Friday, 25 September 2015

Ratting, Dwelling, Thinking -or- Being and the Art of Motorcycle Ratting

Disclaimer - I am not a biker. I do not own a bike, I cannot ride a bike. I struggle on a pushbike. These are the ill-informed views of an outsider looking in.

Five months ago I was approached by a group of motorcycle enthusiasts, the N.I.Rats, to make a documentary about them. This was about the height of the brief. There was no clear agenda in the form of a point that needed to be made, or clear arc in terms of a storyline to be relayed; just a passion and energy for what it was they were interested in - Ratbikes. On the face of it a strange fit for an architect and PhD student, but as things progressed the ideas coalesced and began to work together - something it might become easy to over-intellectualise (I'll be doing that shortly), but probably simply deriving from a group of passionate people who decide to do something together and who have clear ideas for how they believe things should and could be, but are non-fundamentalist in their approaches. The film rolled onwards, eventually becoming the 40 minute long piece 'Rat's Tales' which premiered at Culture Night Belfast, 2015, and will continue to develop for at least the next year.
Now for the clumsy over-intellectualising.

The set of theories I have been working with are beginning to point towards an explanation of how we reach an understanding of the raw phenomena received by our senses, suggesting that we never have any access to either 'reality' or 'truth,' but only ever our own interpretations and viewpoints which we chose to adopt as 'reality' and 'truth.' However, while always being attracted to Martin Heidegger's theory of Dwelling from which these ideas (and the title of this post) derive, I have always been skeptical of social constructionism, which these ideas can quite easily develop into. This is when we can move forward into Mythogeography.
Fonzy's 'Tramp Pot'
Phil Smith's set of theories allows us to understand that, when we are constructing our own reality we are making use of an all too easily-accessible set of myths, ready-made explanations and interpretations for phenomena - 'scripts' for how to act, interact and dwell when we perceive them. This is a game which the post-modernists became aware of, but where they give the playing of these games a privileged position, Mythogeography removes it by showing how we are all unavoidably doing it, all the time. To be aware of this isn't enough - to be aware of when it is appropriate to take part or to deviate from these social scripts is the real trick.
Bop's 'Spawn of Satan'
The culture of Ratbikes serves as an illustration of these ideas. Initially, Ratbikes appear to be an aesthetic choice. There is a distinct post-industrial look to many of the bikes, as illustrated by the link to the Mad Max film series - rusted machines of urban warfare, rife with militaristic machismo and the cliched 'heavy-metal thunder' mythology of Easyrider and Steppenwolf. When interrogated, however, Ratbikes emerge as a practical necessity for many Ratters - the need to keep the thing running in order to get from A to B, the basis of Heidegger's notion of building in order to successfully dwell, as Aaron and Tom explain in the film.

  • AARON "A true Ratbike is years upon years of fixing absolutely everything possible with nothing that fits, making..."
  • TOM "...making it work..."
  • AARON "Aye, making it work. If one hammer doesn't work, get a bigger hammer. You know, if a spanner doesn't work, cut it. Do whatever you want to it..."
  • TOM "...use whatever parts you can find. Cut, weld, staple, bolt..."
  • AARON "That's a tre Rat like..."
It is clear that initially this isn't a choice at all. Eugene explains "I think everybody who was a real biker had a Ratbike at some stage, whether they knew it or not. Everybody cobbled together what they could. We didn't always have money," something which is made clear by the story, as related by Gareth 'Eazyrider' Tuff, of Fonzy's first Ratbike. "He ended up with his 400 bandit. It never ran right. It was held together with tape, cable ties...I can't remember how many times it broke down. But I think that's where part of it started for Afonso, was keeping that bike alive."

The aesthetic of the Rat, therefore, is the result of the creative problem-solving of it's owner who is unable to rely on the conventional means of motorcycle maintenance. The act of painting the bike matte-black, initially intended to cover up the fact that the vehicle has been ratted, has now become subverted to be a source of pride - a way of drawing attention to the fact that it is a Ratbike. This becomes the point of departure when the elemental act of building and dwelling begins to intermingle with the mythology of the Ratbike.
Bop's 'Spawn of Satan'
There are, very broadly speaking, three dominating Ratbike mythologies. The first, and perhaps original, is the militaristic survival Rat - deriving largely from the military vehicles of the second world war. The military vehicle would be tough, rugged, abused and, subsequently, bodged and cludged in-the-field and on-the-move to keep running. The owners of such bikes relied on them to keep them alive, and probably, as Eugene suggests, didn't think of them as Rats. There is a romantic truth about these bikes - potential 'pure rats' - the spirit of which Ratbike owners seek, and do so by augmenting their vehicles with Iron Crosses, guns, bullets, knives, saddle bags and even bullet-holes. Secondly, there is the angry-hippy Rat, inspired largely from the distortion of 1960s Americana, Ratfink hotrod and hippy culture which occurred in the early 1970s and is probably typified by the notorious involvement of the Hell's Angels with Woodstock '70, the perceived death of the Summer of Love. These are aestheticised vehicles, with a vicious and sardonic sense of humour, often daubed with politicised slogans and icons, ranging from the crudely drawn to the elaborate professional paint-job - subversive, witty and mean. Finally, we have the fantasy Rat, highly aestheticised apocalyptic vehicles inspired largely by the Mad Max franchise. These can be viewed as a subtle blend of the previous two, a fantasied version of the 'true' survivalist Rat, with the humour of the angry-hippy less the cynicism.
Eugene's 'Blitzkrieg'
These broad mythologies come complete with their own set of iconographic modes-of-Ratting. As the Ratter spirals gradually away from the 'true' rat (as, for example, they learn more about keeping bikes running from others or improve their financial position making Ratting less necessity and more choice) they make a complex set of decisions, largely reflexive and automatic - driven not only by the mythologies but also that original 'pure' practicality of keeping the thing running. So when, for example, Eugene suggests that everything on his Blitzkrieg trike has a use, it most certainly does, but the gearstick does not necessarily need to be made out of a .45 pistol, nor the pedals drilled-out rubber bullets. The decision has been made to aestheticise the trike as a militaristic survival rat. The mythological script is there and it is followed automatically.
Bop's 'Spawn of Satan'
That being said, this may sound like an accusation of lack of imagination. On the contrary, the bed of Ratting culture, that idea of keeping the thing running at every cost besides the financial, ensures that creativity is at it's very root. Eugene's trike is seen as a successful Rat because it adheres to the script, playing the game so-to-speak, but does so in a surprising and novel way. There is no other vehicle like Blitzkrieg, it is the unique product of Eugene's unique set of decisions, both practical and aesthetic, which will never reflexively occur again.
Eugene's 'Blitzkrieg'
Lastly, we come to the idea of the Ratbike as a piece of equipment, but not, like other things which help us achieve our projects and goals throughout the day, a static object. The Ratbike adapts and evolves as it's user's needs change. This, as with the 'pure' Ratbikes born out of extreme situations or financial constraints, may be strictly practical. If the bike breaks down, it needs to be physically changed in order to get it running. But, again as we move towards aesthetics, the Ratter's relationship with or understanding of the mythology might slip - their politics or tastes may change and with them, the bike. The equipment is therefore an extension, not only of the body, but the personality - or rather an idealised and mythologised version - of the Ratter, things constantly in flux and never fixed.

The dualist nature of body and mind collapse in the realisation of the Ratbike - a singular object of necessity and political action.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Sailortown walking tour - European Heritage Open Days 2015

The following are notes and slides developed for a walking tour of the Sailortown area of Belfast, delivered at 10am, 12/09/2015, as part of the European Heritage Open Days in conjunction with PLACE, the Northern Ireland centre for the built environment.

Start - Harbour Commissioners

Slide 1 - This is a tour of Belfast’s lost quarter, commonly referred to as ‘Sailortown,’ a different and difficult sort of tour in that Sailortown has all but disappeared. I have chosen not to discuss Sailortown as an historical artefact, but rather use it as a case study of urban planning throughout the final half of the 20th century. As such, much of what I have to say about Sailortown and it’s unfortunate fate from the late 1960s onwards is based on hearsay, speculation and a small kernel of provable data, most of which is open to debate. As such, I don’t mind anyone contributing their views and opinions on what may have transpired here, down by the docks. Initially we’re just going to walk from this end of Sailortown to the other, through some of the different conditions you find in the area, and then once we’re on the other side we’ll stop and I’ll explain a little bit about what the area used to be like and what happened to it.

Stop 1 - Whitla Street

Slide 2 - Here we are now at the northern-most boundary of Sailortown, Whitla Street. The exact boundaries of the area are blurred at best, but it it commonly agreed that this is definitely where it ends on this side. A poem by Sailortown resident Tommy O’Hara begins by saying “From Whitla Street to God knows where, now there’s an argument right there.” It is generally agreed that Henry Street was the southern boundary and Nelson Street was the western boundary, but people claim to be from Sailortown as far down as Corporation Square where we started, and there is an argument that York Street formed part of Sailortown, although here the age old ‘Irish Problem’ enters into things, with Sailortown largely being regarded as a Catholic area and York Street being Protestant.

Up to the 1960s this area was home to around 5000 people, and was called Sailortown obviously for it’s proximity to the docks. As such it was an extremely cosmopolitain area, with foreign sailors constantly coming and going, and potentially staying in the area for weeks or months at a time. Additionally, many of the locals were sailors themselves, individuals who had travelled the world and been welcomed in foreign ports, experiences which potentially gave them a different attitude to residents of other quarters of the city; an outlooking quarter which physically and socially connected Belfast to the rest of the world.

Notable residents include Rinty Monaghan, the boxer whose statue you can now see down beside the Ulster University on York St; Big Jim Larkin, the Irish trade union leader who lived and worked here in his early days, comedian Frank Carson; and Buck Alec, the policeman, loyalist paramilitary and street fighter lived here, and could be seen walking his pet lion through the streets.

But when recounting a history of a place which is now gone it is easy to get lost in the romantic nostalgia of what it was and could have been. The area was very poor and existed on the outskirts of an incredibly busy industrial port, meaning the air quality would have been pretty poor. The housing, before it was demolished, was referred to as Victorian slum housing in a report at the time, very cramped and lacking amenities - a complaint which was made about all the inner-city housing in Belfast in the pre-war years, including the lower Shankill, Falls road, and inner East Belfast - all areas, coincidentally, which could be said to have been detrimentally affected by redevelopment, something we will talk more about at our next stop.

Stop 2 - Original houses/Car park

Slide 3 - Regardless of where exactly Sailortown was, the contemporary area as I see it can be largely divided into three distinct parts with distinct feelings, which hopefully you detected on our walk here. You have this central area which is the nucleus of Sailortown as it used to be. It is dilapidated and a little bit sorry for itself, but retains a spark of authentic community feeling which is unfortunately being eroded. Then you have Clarendon Dock, which is now a far cry from what it would have been as an operational graving dock, used for repairing and maintaining the boats which serviced the dock. It could now be referred to as a sleek, 21st century commercial estate, whose employees all live outside the area. While it’s not officially part of Sailortown, it’s development is having a massive affect on the area as a whole and is worlds apart in atmosphere, financial investment and attitude to the rest of the area. Finally you have the area between Sailortown and York Street, which is a mess of roads, motorway on slips, carriageways and these derelict residual spaces rendered largely useless by the infrastructure.

So what exactly happened between this map (1920) and this map (2008)? As the second world war was drawing to a close it was accepted that, as I suggested before, Belfast’s inner-city housing was deemed largely inadequate and a report and corresponding masterplan was devised which was unfortunately never enacted. It suggested a series of grand avenues with corresponding squares, and also proposed a road bridge in the location of the current flyover, but it would have been at grade rather than the raised motorway we currently have. While the masterplan was never adopted, the identification of the housing crisis was taken seriously and, along with the construction of suburban housing estates like Cregagh estate, a process of what was referred to as ‘slum clearance’ began towards the end go the ‘50s.

Slide 4 - By the early 60s, you had the rise of Prime Minister Terrence O’Neill, who was exceptionally progressive and liberal compared to his predecessors, and with him you had a considerable amount of progressive liberal civil servants, people like Ronald Green and John Oliver, and they were keen on pushing through all kinds of reforms including a brave new Modernist masterplan for Belfast. They brought in an expert architect-planner from Edinburgh called Robert Matthew and he drafted what is now referred to as the ‘Matthew Plan.’ The plan proposed to limit the outward expansion of Belfast and create these satellite towns where, theoretically, people would live and commute to Belfast to work on newly constructed roads infrastructure. Matthew himself did not go into a great amount of details on the roads, but you can see this ominous dotted line around the centre of the city, implying what was to be proposed in the future.

Slide 5 - By 1967 elements of the Matthew plan were being implemented, including the construction of Craigavon; but the element which had the biggest bearing on Sailortown was, of course, the road plans. Travers Morgan prepared the report for what was known as the Belfast Urban Motorway. Now, the majority of the houses in the York Street area had already been cleared in the interests of 'slum clearance,' the intention being that people would eventually be moved back into the area.

Slide 6 - The motorway plans, however, changed the intention to move people back into the area. The majority of the residents of Sailortown were moved up to Shore Crescent, off the Shore Road, where you can see this monument to Sailortown - testament to the amount of former Sailortown residents who ended up there. The residents were also scattered around the city, to new estates like New Lodge, the Lower the Shankill, Divis and Twinbrook, never to return to Sailortown. We’ll walk further down into Sailortown to discuss what possibly happened and to look at St Joseph’s church which stands as a analogy for the area at large.

Stop 3 - St Joseph’s

This is St Joseph’s Church which, as you can see, now lies derelict. This church is totemic for the fate of Sailortown as a whole, although it’s final demise occurred about 30yrs after Sailortown can be said to have disappeared, even though the identity is maintained by an unfortunately ever dwindling core of individuals. Much of the land that was given up for the good of slum clearance and, later, the motorway was, much like St Joseph's, owned by the Catholic Church. According to residents that I interviewed as part of my PhD the parish priest promised from his pulpit that people would return to the area after the displacement of slum clearance. That, as you have seen, proved not to be the case.

The church’s numbers naturally declined over the course of the 70s and 80s, until the church was proposed to be closed in the late 1990s. The closure was strongly opposed by a strong core of individuals, the majority of whom now comprise the Sailortown Historical Society, which has now become the Sailortown Regeneration Group. The church was taken on by franciscans upon it’s closure until 2001, who eventually withdrew putting the fate of the church in the balance. It was occupied on 2 separate occasions by local protesters, the regeneration group, trying to save the buildings as a place of worship, until they eventually relented and, in return for the 99yr lease of the building, agreed that it would never again be a place of worship. There is currently a plan to make the building into a community centre -  a plan but no funding - so the church, it seems, will remain here untouched until it needs to be pulled down due to safety concerns.

Stop 5 - Clarendon Dock

Here, we can appreciate the unique nature of this part of the city. We have the old graving dock here, with two of the oldest buildings in Belfast, and in the background you have City Quays One, one of the newest ones. This area was the site of Belfast’s first shipyard and the traces of it can still be clearly seen. This building was also, briefly, the HQ of the Laganside corporation which as you probably know, was the first round of post-conflict redevelopment and part of the process of ‘normalisation’ as John Major called it - the process of making good the city’s physical and social fabric in the aftermath of the Troubles, another fascinating subjects far as the redevelopment of the city goes.

City Quays is a proposed 20 acre £250M mixed-use redevelopment of lands bound by the M3 Motorway, River Lagan, Dock Street and Corporation Street by Belfast Harbour Commissioners. In July 2010 the Harbour Commissioners submitted an outline planning application seeking permission for a "mixed use development comprising120 residential units, a hotel, 123,170 sqm of officespace, retail, cafes and restaurants and multi-storey car parking.

Monday, 24 November 2014

'European Heritage Open Days' 2014 - Short film Competition winner

In September of this year I submitted a short section of my longer 'Myths of Belfast' thesis film to the European Heritage Open Days (EHOD) short film competition. The brief for the competition was as follows.
  • The film’s subject matter must be concerned with Northern Ireland’s built heritage.
  • The film MUST qualify for a ‘Universal’ age group and therefore be family friendly e.g. no swearing, no exposures to violence on camera.
  • The film must last no longer than 5 minutes, and be submitted in the appropriate format.

The competition was judged by Stephen Hackett of the Belfast Film Festival, who said of my film "This film demonstrates an excellent understanding of the architectural history of Belfast.  The visual effects used are both interesting and creative." My entry won the award for 'best film,' and was shown as part of the EHOD2014 Thank You event held at Brownlow House in Lurgan on the 22nd November 2014. I received my prize of £200 from Michael Weir, the director of the Belfast Photo Festival, and Colin McCusker, the Mayor of Craigavon.
Michael Weir, director of the Belfast Photo Festival, Colin McCusker, Mayor of Craigavon and myself at the EHOD2014 Thank You event in Brownlow House, Lurgan, 22.11.14
You can view the winning film below. The longer film, 'Myths of Belfast,' will be available to view online and on DVD in the new year.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014 Part 3 - Urban Exploration and Fergus Jordan's 'Garden Estate'

The following are notes made for a presentation made at Belfast Exposed gallery at Fergus Jordan's 'Garden Estate' exhibition on 30th October 2013. More on the photographic series can be viewed here. A film of the presentation is also included. While this presentation was not part of the 'Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014' series of events, the subject matter is extremely pertinent.

My research is an attempt to relocate our understanding of space from the common-sense objective point of view to one which takes account of our own subjectivity. As such I indulge frequently in a bit of what is known as psychogeography; that is the creative use of the city, the performance of divergent acts in the field staged so as to reach a deeper reading of the space of the city.

Around these walls you see the products of an act of psychogeography; outputs of the process of the lone artist in the field (Fergus with his camera), examining what is there and passing it through a personal interpretive process, the filter of what could be referred to as ‘style’ but is perhaps more aptly viewed a radical reinterpretation of the sub-utopian landscape of the Dunclug housing estate.

Psychogeography derives from the work of the revolutionary artist collective the Situationist Internationale, based in France in the late 1950s. They sought to disrupt the common-sense attitudes to life, which they saw as being largely driven by the capitalist market, and replace it with a more fundamental social interpretation based largely on a reinterpretation of Marxist thought deriving from the work of Henri Lefebvre. This disruption was normally achieved through what they referred to as ‘detournement’ or distraction.

The primary mode of distraction with regards to psychogeography and the city was the derive, or drift; an aimless walk through the city which would begin to expose the psychological relationships which inform our experience of space. I have several difficulties with the situationist way of thinking, a minor one being, surely the act of creating a psychogeographical profile of a city imbues any walk through the city with a purpose, displacing the act of ‘aimless walking,’ and this is but the beginning of the fundamental problems I have with situationism, and indeed architectural theory in general, something which field art practice has long since overcome without difficulty.

Essentially, I believe that we all have a ‘common-sense’ attitude to how we are in the world; an idea which derives largely from the philosophy of Rene Descartes. Cartesian philosophy, as it came to be known, suggests that we are three dimensional objects existing in a three dimensional world with other three dimensional objects, which we can perceive, understand and act upon accordingly. This is the assumption which Newtonian physics was based on. Science now regards Newtonian physics as a model and has moved on to things like quantum physics, etc. The old model still applies, but other models are required to fill the gaps, as it were.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we abandon cartesian philosophy and start to radically change the way we conduct our everyday understandings of space and place, but as we start to try to change, adjust and tweak our surroundings in order to improve them, which is what architects and urbanists hope to do, I think we need to start to leave behind the ‘common-sense’ model of being, which Cartesian philosophy could now be called; I believe it is causing us big problems.

What problems is it causing? Well, the idea that we are totally objectified 3D objects, but that we are somehow gifted with the ability to understand other 3D objects is a problem. There is a clear gap in the thinking here which lead Descartes to believe that the mind is also objectified, it exists in three dimensions much like the body. This idea became known as Cartesian Dualism, the idea that mind and body are separate and can be separated from each other. This runs counter with most of what contemporary neuroscience suggests; the mind is a process, not a thing, a paradigm shift which is perhaps more incredible than it sounds, and is supported by philosophers like Martin Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Richard Rorty, as well as most of contemporary sociology.

How does this idea, then, affect our understanding of the city, and how does it help us to critique situationism? I would suggest that most theorists believe there to be some sort of objective foundation to the sociology of the city. There is an attempt to reduce architectural theory down to a mathematical formula which is a symptom of Cartesian Dualism. The social, much like the mind, is a process and as such is not located in three dimensional space.

So, when the situationists assume that by decontextualising the city they can expose some sort of naked objective sociological framework, all they end up exposing is their own naked subjective interpretation of the city.

Returning to architectural theory and the idea of the garden estate, we can start to anlalyse the intentions of the designers behind the ‘Radburn estate’ ideal on which Dunclug was based. Situationism is often referred to as one of the utopian movements in political art practice, and the radburn estate or the garden city idea is certainly one of the utopian movements in late modernism. Based upon an extremely robust and intelligent architectural theory largely stemming from frank Lloyd Wright, who was no doubt influenced by early modernist European Architects like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, who in turn had substantial connections within the Bauhaus; architectural royalty! these ideas we can now see resulted in nightmarish social conditions for the normal citizens these designs were inflicted upon.

The problem, I believe, resides in the Cartesian ideas which formed the foundations of architectural thought, and still does to this day. There are some architects who seem to think that if they design and construct a space in a specific way that this will instigate a particular behaviour in an individual; almost like a human being entering a building or a space is like a ball bearing entering a machine. There is a clear input; the human, and a clear output; a behaviour. And of course we know this is not the case; we have free will and we cannot help but exercise it. So when the modernists did their calculations and figured out that we should all live in high-rise flats or in the garden estates they could not foresee what would actually happen, what we see in Fergus’ photos.

Turning back to the problems of psychogeography, what I am trying to move toward with my architectural theorising is something that art practice seems to have taken for granted for a long time and never bothered naming. That is the idea of ‘mytho-geography’ as coined by performance artist Phil Smith. This is a practice which has a latent understanding that, once decontextualisied, the city needs recontexualised. Mytho-geography suggests this should be in an abstract or oblique way, as Phil Smith suggests this is ‘the art of walking sideways.’ Field artists already do this. 

Fergus used to live in the estate and therefore knows it very well. Regardless of this, he returned to it as a stranger with a camera, normally in the dead of night. This, in itself, is the practice of detournement, or distraction. He was in the context, understood the context, but abstracted himself from the context in order to view it obliquely. The resultant photographs which we see are Dunclug recontextualised, interpreted through Fergus’ camera, a side of the garden estate none of us would be aware of. Fergus has turned our attention towards it.

As an architect and designer this speaks volumes to me of the failure of modernism, the ends of design. It tells me there is something fundamentally amiss in what we hope to do both as professionals and human beings; and it is something I hope desperately to address and correct in my own work.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014 Part 2

The following are notes made for a bus tour of Craigavon which took place on 1st November 2014. This was part of the Absorbing Modernity series of events based on the themes of the Venice Biennale. The bus tour was organised and hosted by PLACE.

Up until around 3 or 4years ago Craigavon was a bit of black spot in my geographical knowledge of N.Ireland. I found it difficult to get beyond ‘Craigavon as local laughing stock,’ an image which I now see as largely undeserved. I’m going to attempt to explain the broader international context for Modernist new towns and cities and then hone in on the specifically local circumstances which caused and affected the establishment of Craigavon.

Establishing new towns in this part of Ireland of course isn’t a new endeavour, the plantation towns of the Elizabethan era forwards were all described as ‘new towns,’ Modernist new towns however, were based on a totally different set of political constructs. The basis of the architectural and artistic ‘style’ that we call Modernism can trace it’s roots back to the age of enlightenment in the 16th and 17th centuries which saw people starting to turn away from medieval spiritualism and towards reason and rationality and on the back of this came the idea that mankind could begin to analyse, understand and shape it’s environment to improve quality of life rather than being subject to the whims of unseen spirits.

The rise of science then lead to the industrial revolution of the 18th century, which was essentially the intensifying and gathering together of human endeavour focused on the perceived development of society and culture. This lead to increasingly urbanised populations, and with that, increasingly poor, unhealthy and polluted environments in which people lived. By the beginning of the 20th century it became clear that this process needed to be scrutinised and the development controlled and planned to ensure that it contributed to human progress and was not detrimental to humankind.

So at this time you have people like Patrick Geddes and Ebenezer Howard who, at the turn of the century were being to theorise and put forward ideas which proved to be the genesis of what we regard today as ‘planning.’ Patrick Geddes took Darwin’s theory of Evolution to suggest that the city is humankind’s habitat and that, as such, you could arrange it in a scientifically idealised fashion and by way of evolutionary eugenics humankind would evolve to be a more perfect organism. Using these ideas Ebenezer Howard developed the idea of the ‘garden city’ which was an idealised utopia based around several settlements, limited in size, connected by public transport systems and surrounded by greenbelts.

It’s ideals like these which formed the roots of the planning movement across the UK in the first half of the 20th century, all concentrating on attempting to control the development of our cities and, in doing so, ensure that human progress not only continued unhindered but was scientifically guaranteed. Two world wars naturally limited the development of these ideas until 1945, but the Blitz across the UK helped to highlight the poor quality and ageing inner-city Victorian housing stock in big cities including Belfast, but was also, maybe quite perversely, seen as an opportunity by city planners to begin to re-order the cities. The housing need highlighted by the war lead to the 1946 New Towns Act which proposed the creation of 26 new towns across the UK to house the burgeoning UK population.

Belfast had it’s own set of planning proposals, beginning with the ‘Davidge report, commissioned in 1945 which began to look at how the city should be developed. This, however, didn’t really go anywhere apart from an overhaul of the roads system including the construction of the Sydenham bypass in East Belfast. However, the big moment for Belfast and Northern ireland came with the commissioning of the ‘Belfast Regional Survey and Plan,’ commonly referred to as ‘The Matthew Plan’ after it’s author the visionary Scottish architect-planner Robert Matthew. This came at the end of Lord Brookeborough’s 20 year stint as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. The Unionist party had held unbroken political power since the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 and had done so by strictly adhering to their strict conservative values. As such they opposed anything which vaguely resembled socialism, and the concept of planning was considered to be connected to the communist ideals of a ‘planned economy.’ So these ideas were treated with deep suspicion.

The policy of ‘parity’ with the mainland, while seen as being important to uphold the union, started to unravel slightly as social and economic reforms such as the establishment of the welfare state came into being, these being socialist ideas. Things like this started to create rifts within the Unionist party as two distinct camps, conservatives and reformists, began to emerge. The newly stablished Ministry of Health and Local Government was firmly under control of the reformist camp, including the young and innovative ministers Ronald Green and John Oliver, began to put pressure on the conservative Belfast Corporation who were opposed to inner-city slum clearance coupled with public housing schemes. Oliver and Green managed to back Belfast Corporation into a corner and forced them to agree to allow an independent adviser to come over and assess the housing problems in the city. The ministers immediately contacted Robert Matthew, this was in 1960, an experienced architect-planner from Edinburgh, to put together a report on the development of Belfast. This report quickly expanded into a full ‘regional survey and plan,’ looking not just at Belfast but at Belfast in it’s region as the economic centre of Northern Ireland.
The plan itself proposed a hard stopline around Belfast to stop it’s sprawling outward expansion. As the population of Belfast was increasing exponentially the stopline limited this, so several towns in the region were designated to be redeveloped to deal with what was referred to as the ‘overspill’ of population. These expansion towns would ‘demagnetise’ Belfast. A newly established motorway system, which was already on the table, would allow people to commute in and out of Belfast for work, while new industries would also be established in the expansion towns. At the same time, a new city was to be built between Lurgan and Portadown.


LURGAN/PORTADOWN: A REGIONAL CITY - It is proposed that the existing towns of Lurgan and Portadown be expanded into a substantial new city of approximately 100,000 people, this being the most important single new development suggested in the Plan. These two towns, with existing populations of 18,667 and 17,873 respectively, are three miles apart and are selected for major expansion for the following reasons.
  1. Their location beyond the head of the Lagan valley is in the natural direction of development into the hinterland and close enough to Belfast to attract industrial enterprise.
  2. They have good rail connections with Belfast and the south and can easily be linked, by road to the proposed Belfast-Dungannon motorway (M1). Their proximity to Lough Neagh could take advantage of water transport, should it develop on the largest stretch of inland water in the British Isles.
  3. The configuration of the land is well suited for building. It is not of first class agricultural quality, but has a ready availability of utility services, such as water and electricity.
  4. The existing urban centres have established populations and reasonable existing social and commercial facilities which would make a sound base for expansion.
The proposal, which it is important to regard as of first priority, is to create a major new urban area for administration, industry, marketing, technical education and recreational activities. It presents an opportunity to create a contemporary urban environment of high quality, which could serve as a major symbol of regeneration within Northern Ireland.
In 1963, the year the Matthew Plan was published, Lord Brookeborough stepped down as PM due to health reasons and Terrence O’Neill took over. This is important because O’Neill was very much in the reformist camp. He therefore fully supported the distinct social edge of the Matthew report and the proposed planning and housing reforms albeit without significant support from the staunchly conservative Unionist party. O’Neill managed to push through the majority of the reforms to the planning system including the stopline, along with the establishment of the new town, at break-neck speed, to the degree that the new city planning team was established barely a month after the report being published.

By December that year 8000 acres of largely agricultural land between Lurgan and Portadown had been vested and the highly influential ‘new city’ architect Geoffrey Copcutt was given the job of leading the new city design team. The following was taken from Miles Glendinning's 'Modern Architect,' an excellent biography of Robert Matthew.
During 1964, Copcutt's team had completed a preliminary report on the new city, which, when eventually published, proposed a basic structure like a more dispersed Cumbernauld, with a 'linear urban core,' strongly set apart from the countryside around by a ring distribution road, and individual zones containing fairly dense 'clusters' of compact residential 'sections' - each with its communal facilities (such as schools) grouped at the centre, implicitly intended to encourage Catholic-Protestant integration. These would be interspersed by three commercial centres: Lurgan, Portadown and a new regional high-grade shopping and office centre between.
Copcutt became increasingly frustrated with Stormont politics, claiming that his designs were being scrutinised by civil servants to ensure the subtly gerrymandered civic balance wasn’t being upset. He even went further suggesting that the best way to allow Ulster to progress was to have a United Ireland. In August 1964 Copcutt send a memo to several major newspapers in N.Ireland decrying the new city project as a failure before it started and claiming that the Matthew Plan was seriously flawed. He suggested that the money being used to develop the new city should be used to invest in N.Ireland’s current second city, Londonderry, and that the decision not to do so was political, sectarian and demonstrated O’Neill’s blind adherence to the Matthew plan in the absence of any political support. Copcutt immediately resigned, mere months after being appointed. Copcutt's memo was used by Nationalists to claim O’neill and the Matthew Plan were sectarian constructs, while the conservatives within the Unionist party used it to claim that the Matthew Plan and the new city were socialist constructs. Another furore was sparked when the new city was named Craigavon, after NI’s first prime minister. O’Neill’s political support was getting ever smaller.

By the time residents moved into Brownlow in 1967, the first of a proposed three housing estates in Craigavon, the entire project was already viewed as a failure.The onset of the ‘Troubles’ in 1969 also put a firm end to Prime Minister O’Neill’s liberal experimentation and he resigned. As we now know the political system in NI unravelled over the next 5years resulting in the imposition of direct rule in 1974. Meanwhile the ‘failed’ new city of Craigavon went through it’s own set of trials and tribulations. First of all, not enough people moved out, but with the escalation of the Troubles and the corresponding deterioration of inner-city Belfast, young families trying to escape the violence were attracted to the city. Additionally, new citizens were given an initial amount of £250 to move out, later bumped up to £500. On paper it was an allowance to furnish a new house but is thought by many to be vulgar bribe.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014 Part 1

The following was prepared as part of panel discussion which took place in the Ulster Museum on 25/10/2014 as part of the Belfast Festival's 'Ulster Museum Day,' looking at 'Absorbing Modernity' in Northern Ireland.

Modernity is often described as a total break with tradition. Certainly stylistically this appears the case, yet theoretically it is part of a continuum which began with the Renaissance, by way of the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution. The rejection of medieval spiritualism and superstition in favour of logic and reason applied by freewilled individuals lead to a period of intense scientific and technological advancement which changed the world at an exponential rate over the proceeding centuries until, at the end of the 19th century, our newly urbanised cities felt like threatening and inhuman environments, detrimental to the delicate human body and the life it was seen to contain.

The new speed of the world, created by international travel and transatlantic TV and radio broadcasts, allowed mankind a previously unthinkable ‘God’s Eye’ view of global societies. Ironically, the work of the logical and rational freewilled individuals of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment lead to a new radical understanding of the multitude, now on an international level. The analogy given to us by Descartes of the human form as an objectified machine, albeit one possessed by a soul (the ghost in the machine), was now applied to all human life, including the socio-political discourses which are seen to form societies.

Descartes’ dualist model, that we are a mind resident within a physical body, combined with Thomas Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ model of society and state began to deny the individualism which had allowed the Renaissance thinkers to question the religious and spiritual superstition of the dark ages. The soul as a metaphysical concept could be in possession of an entire society, the body-politic as opposed to the individual human form.

The Victorian pre-modernist proto-planner Patrick Geddes used these ideas, along with Darwin’s model of evolution, to suggest a kind of benign eugenics in which the city, as mankind’s habitat, can be laid out in an idealised way to enable the human animal to evolve into a better organism. The foundations of contemporary planning were established on the ideal that the city, as an environment, could be organised in such a way as to satisfy the needs of society as a multitude of individuals of a single species, in possession of mechanical bodies.

Corbusier advanced these ideas by claiming that the house should be ‘a machine for living in.’ Corbusier’s ideals, much like Geddes’, suggest that the city and it’s architecture could be conceived of mechanistically and that it’s human users would interact with it in a similar way as ballbearings within a machine. A well designed urban and architectural system would elicit a predetermined and prescribed response from each and every individual that enters the system.

The spatial problems caused by an increasing urban population across Western Europe in the first half of the 20th century desperately needed to be addressed and, much like every other major city in the UK and Ireland, a set of regional proposals based on modernist principles were developed for the city of Belfast. The most ambitious was the ‘1962 Belfast Regional Survey and Plan,’ commonly known as the ‘Matthew Plan’ after it’s author Robert Matthew, the ambitious Scottish architect-planner. On the back of this came an urban motorway system, the utopian new town of Craigavon and high rise ‘streets-in-the-sky,’ all of which can be said to have failed to varying degrees and for a range of reasons both local and more broadly theoretical.

For me the problem really is at the theoretical root of Modernism, in it’s strict adherence to determinism and the belief that we are machines. To do so is to reject the subjectivity and individuality of each and every individual who goes to form the multitude of society. 

While the analogy of the anatomical to mechanical is compelling, the analogy collapses when it comes to individual mindfulness. In it’s hurry to totally eschew the superstitions which dogged society prior to the Renaissance it appears Modernism entangled the idea of the mind became with the idea of the metaphysical soul and, in turn, rejected them both in favour of the mechanical body with it’s on board computer in the form of the brain.

It’s my view that the complexity and diversity of subjective human experience creates innumerable variables which simply cannot be accounted for in any scientifically based architectural scheme or urban masterplan. I think we need to be mindful of the deep theoretical basis of Modernism and grateful for what it has given us while at the same time learning from it’s mistakes and not falling victim to these same subtle theoretical failings.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Cinema and the City - Part 1

Both photography and film, as media for representing the city, provide an opportunity for creating an urban image which is reflexively aware.(1) The gaze of the viewer is consciously directed by the photographer or filmmaker, bringing attention to specific phenomena and eliciting a response or interpretation from the viewer. This idea is increased exponentially by the moving film which allows the filmmaker to direct the gaze to a specific phenomena immediately followed by another, drawing attention to a connection or a juxtaposition; potentially contriving connections which have never before occurred to the viewer. Film, therefore, has great potential for an exercise in qualitative and reflexive mapping.(2)

Early Cinema
Fig.1 (top) Lumiere brothers’ ‘Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat’
Fig.2 (middle) Méliés’ technical marvel, ‘The Mermaid’
Fig.3 (bottom) Iconic landing scene from Méliés’ 
‘A Trip to the Moon’
Early experiments in cinema, such as those of the Lumiere brothers, were often single-shot, single-concept films revelling in the novelty of a new and unfathomable medium (see fig.1). They brought images of distant and unimaginable places to previously parochial audiences(3) and purposefully played with recognisable phenomena in order to provoke visceral reflexive reactions in their audience.(4) These ‘primitive’cinematic concepts were developed further by Georges Méliès, who began experimenting with jump-cuts and double exposed film to create the first cinematic ‘special-effects.’ 

Early experiments like ‘The Mermaid’ (see fig.2)(6) dealt specifically with the spectacle of the new medium and began to experiment with it’s possibilities. Méliès was one of the first film directors to implement these techniques to construct a narrative. The iconic ‘A Trip to the Moon’(7) seamlessly integrated the jump cuts and double exposure of previous experiments in combination with multiple shots and locations, innovative use of graphics and elaborate sets to recount a Jules Verne inspired space fantasy. The dazzling imagery still resonates with contemporary audiences, particularly the humorously grotesque image of the bullet-like space capsule embedded in the anthropomorphised face of the moon, an image which has become an iconic meme representing early cinema (see fig.3).

City Symphonies
Fig.4 (top) Opening shot of ‘Man with a Movie Camera’
Fig.5 (middle) Vertov’s monumental film-maker
Fig.6 (bottom) Taking risks for the perfect shot
The idea of the ‘City Symphony’ emerged as a concept in 1928 with Walter Ruttman’s ‘Berlin: Symphony of a Great City.’(8) While no doubt inspired by the Lumiere’s early single-shot experiments, ‘Berlin…’ collages and layers urban images while also using the technique of mounting the camera on train carriages and motor vehicles. While devoid of a conventional storyline, there is a definite narrative thread beginning with a train ride from the city’s rural outskirts, through industrial suburbs and into the inner city. We are then presented with the waxing and waning of daily activities, starting at dawn and ending at sunset. The film slows down and speeds up in relation to the time of day and it’s associated activities, and occasionally reaches a crescendo using a variety of effects including Ruttman’s ‘painting with light’ technique displayed so vividly in his more abstract ‘Lichtspiel: Opus’ series.(9) The comparison of the direction of the film and the conducting of a musical score as suggested by the film’s title is compelling, and the occasional wry observations and juxtaposition of imagery(10) is evidence of a certain self consciousness developing in the medium.

Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film ‘Man With A Movie Camera’(11) displayed even more self awareness. The framing device for the film is itself a cinema; beginning with a crowd entering, taking their seats and waiting in anticipation. The orchestra, poised with their instruments, burst into life as the projectionist sets the first reel in motion. The eponymous ‘man with a movie camera’ is the subject of the story, following him documenting elements of city life and, in doing so, occupying urban space in unique and inventive ways. There is an array of startling imagery, beginning with the fantastically double-exposed opening shot of the movie camera being mounted on top of a giant camera (see fig.4) and a similar but equally evocative shot of a monumentally sized filmmaker towering over the city as he sets up his camera (see fig.5). We see our ‘man…’ on the back of speeding trucks, lying across the tracks as a locomotive approaches (see fig.6), climbing the ironwork supports of suspension bridges, riding motorcycles one-handed; all while cranking the handle of his cumbersome movie camera.

A particularly poignant sequence shows still images becoming animated as the film negative is examined in the cutting-room; each sequence is cut from the negative and stuck together as the pace of the film slowly builds. This idea reaches it’s delightfully absurdist zenith as the camera itself becomes animate, pulling itself out of it’s storage-box, fixing itself to the tripod and walking out of frame in a dazzling stop-motion sequence. ‘Man with…’ displays an unprecedented amount of self-consciousness and reflexive awareness for such an early stage in the medium of film.

Self-Conscious Manipulation
Fig.7 (top) Leni Riefenstahl on location in Nuremberg
while filming ‘Triumph of the Will’ 
Fig.8 (middle, bottom) ’The Great Dictator’dances with
the world
Where ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ declared openly it’s self-consciousness, less than a decade later this developed into more insidious manipulation, using the beguiling ability of film to direct the viewer’s gaze and lead them to a particular articulation of the phenomena in question; an interpretation that would not necessarily have been arrived at without that particular collaging of image and sound. Film was now viewed as a powerful tool for propaganda, that is the unbalanced dissemination of a fixed phenomenal interpretation, which, as opposed to pamphlets and posters, would be received passively by it’s audience in a way that would be harder to critique.(12)

Perhaps the best known ‘propaganda film’ was Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will’(13) documenting the Nazi party’s 1934 Nuremberg rally (see fig.7). The film begins with sweeping aerial shots of rolling clouds and the verdant German countryside. We see the shadow of the plane gliding over the picturesque town before it lands at an airfield where amassed crowds await to cheer Adolf Hitler as he emerges from the aircraft.
The imagery of the ‘great leader’ literally descending from the heavens to save Germany appears to be crassly obvious manipulation to contemporary audiences; to a desperate German citizen who had suffered immensely since the end of the war this imagery would have been magnificently potent, stirring and hopeful.  Simple cuts from shots of Hitler saluting the crowds to images of smiling children; from a monumental stone eagle draped in the swastika to the furiously gesticulating Hitler shot from a heroically low angle; a united and happy crowd to a pyre of burning books - carefully juxtaposed images subtly connecting previously disparate phenomena in the minds of the audience.

The German National Socialists, while certainly the most notoriously and arguably successful, were not the only regime using film in this way. Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’
(14) while it positioned itself as a comedic and farcical satire of the Nazi regime, was an anti-Nazi propaganda film and (perhaps arguably) a piece of American propaganda. The closing scene in which Chaplin addresses a crowd at a rally borrows much of the imagery from Riefenstahl’s film and is every bit as emotionally manipulative as the Nazi leaders’ speeches in ‘Triumph,’(15) albeit directed at a different set of phenomena. Some of the suggestive imagery of ‘Dictator’ feels more subtle and ultimately more evocative than that of ‘Triumph’; particularly the globe scene (see fig.8), in which the maniacal dictator dances with an inflatable globe announcing ‘Emperor of the World!’ before the balloon bursts in his hands.

The medium evolved exponentially in it’s first forty years; from simple tool of novelty and wonder to a complex device of dissemination and manipulation. Films are now considered an industry, but what exactly can this industry be said to produce? Is it’s produce the films themselves; is it ideas, concepts, political arguments; is it movie stars or merchandising opportunities? The simple answer is probably that it produces commodities, means of generating capital in all it’s forms.

In the next part we will be examining five contemporary ‘City Symphonies,’ looking at how the idea has evolved and warped in what could now be described as the remnants of the post-modern era.


(1) This idea refers to subliminal, instinctive reactions depending on reflexes. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and research theorist Mats Alvesson suggest that, rather than challenging and suppressing these reflexes, the should be examined by sociology in order to expose elements of the human condition, particularly our often ignored subjective relationships.
(2) The word ‘Mapping’ here is used in a broad fashion. Where conventional maps could only be said to represent space, it is hoped to develop a map that represents place. Place, essentially, is space understood. Film, it is suggested, could therefore become a medium to explore how space becomes understood. Reflexive mapping attempts to access the underpinning motivations and unconscious reactions to a particular articulation of spatial phenomena.
(3) The Lumières toured the world, recording for the first time on film the cities of Paris, Madrid, New York, Liverpool, Rome; they even made a visit to Belfast in 1897.
Lumière, Auguste, and Louis Lumière. 1897. Belfast, Castle Place. Short.
Lumière, Auguste, and Louis Lumière. 1897. Belfast, Queen’s Bridge. Short.
(4)  Lumière, Auguste, and Louis Lumière. 1896. Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. Documentary, Short.
There is a popular cinematic myth that the famous ‘Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat’ caused terror in it’s initial audience that they ran to the back of the room in order to get out of the way of the train as it approached, see fig.1
(5)  This term is used hesitantly as a reference to the Bfi’s excellent DVD collection of pre-1910 cinema. I by no means wish to suggest that these cinematic experiments were anything less than astonishing, but as I build the argument throughout this chapter you will hopefully see how their phenomenological effects are basic by comparison.
Porter, Edwin S., George Mèliés, and G. A. Smith. 2005. Early Cinema - Primitives and Pioneers. DVD. Bfi.
(6) Méliès, Georges. 1904. The Mermaid. Short, Fantasy.
(7) Méliès, Georges. 1902. A Trip to the Moon. Short, Adventure, Fantasy.
(8) Ruttmann, Walter. 1928. Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. Documentary.
(9) Ruttmann, Walter. 1921. Opus I. Animation, Short.
(10) For example, we see an immense crowd working class men entering the gates of a factory, followed by the image of a herd of cattle being directed through the gates of a slaughterhouse.
(11) Vertov, Dziga. 1929. Man with a Movie Camera. Documentary.
(12) An idea explored by Walter Benjamin as a direct reaction to ‘Trimuph of the Will.’
Benjamin, Walter. 2008. The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. London: Penguin.
(13) Riefenstahl, Leni. 1935. Triumph of the Will. Documentary, War.
(14) Chaplin, Charles. 1941. The Great Dictator. Comedy, Drama, War.
(15) Perhaps because ‘Triumph of the Will’ has been more vigorously dissected in the public consciousness than ‘The Great Dictator’ due to the actions of the Nazi regime during the war, actions which now appear inevitable given the rhetoric expressed in ‘Triumph’ but which the producers of ‘Dictator’ were not aware of at the time. Indeed, Chaplin stated that he would not have made the film had he been aware of the concentration camps.