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Where optimism died

In Shanganagh Vale, in the Dublin suburbs, the 1960s American dream was bludgeoned

Driving down the dreary N11 eight miles out of Dublin a curious grouping of houses peeks intermittently over a high County Councilissue boundary stone wall. It’s just another far-flung estate. But in 1963 this represented the modernist dream: open-plan clapboard-fronted American-style houses with two garages adjoining the convenient new tree-lined dual-carriageway, one of Ireland’s first. You can still catch glimpses of its adulterated sleek lines and its once-utopian, now often octogenarian and jaundiced, first settlers.

With the rapid uptake in private car ownership the new professional middle classes had realised they could set up home further and further away from the office. Speculative builders were only too happy to facilitate modern suburbia. Louglinstown – just beyond Cabinteely – was a buffer zone between city and countryside cushioned by green fields as far as the eye could see, watched over by rural Carrickgollogan and within striking distance of Killiney Bay, Shankill and Bray, all then established and desirable. Excitingly half of Loughlinstown village, including its celebrated ‘Big Tree’ had been demolished to smooth the tarmac of the spanking new dual-carriageway.

It was a playground for the 1960s dream.

Shining Shanganagh
Shanganagh Vale tapped the optimism. It was named after a beleaguered local river, the euphonious name celebrated by James Joyce: it was originally to be called the less mellifluous Hawthorn Court but individualistic residents kicked up and changed it.

Shanganagh Vale was utterly undeferential to the Irish vernacular or the lumpen housing estates on the way out from the city; it was a-contextual, streamlined, uncompromising, unIrish, American. Modern.

Glimpses of the now-threatened hills. the far side of the widened N11
Glimpses of the now-threatened hills, the far side of the widened N11

All of the houses were oriented to give maximum sunlight throughout the day. The entrance curved the road around greens of newly planted poplar trees and detached, single-storey houses hidden by shrubbery. Reflecting the age of the car as symbol of democracy, the houses originally had double garages and were surrounded by generous roads and inviting footpaths. Walking around the estate each turn brought secret laneways and pockets of green. Shrubbery, defiant of boundary lines, made the houses seem to snuggle together.

It was an opportunity for Merit Homes to create a new world on a blank canvas, not contextualised. Shanganagh Vale was a Garden City model of out-of-town suburb away from the morally and physically corrupting urban centre, surrounded by parkland and connected to the city centre by unclogged roads. It was visualised as sprawling down the whole Shanganagh Valley towards the Ramblers Rest pub in rustic Ballybrack.

Largely intact tiled fronted 3-bedroom, 2-storey
Largely intact tiled fronted 3-bedroom, 2-storey

Shanganagh Vale was a the first (and last) residential development for Merit Homes Ltd, a subsidiary of John Sisk and Sons which still collects some of the land rents today. The initial modernist development was phased through four different house types, ranging from singlestorey flat-roofed houses to single-storey and two-storey, pitched roofed four-bedroom houses.

It was the first residential estate for the London-based practice, Diamond Redfern Anderson. This was one of the first times an architect was used to design the new rash of residential schemes. Other works by Diamond Redfern Anderson include Oak Apple Green, Rathgar; Golden Bay, Lough Corrib, Co. Galway and Claremount Court, Glasnevin Dublin. Architect Denis Anderson, now in his eighties and retired in Holywood outside Belfast says that: “Architects shied away from housing at the time”. The practice is best known for its celebrated Castlepark Village, in Kinsale Co. Cork (1969- 72), considered a seminal work of Irish residential architecture. It is renowned. By contrast little has been documented on Shanganagh Vale.

Arab Quarter
Anderson told Village it had been important during the design process to separate vehicular traffic from pedestrian traffic – which was novel at the time. Landscaping was also a priority to the practice and the relationship of house to site. The estate is a combination of private and public spaces along with in-between greens which ease the relationship between the houses and the road. high-screen walls around patios gained the houses the nickname the ‘Arab Quarter’, from the confounded local Edwardians.

All the houses in Shanganagh Vale were at angles to each other, with different heights of walls projecting here and there and vastly different open spaces, some of which were not clearly designated public or private. It all betokened a relaxed attitude to space and property. The word that best fits the untidy house cluster is one often heard in Ireland – ‘throughother’. Denizens could shape it themselves.

The estate was so green that the architects were soon receiving phone calls from the residents complaining about weekend picnickers. The lanes were ideal for the wellspoken children of the estate to cycle their Raleigh Chopper cycles in file, and years later to sneak an occasional unobserved smoke.

Flat Scandinavians
Closest to the entrance are the Scandinavian-looking, flat-roofed single-storey bungalows. Architect Denis Anderson comments that he took his inspiration from Finland. House+Garden magazine had started to churn out issues on Scandinavian homes, which the perspicacious Irish consumer was taking notice of.


Again fashionably foreign-inspired, the Vancouver – the second look Diamond Redfern Anderson launched was characterised by a box-like structure, low projecting roofs and balconies across the white wooden-panelled frontage. The Vancouver show-house advertised in the Irish Times on 9 November 1963 was completely furnished and “decorated by Brown Thomas and Co Ltd of Grafton Street”. The description reels off the mod cons of the day: “large plate-glass sliding windows, which may be double-glazed if desired”; “large open-plan lounge and dining area, with its fine fireplace of brick and Parana wood paneling”. The kitchen had “attractive breakfast bar with an ‘adjoining laundrette”. Upstairs the bedrooms boasted built-in wardrobes and dressing tables. The asking price was £5150. More than you’d pay for something red-brick in the inner suburbs. But then this was a different land with different rules.

The Irish Times raved about Shanganagh Vale, November 1963
The Irish Times raved about Shanganagh Vale, November 1963

The Theory
In a literary timepiece, Ruairí Quinn, later leader of the Labour Party, wrote in the Architects Journal in 1974: “Anderson’s design approach is a reversal of the conventional wisdom of the architecture schools, as he first formulates the solution and works back from there, linking the various elements together, achieving economies of design and construction by repeating details and alternating elements. It is an approach which is altogether at odds with the linear method of brief formulation, methodological analysis, etc., which we have heard so much of and which seems to have produced soulless architecture”.

Closed Open Plan
Some might be critical of the lack of boundaries in the development. But this can possibly be defended by an egalitarian view that people should ‘commune’ in the shared village ‘squares’. It was a great place to grow up, kids in and out of each other’s houses, up trees, out till all hours with their action men, walkie-talkies and skateboards.

The Residents
The modernist ethos attracted an extraordinary initial complement of buyers, apparently nearly all foreign, debating how backward De Valera was, or the oil crisis, over organic wine from the popular new Dunnes Stores in Cornelscourt or just possibly, a spliff. In 1963 Ranelagh was for traditionalists, and bores.

If you wanted to wife-swap with a Swedish TV producer, Shanganagh was probably the best place in Dublin for it, though of course being Ireland and 1963 most of the wives were preoccupied by child-rearing and housewifing.

1969 wife swapping hit Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
1969 wife swapping hit Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

Inevitably the moment passed. The first phase was perceived as expensive and In 1969 Merit Homes, under pressure from poor sales, sold out sites to builders such as E.J. Brady and Co. which according to the Irish Independent of the day built ‘superb detached luxury bungalows, architect-designed, with central heating, 4 bedrooms”. But the new houses were neo- Georgian, redbricks. With panes in the windows. And gables. Not Scandinavian.

There had been ambitious plans for parks and even swimming pools down the valley but they were quickly shelved. Fields designated for a modernist utopia were sold and resold, finishing up as banal 1970s local authority housing. All around spec builders filled up the fields that had provided the Arcadian hinterland. Feral kids marauded around these areas. Two houses in Shanganagh Vale were burnt out.

Worse still, the roads clogged up with townbound traffic and a couple of oil crises made suburbia unfashionable. The kids grew up and their parents sick of each other, and the stuff they’d once got up to.

Everyone planted Leylandia to screen the decline. Irish people moved in. Communal areas were colonised by adjoining houses. Jazzy extensions compromised the orthogonal lines.

Red-tiled frontages replaced some of the clapboard. As incomes increased aesthetic giganticism set in. Burglaries and bike theft filled the discourse. A residents’ association wanted the lanes blocked to stop urchins from Ballybrack stealing apples, staring at sunbathers and stoning the local youth.

Walls were highered and topped with ferocious broken bottles. The dual carriageway was widened, into the manicured front lawnage.

Nobody talked. Everyone got old. Acquaintances who had reared their children cheek-by-jowl now cast their eyes downward and ignored each other when putting out the bins. The white heat had cooled and not just in Loughlinstown. Ranelagh was now fashionable.

Lanes were closed
Lanes were closed

Today with the additional block walls and hedgerows there is no opportunity to converse with the neighbour on the way to the car. The openness is gone. The dialogue between the houses is interrupted by obsessional boundaries between yours and mine.

Harriet Cooke profiled Denis Anderson in PLAN in the summer of 1974, long after Shanganagh had started its compromises. He seemed ambivalent:

“The more we do housing the more I feel… we should study more and more what has gone [on] in the past”, he told her.

“The present housing developments all around the country are diabolical. They completely ignore the older villages, the network, and the way the houses were related to the surrounding countryside. I feel very strongly that we should look to these older towns and study them to see what it is that’s good about them and try and, not copy them, but try and get the same quality. We try as far as possible to restrict our materials to a minimum and we try to keep them to the materials that are used in the locale. You know, if it’s white walls and slate we use those materials… But we use them in a modern way… Personally I think it’s more important to have a good relationship between the buildings than to have buildings that are well designed as units, but not well related”.

In the end residents imposed their own non-modernist aesthetics
In the end residents imposed their own non-modernist aesthetics

Dead Dreams
Nearly every building in Loughlinstown Village stands on the verge of demolition, derelict. Several adjoining estates, like once upmarket, still leafy, Beech Court are to be brutally demolished for higher-density apartments. Just the far side of the widened dual-carriageway Cherrywood with its rolling uplands, was corruptly rezoned. 10,000 units are planned. Like Loughlinstown, Shanganagh Vale is a failure. But it was a grand failure that explored the bounds of optimism and, for a decade pushed them. The first, modernist, phase of Shanganagh Vale was completed a half century ago this year.

By Emma Gilleece