at a cost of €5m by the country's largest modern slum enabler is just a tad harder to digest than cabbage soup.

I'm guessing Council bosses just don't get the behemothic bucket of hypocrisy and irony in all this. So for Ms Mandrup and the City bosses, I might just have one of those "new way of thinking" ideas up my sleeve: Instead of dropping five million to transform an uninhabited former slum into an uninhabited slum museum for a modern slum city, what about spending the €5m instead on new houses for one room families nearby?

South Dublin Council recently completed social houses at €250k each, so for €5m we could have had 20 new houses with five per house rather than five per room, as per the hotels.

Instead of preserving a former house because it once housed 100 in 1919, we could have actually housed 100 in 2019.

Let's call it 'thinking inside the box'.

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