Agents of Apollo.

Some Notes on Apollo House.

Apollo House was never designed as a place to live. If one imagines the meetings held in the 1960’s, as the reality of the building was being discussed it seems unlikely that anyone would have suggested that the building should play a future role in the domestic lives of Dublin citizens.

The rooms inside were hardly envisioned as dining rooms, or sleeping rooms or chatting rooms or washing rooms or kissing rooms or television rooms. By 1962, when finally constructed, those that commissioned Apollo House, those that designed it, those that paid for it, those that framed the planning and other legislation that helped determine the shape of it, those that cast and hung the concrete panels that protected it, had, together, realised but one possible version of what Apollo was intended to be – an office building. Much of the press coverage of the recent reoccupation (1) of this building by the Home Sweet Home group has pointed out that it is not suitable for housing and while the point is a fair but rather obvious one, Apollo House has never claimed to be anything other than the office building it was intended to be. Today, or until recently at least, Apollo House has been, by all accounts a middle-aged, dull, grey, abandoned concrete office building in the heart of Dublin city, a building so materially and conspicuously of its time that it is condemned by many and loathed by most. Having fallen in with the property development equivalent of the wrong crowd, it has been sitting there for what, for it, must be long and lonely days waiting for the wrecking ball to come, its ashes of aggregate to be scattered and glassy progress invited to occupy its very foundations.

On December 22nd, five days after the reoccupation, thejournal.ie published online an article written by David O’Brien, “a Dublin-based architect in private practice”. (2) The article intrigued me in a way that was less to do with the points made (although I disagree with many) but the fact that this was the first piece on the reoccupation of Apollo House I read that had been attributed to an architect. The author’s job was referred to in many of the comments at the end of the piece, indicating to me that I was not the only one who might be under the impression that an architect, ostensibly a built environment professional and expert might have to be taken seriously when discussing a topic such as the appropriation of Apollo House for living accommodation. The overall tone of the article while sympathetic to the phenomenon of homelessness was unambiguously one of condemnation, stating the actions of Home Sweet Home as “deeply-flawed and patronising”. Again, I can only speculate that his occupation as an architect would provide added heft to that specific criticism of the action but I can evidence more generally that people in Ireland do consider architects to be experts in built environment issues (3).

In fact the public thinks architects and the thing they use to do what they do – architecture – have a real role to play in addressing the housing crisis (4). One might be forgiven though for thinking that the only role for architects that is currently being articulated (and it is a role being articulated, in part, by omission rather than action) is that when the time comes architects will be happy to design whatever is needed if phone-called to do so. (5) The truncated point here is that architecture remains firmly wedded to the production of houses to solve the housing crisis and its discourse and interest seems to remain focused on the things that affect this – regulation, dimension, legislation, finance and procurement, for example. This is also, of course, the dominant national position – we need houses and a key way to solve such a need is to build more. The profession of architecture as currently (and historically) structured depends on buildings being built to sustain itself and it would be disingenuous of me to criticize individuals who want to design and build houses because many colleagues were also brutalized by austerity and many want to design and construct homes so they can continue to afford to occupy their own.

Having said that, the focus on production does mean that the profession remains determined to understand the question of housing through design only and therefore only through what the profession can deliver and control. While O’ Brien is not claiming to speak for the profession, he does cite in his article the failures of policy, politics and planning which have lead to the housing crisis. He invites us to demand that “our councils fulfill their obligations to their jurisdictions in the delivery of adequate housing, with adequate provision of amenities and infrastructure, in places where people are happy to live, integrated within existing communities.” This could not happen without radical adjustment and policing of the infrastructure of production – policy, legislation, financing, procurement etc. His call to arms to demand this of Councils is laudable but it is not enough or rather to not consider other matters in the housing question is no longer good enough. Production is taking so long we really do have the time to address other matters too.

When Apollo House was reoccupied on December 17th many things happened. In the context of this discussion two key things happened that are worth, I think, noting, because they have not been addressed yet, certainly not within architectural discourse and they also might better inform our understanding of the socio-spatial processes that are occurring on Tara Street.

Firstly, what the Home Sweet Home team did was construct homes in the abandoned building and then enabled people to move in and appropriate them and this process occurred almost simultaneously. This compressed a process that usually takes years to plan and implement. While the building already existed, the action of appropriating it as housing and then appropriating the housing as homes are both creative processes and as a result both team and residents have a clear stake in the success, development and sustainability of Apollo House. Home Sweet Home are, in a sense, activists and designers – not professional obviously, in the sense that design is how they make their living, but they are designers nonetheless. Those occupying the building do not own the building or the homes now in there – it is not their property. I note this not in the sense of trespass (I leave that to others to adjudicate) but rather the process has engendered attachment, connection and links to the specific place and the community involved that are powerful, essential to home-making and have nothing to do with ownership. Making a home is not necessarily attached to “property” in the contractual sense but making and feeling at home is fundamentally attached to agency.

The residents who appear to have been existing on the edges now seem to be participating via the newly formed Apollo House community. The health benefits of participation are widely evidenced(6). The residents now have agency and control over some aspects of their lives. They have a place to be and a place to go and things between. Each of us needs this in order to survive and live completely as individuals and as active members of any community.

The photographs that have emerged from the rooms inside look, for the most part, like they are taken ‘at home’. The residents have possessions they have brought with them. They have been given things they need and such things are arranged and used to decorate the sleeping spaces for example. There are pets. There are “fluffy rugs”(7). There are rooms to be individual and collective, like any home and these rooms are full of stuff. It is not that this stuff is important in and of itself but that the things we have, the things we carry, the things we share – these things are significant contributors to how we, as individuals form attachments to places, (by appropriating places with things), and other people ,(by giving and receiving, collecting heirlooms, having sentimental value). If we are denied the opportunity to have our things or put them somewhere safe where we know they will be when we leave and return, I believe we cannot be fully human because we cannot participate in the process of making home. To be denied the agency to participate is to be subjugated and to be treated as less than human. We are each more than just a bed. We require the physical and conceptual space to hide under it too.

Home Sweet Home know this to be part of the problem of being without a home and have, critically, demonstrated that offering people the agency to socially appropriate and attach to places and to other people must play an intrinsic part of any sustainable housing plan or solution.

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Side images and banner image by Brian Teeling.

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The second point concerns the building itself. Apollo House is destined for demolition. I have not read in detail the assessments of it but I accept it is to be demolished and a new building built instead. I assume it is not fit for purpose and has essentially been declared useless. That decision is not of interest here, nor is a critique of any future building to be built – instead it is of more interest to discuss what the process of reoccupation did for Apollo HouseApollo House was designed and constructed for offices and, as already stated, it is unlikely anyone intended it to be for domestic use. Yet, as I write these words, people are sleeping there in beds and if one accepts what people who are residing there are telling us, that this place is now their home, the building is, in practice, accommodating domestic use.

The building has, in fact, been reinterpreted and it appears to have been flexible enough to accommodate the imagined scenarios projected onto it by those who sat down and planned the reoccupation. The building is obviously politically charged – it is owned by N.A.M.A, in the middle of our capital city, built across the street from the offices of our newspaper of record. The Ulster Bank HQ looms large over the street, still shiny after all these years. It is claimed Apollo House “belongs to all of us” and this is an emotive assertion. Apollo House is part of a suite of properties owned by N.A.M.A. that Home Sweet Home now want utilised as part of any strategy to address homelessness. The building is therefore an element of a broader socio-political agenda by Home Sweet Home and this has contributed to Apollo House, the building itself, becoming part of the discussion and debate on housing in Ireland. It has been used, instrumentally, by Home Sweet Home to provoke a specific discussion on housing, public property and our national responsibility to our citizens.


More that this though, Apollo House is now, for a time at least, an actual agent of change.
It is, of course, not actually alive but Home Sweet Home has, for a time and with the consent and support of a great many members of the public, enabled Apollo House to spend its final days as an socio-spatial agent. What this means is that the building has come to be, literally overnight, a lot more than useless, finding new purpose. It is not that the building is just symbolic, (which might be too reductive a view leading to us later viewing it with a commemorative nostalgia or people calling to cease its demolition) but more that it has become a physical and spatial conduit that has enabled a nation to focus its gaze. In the last days of 2016 Apollo House may have become a more politically charged building than the G.P.O. had been right through the year of commemoration. Buildings are useful to a great many people but, I would suggest there are moments when buildings, responding to the agency projected onto them by us as people, become of use in ways we might not have previously anticipated and buildings can rise to the occasion.

For example, Apollo House has inherent physical attributes that it has leant to the campaign. Its gated entrance and undercroft offer a space for collection and gathering, a space for conversation and photo opportunities, a place for collection and delivery, a threshold to protect the people inside and to interface with the city. It is also a space that bears an uncanny resemblance to so many of those anti-social spaces at gated communities where the wealthiest of the city, those with the most agency of all, decide to withdraw and keep the city and its citizens at bay and choose to live a more “ideal” life, one that the city might not allow. Apollo House has, unwittingly, offered a critique of this and invites us to question it and how we let the city and its citizens away with this form of spatial segregation in the pursuit of their privacy. The pseudo-Greek lettering adoring the gate photographs well and offers the media the opportunity to locate the place without caption. The building has an ad-hoc balcony in the form of its car park at first floor, offering a place to make speeches and play guitar to the crowds on the street. Its internal layout is open and flexible, brightly lit, rooms with views. The building is ugly enough for us to accept its transition into a swan without anyone worrying about its cultural capital. It was already a house, it is not impossible to imagine that we could empathise with its quickly expressed desire to somehow die, if not quite at, then as a home. 

Apollo House, as a tangible, physical, spatial object, full of people who were full of life and hope, has offered room for other people, not directly affected, to consider a position on the issue of homelessness, to be for or against the methods of Home Sweet Home and to take time to work to understand why. It has offered countless more people spaces to direct financial, social and creative support towards a group of people that need it but that many of us feel powerless to support in a meaningful way. Apollo House is currently a socio-spatial object that has initiated direct conversations between the Minister for Housing and the Home Sweet Home founders so that a future for its residents and other people without homes might be negotiated and designed. The built-object has reminded us of the sustained and committed efforts of the many other agents and individuals who dedicate decades, quietly, to help others and how we, as a community, now need to make rooms to support them too.

Apollo House has through accommodating homes, something thing it was never designed to do, underpinned the deficits in our systems, the complexity of the issues and put in front of us the door through which we now must pass together in order to shift our thinking and to finally address, finance and solve the issue.

I am not advocating here for the ad-hoc occupation of empty buildings to solve this issue. I am well aware of the need for quality in building design, standards, all the issues of fire and safety. I am aware of the complexity of the everyday lives of people without homes and that there is an expensive network of supports needed to ensure their quality of life.

Looking on, but immersed through my own work in the question of house and home in Ireland, I am wondering if what has been described by one architect as patronising is being considered by this one as the most significant act of socially and spatially engaged activism I have seen in Ireland. I expect my truth will eventually be somewhere in between, like most of life and that is fine. The point of this is that architecture – in all its glorious, messy complexity – has so much socio-spatial potential when it stands its middle ground, when its products (buildings) can exist to support and form everyday life and in turn be informed by life –  particularly when buildings can do this free from the usual interference of those who would seek to control these built objects for their own ends.

I write this (long) text at a table in my home, a fire lit, with the dogs asleep at my feet. I am privileged. I can take this for granted sometimes, of course, but if 2016 taught me anything it is that we cannot take anything for granted anymore, we cannot afford to, and if we are in any way committed to a more just and equal society we each need to maintain an acute awareness of our own privilege while doubling our efforts to really understand the lives and concerns of others and how we might be failing them. We need to work to understand contexts and situations of our fellow citizens by putting our backs into it and this text, at times vague and academic (I know) is part of my process of understanding. I wish to appropriate Apollo House, make it part of my stuff, to bring it home, because I would very much like to believe in it.

The short story of the reoccupation of Apollo House, soon drawing to a close, has been a complex one and I know I am not alone in dancing emotional jigs with it all. These things are a bit awkward for us Irish, we are not comfortable with protest really and at times I struggle to shake that feeling oe1woz3. While inspiring, it is also just a bit deflating as it is so fundamentally challenging to processes I have previously put some professional faith in (the system of production). I have really, truly, known for years though that these systems are at best failing to deliver what we need ( three dimensional houses) and at worst are being used against us (to subjugate and control).

Even I, who would advocate a more radical socio-spatial agenda in built environment practice, had concerns about the ethics of Home Sweet Home. I know I am not alone in wondering about the motivations of the individuals involved, famous or not, and have worried about the morale of those not involved in Apollo House who have been trying to work within a difficult and savagely underfunded sector day in day out but who are rarely on the news, and whom we rarely so sensationally thank.

I have not been inside Apollo House (it is not usual just to pitch up on private doorsteps) but I have previously spent time with some of the people involved in Home Sweet Home. I trust that their intentions are true. I believe what they told me when I asked questions of them. I observed that they care when I saw them dealing with others. They were patient and generous with their knowledge and stories. They moved clearly between fact and narrative using a balance of both to reveal, with respect, the difficult reality of the very many citizens they work with. They are certainly not naïve or patronising. The did leave things out but perhaps you do have to exclude some reality when taking an action in order to change that reality for the better, not all things can be done in one go.  I do believe Home Sweet Home took this action because they are doing what they believe is required to make change, and as I write now, I am listening to the Home Sweet Home press conference and it would appear change, as they hoped, might just be underway.

There is more to solving the hugely problematic, daunting and rather overwhelming issue of housing in Ireland than Apollo House could ever hope to conquer or deliver and we all know that. Home Sweet Home know this too I expect. When people write this in articles and papers, that it is not a solution, it is not enough, it cannot solve the crisis I think as we come to the end that this is just stating the obvious and avoiding the issue. To dismiss it is not really to consider, or assess or reflect on what might actually have happened, not really. We have to take time to understand this in the context of the overall problem and with reference to the other actions been taken and not isolate it either as a saviour or a failure because the positive, person-centred action of the agents of Apollo does teach us much about the issue on which we were acting, that which we are trying to change, most critically that our citizens without home are not “less” in any way, that something is really not always better than nothing, not when it comes to home. Apollo House has never, ever been perfect, but when go there and  put your hand on it, it feels like progress.

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[1] I use the term reoccupation deliberately. Apollo House was previously occupied. I suggest the term “occupied” is widely used in the media to allude to illegality and trespass. My interest here is not that but occupation through use.

[2] http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/how-to-solve-homelessness-in-dublin-3155473-Dec2016/#comments

[3] In a survey of over 1000 people carried out in 2014 of those that responded to the question, 62.8% thought the work architects did changed the built environment. Source: Data, In The Field, National Survey on Architecture and Built Environment, Scanlon, E and Guerin, S, UCD (2014).

[4] In a survey of over 1000 people carried out in 2014 of those that responded to the question, 69.8% thought architects have a role to play in solving the housing crisis. Source: Data, In The Field, National Survey on Architecture and Built Environment, Scanlon, E and Guerin, S, UCD (2014).

[5] There is little innovation or action being presented by or promoted by the profession in general, the notable exception being the Irish Architecture Foundation who has independently mobilized to discuss the issue among architects and the wider creative sector. Individuals too have been welcome voices online and in the media critiquing standards, developments and agendas in public and private sectors.

[6] A place to start on this would be Law, Mary, Participation in the Occupations of Everyday Life , (2002), Distinguished Scholar Lecture, The American Journal of Occupational Therapy. Or Sanders, L, The Psychological Benefits of Political Participation , (2001), University of Virginia or Zimmerman, M, Rappaport, J, (1998), Citizen Participation, Perceived Control and Psychological Empowerment, American Journal of Community Psychology.

Specific texts on participation in the arts and health would be Matarasso, F, (1997), Use or Ornament? The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts, Stroud: Comedia.

[7] For a detailed exploration of things, space and people see Miller, Daniel, in particular The Comfort of Things (start with the last chapter).