Ffrench Mullen House

Demolition of ffrench-Mullen House

DoCoMoMo Ireland regrets the demolition, currently underway, of Michael Scott’s ffrench-Mullen House, built in 1941. DoCoMoMo had long advocated the protection of this pioneering modernist social housing block.

Twelve years ago, in November 2001, the former Irish DoCoMoMo Working Party was invited by the then Dublin Corporation’s Housing & Community Services Dept to inspect the Saint Ultan’s flats complex on Charlemont Street in the company of Dublin Corporation’s Conservation Officer. DoCoMoMo recommended that of all the buildings on the site, ffrench-Mullen House should be prioritized for retention and renovation. On 26th November 2001, Dublin Corporation confirmed in writing that “this report is very much appreciated.”

In March 2010, as part of the process surrounding the Draft Dublin City Development Plan 2011-17, DoCoMoMo Ireland made a submission, among several others, to Dublin City Council urging that ffrench-Mullen House be included on the Record of Protected Structures in the new Development Plan.

The City Manager decided that submissions of this nature “merit detailed analysis and assessment and will be considered as part of a separate process. The strict statutory timeframe does not afford the opportunity to undertake the same in-depth analysis as part of the review of the submissions. These submissions will be evaluated under Section 54 and 55 of the Planning and Development Acts 2002 to 2006. Accordingly, these submissions are not being considered as representations on the Draft Plan and will be added to the requests for additions or deletions to the Record of Protected Structures.” (Manager’s Report, Draft Dublin City Development Plan 2011-2017, Volume 2, Part 3: Summary of Submissions and Manager’s Response and Recommendations, p4)

In October 2010, Alcove Properties, a development vehicle of McGarrell Reilly Group, was authorised by Dublin City Council’s Housing & Residential Services to apply for planning permission for a mixed-use regeneration project, including 260 residential units, on the site (DCC ref: 3742/20; Bord Pleanála ref: 238212). The application was successful, although An Bord Pleanála (at the request of the Department of the Environment, Heritage & Local Government) made it a condition of permission in May 2011 that a full measured and photographic survey of ffrench-Mullen House should be made and deposited in the Irish Architectural Archive. This ‘preservation by record’ took place in August-September 2013 and the report by Downes Associates, consulting civil and structural engineers, was deposited with the IAA.

For an extended overview of this building, see Ellen Rowley’s more
recent survey of ffrench-Mullen House for Dublin City Council Heritage
Office/Heritage Council, TWENTIETH-CENTURY ARCHITECTURE OF DUBLIN, 2012. See also Ellen Rowley, Housing Dublin 1940-1980: an architectural account (forthcoming 2014, Four Courts Press). DoCoMoMo’s 2010 RPS submission was researched and drafted by Ellen Rowley.

Extracts from DoCoMoMo Ireland’s RPS Submission, March 2010

The Planning and Development Act, 2000 requires a protected structure to be of special interest under one or more of eight categories, including architectural interest. Paragraph 2.5.7 of the Architectural Heritage Protection Guidelines for Planning Authorities lists five qualities that permit the attribution of special architectural interest characteristics to a structure or part of a structure:

1. A generally agreed exemplar of good quality architectural design

ffrench-Mullen House was the first example of modernist slab block design for a working class (as this type was categorized) housing block in the urban context of Dublin, 1941. In terms of Scott’s early career, it represented his biggest public building commission and first public housing design, following the establishment of his own firm in 1938 (after breaking with Norman Good, with whom he had an architectural partnership, 1931-38).

ffrench-Mullen House is a free-standing reinforced concrete building which sits on the east side of Charlemont Street, forming the street line. It is a four-storey block surmounted by a flat roof, accentuated by an overhanging eaves cornice. The block comprises thirteen flats and, externally, it is a building of two halves in that the front (street) and rear elevations are markedly different.

The street façade is seven bays wide and was originally clad in precast concrete tiles which today are covered in layers of paint. This façade is punctuated by two entrances bearing concrete canopies on steel uprights, above which runs a strip of vertical glazing. The rear elevation is eight bays wide, rendered in painted cement plaster, and sports refuse chute piers and nine balconies.

The block was commissioned by Charlemont Street Public Utility Society (PUS) as part of a bigger scheme designed by Scott to re-house local tenement dwellers in the event of the construction of St Ultan’s Hospital and consequent demolition of tenement houses. This block constituted the second phase of the scheme: the earlier St Ultan’s ranges (1933) were demolished c. 2001 and the proposed later part of the scheme, which would have stretched from Charlemont to Richmond Streets, was not undertaken due to the outbreak of WWII. The PUS turned to Scott in search of a modern housing scheme because the young architect had designed a wing for the new St Ultan’s hospital on Charlemont Street in 1929. Contemporary with the Charlemont Street housing commission, Scott was engaged in designing the famed Irish Pavilion for the New York World’s Fair (1939), as well as a series of Ritz Cinema commissions in Carlow (1937), Athlone (1939) and Clonmel (1940). In all of these buildings and the ffrench-Mullen block, Michael Scott adopted key modernist tropes such as flat roofs, thin concrete canopies over buildings’ entrances and the combination of markedly horizontal fenestration with occasional strips of vertical glazing. The external treatment of each building is painted cement render which, in keeping with early modernist International Style architecture, gave the effect of white stuccoed buildings. At ffrench-Mullen House, Scott applied the rendered effect to the building’s rear elevation while unusually he clad the front street façade in brick-red precast vibrated concrete tiles. This lent the block a heavily textured presence and led to a deeply idiosyncratic building for 1940s Dublin.

Although of reinforced concrete technology, the block stops short in terms of modernist spatial experimentation. At ffrench-Mullen House, unlike the European exploration around the modernist dwelling or block of dwelling units, there are no purpose-designed public spaces.

2. The work of a known and distinguished architect, engineer, designer or craftsman

Michael Scott (1906-1989) is widely considered to be the father of architectural modernism in Ireland. In 1953-55 he won the RIAI Gold Medal for Busáras. He later established Scott Tallon Walker Architects. Internationally, he was the best-known Irish architect of the twentieth century and in 1972 he was elected an honorary fellow of the American Institute of Architects. He received honorary doctorates from the Royal College of Art, London in 1969, from Trinity College Dublin in 1971 and from Queens University Belfast in 1977. His greatest architectural accolade came in 1975 when he was awarded the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects the only Irish architect ever so honoured.

There is little written or recorded about Scott’s work for the Charlemont Street PUS. It was not known that he was in fact the architect of the earlier St. Ultan’s scheme (1933) at the time of its demolition. While there is academic recognition of the importance of Michael Scott in Irish architectural history, this is not mirrored in the extant examples of his buildings. As such, the physical record of Scott’s oeuvre is by now (in 2010) scant and many of his projects have been demolished or redeveloped beyond recognition. ffrench-Mullen House is the last surviving example of his public housing projects in Dublin.

3. An exemplar of a building type, plan-form, style or styles of any period but also the harmonious interrelationship of differing styles within one structure

ffrench-Mullen House is unique in terms of Dublin’s social housing blocks. It was the first time that the modernist slab design was used for multi-unit and multi-storey working class housing in Dublin. As Scott brought this slab type for urban flat blocks to Dublin in 1941, Dublin Corporation (namely Herbert Simms as Housing Architect therein until 1948) was taking aspects of this form and applying it to those schemes finished after the war at Fatima Mansions (1946-50), Donore Avenue (1946-1951) and Ringsend (1950). All of these complexes were formed out of the basic unit of the slab block rather than the perimeter range, but in keeping with Corporation housing tendencies, each block continued to be accessed via decks or balconies rather than internalized tenement stairwells which Scott employed at ffrench-Mullen.

4. A structure which makes a positive contribution to its setting, such as a streetscape or a group of structures in an urban area, or the landscape in a rural area

By relating to the street line as a single block rather than forming two or more perimeter ranges which then enclosed an internal courtyard, ffrench-Mullen House presented an alternative to the contemporary Dublin Corporation urban block design (by Simms from the 1930s and early 1940s). Importantly, Scott positioned the block’s two entrances on the street and so ensured a livelier, more public and more direct, relationship between street and block inhabitant.

ffrench-Mullen House also broke away from its social housing contemporaries through its adoption of materials other than brick with render detailing (namely the pre-cast vibrated concrete titles on the street front and cement render on the rear elevation) for its external treatment. Clearly and unlike its Dublin contemporaries, ffrench-Mullen House was an early exercise in International Style housing. In overall disposition, it signals Scott’s attempt to provide Dublin, during the Emergency years, with a modernist rectilinear and flat roofed structure embellished with moments of vertical strip glazing. In scale it is not overbearing but relates well to the street width and is at once autonomous yet intimate with the street line and streetscape. Its uniqueness adds immeasurably to the architectural palimpsest that is Dublin’s city centre.

5. A structure with an interior that is well designed, rich in decoration, complex or spatially pleasing

There are four one-bedroom flats at ground level; two two-bedroom flats and one three-bedroom flat per floor from first to third levels. The flats are well-lit, ventilated and other than the insertion of bathrooms, their internal layouts are original. They are systematically organized around a central spine corridor from which the living, bedroom and kitchen spaces are served. As such, the interior space of each of the flats is compartmentalized and this may be perceived as a weakness of the scheme, in that there is no possibility for modernist open-plan living which the external aesthetic might suggest.

Conclusion of DoCoMoMo Ireland’s 2010 RPS Submission

ffrench-Mullen House is in good condition and retains many of its original features such as each flat disposition and layout within the block, the two stairwells, original fenestration patterns, and tile cladding. Though there are layers of paint over the tile cladding, the tiles appear to be intact beneath and the paint could be removed. The block continues to be inhabited as social housing, managed by Dublin City Council.

ffrench-Mullen House has made a significant contribution to the architectural heritage of Dublin and as the only extant example of Michael Scott’s social housing in the city, the block is, in DoCoMoMo’s view, a heritage structure of regional importance.

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