Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Review of 'Building Stories' by Chris Ware

The following was originally published on the PLACE blog as part of the'Urban Library Lecture Series.'

The medium of the comic book has long been derided as a medium for children, the ‘nerd,’ or the intellectually impaired. Despite the best efforts of writers such as Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore, combined with the broadsheets rebranding of the rather untoward sounding ‘adult comic book’ with the haughty term ‘graphic novel,’ the perception of the comic as a conveyor of nothing other than empty-headed titillation still holds sway. A new epic graphic novel by Chris Ware stands in direct opposition to this.

‘Building Stories’ is a collection of stories originally published in a host of US publications including Nest Magazine and the New Yorker, beautifully presented in a fantastically cumbersome box measuring 40x30x5cm. The presentation, along with the intricate story within and the diagrammatic nature of many of the drawings, renders the collection instantly architectural (at least it does to me). Engaging with building stories is a profoundly physical undertaking, a real statement when considering the rise of Kobo, Kindle and the eBook.

The box contains 14 individual ‘comics’ in a variety of media and formats from conventional comic books to newspapers, hardbound tomes, posters and leaflets. The reader is given no clear start or end point, you are merely left to your own devices to rummage through the box, starting wherever you feel is right and navigating your way through the objects as they catch your attention. This way the narrative is gently uncovered, excavated from the box which contains it, much like the apartment building which serves as both backdrop and protagonist in the story.

The story details the lives of the denizens of an apartment building in Chicago. We meet a young couple expecting their first child who have recently moved in to the second floor apartment, a lonely, disenfranchised middle aged disabled woman living on the top floor and struggling in every way conceivable, and finally the old landlady who lives on the ground floor, standing face to face with her own mortality. I probably don't need to tell you that their lives become intertwined, however this occurs in an unexpected and revelatory fashion.

Chris Ware has crafted a narrative so unique it can only be fully understood by experiencing it. The box as an object and as a metaphor bestows ‘Building Stories’ with an architectural air which transcends the possible pretentious nature of such a phrase. This is architectural with a small ‘a’; the experience and individual interpretation of the reader is given priority while the day-to-day grounding of the narrative, dealing with normal people with normal problems in a profound way, makes the story instantly accessible to anyone who opens the box.

Friday, 7 December 2012

The Fall of the Conor Hall

Found these interesting videos of the old Conor Hall, part of the Art College/University of Ulster Belfast, being torn down. They were part of a presentation given in 2004 by Todd Architects about the redevelopment of the Belfast Campus. Enjoy!

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Endings & Beginnings

The following was published in RSUA Perspective in July 2011.

The end of year show is always heady with emotions. A long arduous task has reached completion. Some have succeeded, others have failed. Long-term desk companions realise they won’t see their friends as often. It is also a great time to reflect upon the products of the year, and this year the work produced across the school was as diverse as the emotions experienced by staff and students alike.

 From embassies in Belfast/Dublin in the 3rd year studio to Post Offices and Cinemas in the 6th year studio; from roughly hewn plaster models to delicate card maquettes; from painstaking hand drawn renders to sophisticated digital imaginings; the range of projects and approaches across the board is truly staggering.

A host of awards were given to the most outstanding students, notably to Phillip Evans whose successful completion of the Masters of Landscape Architecture programme, makes him Northern Ireland’s first ever graduating Landscape Architect; something which Phillip, the MLA programme and the entire school can feel immensely proud of.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Turn Again - Ciaran Carson

Been trying to develop a phenomenological mapping style for Belfast when I encountered this piece by Ciaran Carson about mapping Belfast, handily enough. 

I've got a bit of a hill to climb.

Turn Again

There is a map of the city which shows the bridge that was
never built.
A map which shows the bridge that collapsed; the streets that
never existed.
Ireland's Entry, Elbow Lane, Weigh-House Lane, Back Lane,
Stone-Cutter's Entry -
Today's plan is already yesterday's - the streets that were there
are gone.
And the shape of the jails cannot be shown for security reasons.

The linen backing is falling apart - the Falls Road hangs by a
When someone asks me where I live, I remember where I
used to live.
Someone asks me for directions, and I think again. I turn into
A side-street to try to throw off my shadow, and history is

Ciaran Carson

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Dwelling and Habitus - Unifying the objective and subjective

The following paragraphs and diagrams are my first tentative steps toward a (hopefully) unified architectural sociology and a way forward into my research. The more I read about Pierre Bourdieu the more I see how I have misunderstood some of his terms (most notably that of 'the field') and unwittingly appropriated them for my own means. Now I am aware of this I can either embrace his definitions or accept them as a jumping off point for my own theorising.

The work of Heidegger has influenced architects since his work directly addressed architecture in the early 1950s. His description of subjectivity, I believe, is what has led to the nihilist stance of many of the postmodern designers of the 1970s and 80s. The ideas of ‘unplan’ and ‘equipotential space,’ while intriguing, have not helped us better understand how to design for a heterogenous society.

Sociologists have noted this trend within their own field, referring to this subjectivity as ‘reflexivity.’ Alternatively, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu developed the model of ‘Habitus’ to deal with how human beings subscribe to notions of collectivity and society. Recently, sociology has been attempting to deal with these two distinct models. It is becoming clear that a process of hybridisation is required to create a more complete, and ultimately more helpful, model of humans and society.

The individual’s (Dasein) world is comprised of projects which are made up of things, as distinguished from mere objects as they are defined and understood through use and their relationship to other things. These things are utilised by Dasein subjectively and of the moment, using them as she/he sees fit within a given project/context. Projects allow Dasein to shape his/her world, this shaping is referred to as ‘dwelling.’

The Habitus is a set of scripts (or habits) which are employed my Dasein as templates for projects. Dasein subscribes to several Habituses and as he/she goes about dwelling she/he will refer to the relevant Habitus to dwell in the ‘correct’ (efficient, moral, ethical) way. Habitus, then, can be said to be made up of a pantheon of Platonic projects we refer to as practices.

Dwelling and Habitus
On one hand there is the Habitus, a deterministic model of ‘how to act’; on the other hand there is Dwelling, a model of free-will and endless interpretation. Habitus is employed unconsciously and ensures that each new project encountered, Dasein has a precedent, a guide to doing things ‘correctly.’ Dwelling enables this model to be questioned, challenged and employed/adjusted creatively. Sociologists refer to this creative process as ‘reflexivity.’
Dwelling, Habitus and the Field
There is however, another factor to consider, that of the ‘field.’ The field refers to the external environment and the limits of possibility contained within it. Dasein has an ability to expand their world through reflexivity, however, this can only occur within the limits of the field. Reflexivity, therefore, is an ability to express a desire beyond the world as opposed to actually achieving it. 

Dwelling, Habitus, the Field and Power
Problems arise between different Habituses when two or more conflicting Habituses manifest themselves within the same spatiality. This will either lead to compromise or conflict. Conflict tends to create a sense of hubris and excessive defensiveness in each Habitus, causing the practices within it to become dogmas.

The constraints of the field will inevitably lead to one Habitus being able to control the field, or at least the position of individuals and other Habituses within the field, determining the reflexive mobility of others, usually to maintain their own status quo and increase their own power.

Dwelling, Habitus, the Field and Power in Belfast
I propose a mapping of the city centre examining the different Habituses at work. This would entail an initial mapping of the ‘obvious’ structures of Belfast; tribalism, memorialism, adjusted infrastructure, ‘gentrification’/’urban renaissance’ and demography. 

Using this as a tool and the social/mind model described above I hope to develop a more complex mapping of Belfast’s dominating and dominated Habituses and modes of dwelling to understand how they impact on each other, physical planning and life within the city.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Analysis of initial question

This diagram is an analysis of my initial question I devised for the PhD interview. It shows how complex the question truly is and how many fields, theories and concepts I would need to understand, define and reinterpret.

It needs cut down.

Click to enlarge

The following is my initial research proposal. This has now profoundly changed, although the basic intentions remain. It is included for the sake of completeness as I draw a veil over these ideas.

TITLE – The structure of spatial experience and the symbolic in Northern Ireland

As our understanding of objects shifts from that of 'things' (i.e. 'stuff' that takes up physical space) to that of subjective 'commodities' which form a shared socio-political language in constant flux, what impact might such an understanding have on the planning process driven by largely economic factors and the concept of a contextually definitive aesthetic?

The understanding of architecture as ‘creating buildings’ has become increasingly more complex in the last one hundred years and now encompasses individual and social concerns along with the traditional spatial concerns. The relatively new interdisciplinary field of environmental psychology has augmented the marriage of architectural theory, sociology and philosophy in re-evaluating the ‘common-sense’ models of human understanding and the individual's place within the wider context of society. Fresh findings in the field of neuroscience have highlighted the need for a shift from the appreciation of physical space to a more dynamic contextual understanding.

These basic misunderstandings in conjunction with the political success of the peace process in Northern Ireland and the international 'financial downturn' have meant that many inner-city neighbourhoods have been left behind. Areas such as the Lower Shankill and Newlodge in North Belfast, Ballysally in Coleraine and the Waterside in Derry read as socio-cultural vacuums, which become filled with the age old rivalries, hatreds and prejudices which the political rhetoric would have you believe are all but extinct. These areas are the results of sectarian violence born out of two opposing rational belief systems, both in a state of hubris, forced to occupy the same social space.

Despite what our politicians tell us areas such as these remain emergent features of our current politico-economic climate due to the failure to evolve larger inclusive social constructs resulting from the  internecine strife created by the division of social potential. The re-evaluation of our understanding 'context' (coupled with it's integration with the larger political systems) based upon the findings of the diverse disciplines mentioned above will hopefully prompt a new understanding of society allowing these urban areas to be acknowledged and understood rather than simply ignored.

Both my undergraduate and postgraduate dissertations carried the subtext of the inadequacy of the ‘battle of the styles’ with regards to gaining a universal and definitive architecture. My 6th year MArch dissertation is particularly relevant to these issues, examining ‘common sense’ attitudes to human understanding stemming from the inquiries of René Descartes. I went on to investigate the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, a philosopher who is often cited by architects but whose theories are yet to have a real impact on the profession, as well as the recent findings of neuroscience as a rejection of metaphysical attitudes to the human mind. This could be considered as preliminary work for this PhD research, adding the work of thinkers such as Richard Rorty (with regards to wider existential and philosophical inquiries), Ian McGilchrist and Antonio Damasio (with regards to the findings of neuroscience).

In 2009 I took part in the Forum for an Alternative Belfast (FAB) 'Filling Up Belfast' project. As the team leader for the Shankill group, I came face to face with Belfast's inner-city deprivation. Inspired by this, I made the Lower Shankill the focus of one of the projects during my MArch, putting me in touch with the Participation and the Practice of Rights project (PPRp), a charitable organisation centred upon giving inner-city neighbourhoods a voice with regards to planning issues and decisions often made without their consent or even consultation. I attended several fraught 'consultation meetings' arranged by PPRp between local residents and the DSD.

I worked with Dr Taina Rikala during the writing of my postgraduate thesis and believe that we had a positive and productive working relationship.

What has not been fully realised is the possible impact these new concerns and fresh approaches to cognition and the human body’s relationship with environment can have on the legislative frameworks relating to the built environment. The planning process still appears to be focused on large-scale political economic concerns which actively oppose individuality and identity (shared or otherwise) and an outdated model of a contextually definitive aesthetic which only takes into account physical context, excluding social and existential concerns. These legislative frameworks need to be radically reassessed to combine their current preoccupation with entirely spatial concerns with this dynamic evolutionary concept of society to consider 'context' as an emerging socio-spatial relationship.

These problems and their impact on a considerable swathe of the Northern Irish population become glaringly obvious in the inner-city neighbourhoods discussed above. I believe that the work of PPRp and FAB could form a strong foundation of practical research which will hopefully support the theoretical and philosophical aspects of my research proposal.

These issues have far reaching consequences for Architecture, but with respect to the proposed research in particular I believe that it could begin to shape a new pedagogy within the University of Ulster. If newly qualified architects begin to understand what they do as creating prototypes for future action, then this should have a profound affect the way in which they work, which will in turn impact positively upon our built environment. 

  • Churchland, Paul M. ‘The Engine Of Reason, The Seat Of The Soul’ (1996, MIT Press)
  • Damásio, António ‘Looking For Spinoza – Joy Sorrow And The Feeling Brain’ (2004, Vintage)
  • Heidegger, Martin ‘Being and Time’ (1962, Blackwell Publishing)
  • Heidegger, Martin ‘Poetry, Language, Thought’ (1975, Harper Colophon)
  • Hillier, Bill ‘The Social Logic of Space’ (1984, Cambridge University Press)
  • Rorty, Richard ‘Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature’ (2008, Princeton University Press)
  • Schrag, Calvin O.  ‘The Resources of Rationality’ (1992, Indiana University Press)
  • Snodgrass, Adrian & Coyne, Richard ‘Interpretation in Architecture – Design As A Way Of Thinking’ (2006, Routledge)
  • McGilchrist, Ian ‘The Master and his Emmissary (2010, Yale University Press)

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Cosmic Speculation of Charles Jencks

The following was published in RSUA perspective in May 2011.

The sense of panicked creativity and relentless production in the MArch studio of the University of Ulster took a break on the 10th of March 2011 as eminent architecture theoretician Charles Jencks offered the students a space for the contemplation of what we do as architects and of our position in the cosmos as human beings.

A guest of the Landscape Institute NI, Mr. Jencks visited the University as part of the Institute’s spring lecture series, but also spent the morning in the studio discussing several student projects and sharing his views on the field as he went.

During the discussions it became obvious that Mr. Jencks has a sixth sense for architectural discourse, incising projects in a way that exposes the lineage of the thoughts latent in a piece of architecture, certainly not employed knowingly by the student in question. One particular student was criticicsed for employing “nostalgic modernism,” an interesting contradiction whereby the atheistic, anti-aesthetic modernist movement becomes both dogmatic and an aesthetic in itself.

After several informal design reviews we were treated to a panel discussion chaired by Dr. Taina Rikala, who, like Mr. Jencks, studied under the great Reyner Banham. Dr Rikala touchingly began the discussion by producing one of Banham’s famous handkerchiefs, and her obvious friendship with Mr. Jencks led to an incredibly intimate and personal conversation. 

There was a poignant moment when the topic of the ‘Maggie’s Centres’ was raised. Mr. Jencks recalled the long commute with his wife Maggie for chemotherapy which sparked the idea of the internationally renowned cancer treatment facilities and described the story of the centers as a ‘story of friendships,’ where the great and the good of architecture pledged their time and talent with no promise of financial return.

Mr. Jencks’s evening lecture was dominated by his work as a landscape architect as opposed to the theorising he is perhaps more famous for. Beginning with his Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Dumfries, the designer described a landscape laden with symbolism relating to waveforms, fractals, particle physics, the locations of the planets and Scottish history. The story of the garden felt rather unconvincing, with much of the symbolism feeling rather clumsy and lacking subtlety. A similar design carried out for the site of CERN’s hadron collider in Geneva felt much more convincing, perhaps because it possesses a particular purpose and program, something which the Scottish garden appears to lack.

Returning to his discussion of theory, Mr. Jencks discussed the new paradigms created by theoretical science and the failure of scientific language to realise what these shifts entail for our understanding of ourselves. Illustrating this point, the final slide showed a computer generated image of the universe which Mr. Jencks had sketched on, connecting dots an highlighting patterns. He described this game as “examining a latent structure that may or may not exist. This is what society is, and this is what architecture tries to do.”

Andrew Molloy
Photos – Roy Fitzpatrick

Monday, 29 October 2012

Ontological Security and the Built Environment in Belfast

Written after reading 'Conservation as Psychology: Ontological Security and the Built Environment' Jane Greenville.

I have described the primary result of the peace process as shifting the conflict from a physical context to an ontological context. In reality, this ontological context has always been there but was merely eclipsed by the violence. The dominance of the Newtonian/Cartesian mindset has resulted in the assumption that since the violence has stopped the problems are solved. This is based on the idea that there is a physicality reality which holds a set of universal truths. As sociology and even physics begins to reject this idea, we see that there is no such thing as an objective truth and there are countless interpretations of the historical and contemporary anthropology of the city, especially with regards to the emotionally burdened events of 'the Troubles.'

The large scale masterplans being instigated across Belfast are produced by a political system which choses to ignore the ontological divide which continues to thrive amongst it's citizens, particularly in inner-city neighbourhoods. This entails that these masterplans seek to, either consciously or unconsciously, displace the inhabitants of these neighbourhoods, moving them to the periphery of the city.

Belfast can be said to be a city defined by a series problems relating to ontological security. There is the more obvious factor of two opposing ontologies existing side by side in the city, each feeling the have been profoundly wronged by the other while at the same time failing to acknowledge that they themselves have wronged this 'other' in return. The less obvious factor is the ontological (in)security of the state, particularly the newly formed executive. The aversion to further political embarrassment leads to an outright denial of the ontological divide by the politicians, even though their party-political affiliations to dogmas such as republicanism, nationalism, unionism and loyalism means they are, at the very least, complicit in it's perpetuation.

This leads to the dysfunctional schizophrenic city we have today. The city's mantra for 2012 is 'Our time, our place,' something which brings me to question who is it making this statement? Who's city is it anyway? If you went to ask the people of North Belfast, the most deprived ward in UK (according to how you interpret the statistics) who are going to be profoundly affected by both the redevelopment of the University of Ulster campus and the new Royal Exchange retail development and they would probably say that these decisions weren't made to include them in 'out time, our place.' Have a look at the masterplans penned by the DSD 4 years ago and try to decide who's taking ownership of time and place; is it the communities of in the inner north, east and west Belfast who are going to find their social housing disappearing, replaced with mixed use developments?

These moves seem to me to be the legislature's search for ontological security. As the capital city, Belfast needs to be seems as an economic powerhouse, attracting tourism, industry and commerce, all of which was chased off by the violence. Therefore any sign of the violence needs to be scrubbed away, the history of the city containing nothing but happy shipyard workers in flat caps and loud-mouthed but loveable 'millies' working the linen mills with a 'chile' on their hip. This approach exacerbates the more primary ontological gap between the two distinct communities. Neither feels validated spatially within the city, a denial which causes them to become entrenched as they feel more and more threatened, often projecting this threat onto their age old enemy, the 'other' community.

Ontological security within the built environment is a very tricky subject, particularly in a post-conflict city such as Belfast. In her paper 'Conservation as Psychology: Ontological Security and the Built Environment,' Jane Grenville suggests that this security is dependant on a connection to the past making conservation important, but also a connection and a clear path into the future is required. Our built environment needs to start reflecting on the troubles as a major part of our history and it needs to do it in a starkly unromantic fashion, unlike our current approach to shipbuilding and linen. Maybe then we can start to postulate a way forward, a shared future which does not seek to repress cultural identities. 

The current planning practices within the central core of Belfast appear to be moving against this idea, seeing the hollowed out city centre as a tabula rasa, a post-conflict wasteland to be cleared out and rebuilt for the upwardly mobile middle class. I hesitate to use the word 'gentrification' as I don't yet know enough about the conscious and unconscious motivations behind this practice and would just be using it in the emotionally charged way politicians and activists used. I'll find out more and get back to you...

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Talkback - Passion and Love Lecture series review

The following was published in RSUA Perspective in January 2010.

"Love architecture, the stage and support of our lives," appealed Gio Ponti in his 1957 treatise ‘In Praise Of Architecture,’ a sentiment expounded by the recent lecture series hosted at the University of Ulster entitled 'Passion and Love.’

The series focused on a host of locally based architects who have worked in far-flung contexts with high profile practices before ‘repatriating' to Northern Ireland. The lectures posed the question what has been ‘brought back‘ from these diverse physical, sociological and professional contexts to contribute to the canon
of Northern Irish architecture?

What emerged from each talk was the pure joy and pleasure these diverse practices derive from building. Discussing his time with London based Eric Parry Architects Neil Mathews conveyed a true sense of the enjoyment of the process of construction. From quarry to workshop, workshop to site, the Belfast based practitioner talked about following an amorphous lump of rock from its point of origin to becoming a lintel in the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London. What emerged was the idea that the architecture is borne out of technology and materiality. Each design element should have both a technological and architectural purpose.

Alastair Beckett of Hall Black Douglas echoed this joy in materiality when quoting influential Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz. "Architecture," he claimed, "takes materials from the earth and puts them in touch with the sky." Alastair, who worked for Makovecz in the mid 1990s, appeared hesitant to openly praise the jarringly unconventional work presented, yet displayed an innate understanding of its difficult and wrought context which ratifies the radical nature of the architecture. Makovecz’s architecture was a direct rebellion against the communist regime under which he operated for the majority of his career. In his work he celebrates "community, context and craftsmanship," concerns marginalised in favour of unrelenting modernist standardisation across Central and Eastern Europe
during the early years of the Cold War.

Reflecting upon her time with the Dublin based practitioner Tom de Paor. Aine McEnoy explained that she was "drawn to working in his office due to his absolute commitment to making architecture and the pleasure of making things.” Using the example of de Paor's architectural ‘insertion’ in Cork's National Sculpture Gallery Aine demonstrated how de Paor adheres rigidly to a concept, ensuring that every detail of the design radiates and communicates this underpinning hypothesis. This highly industrial space required a series of administrative spaces that did not impinge upon the workshop space. Therefore the new office accommodation was conceived as an ‘inhabited beam’ suspended above the shop floor; yet another piece of industrial equipment. Despite being an extremely small project, a rigorous design process was applied to ensure that the choice of materials and the detailing accurately communicated this concept.

George Brennan discussed his time with Foster & Partners (a practice who boasted a mere fifty to sixty employees when the Londonderry practitioner joined the firm in the mid 1990s, a number which had swollen to over a thousand by the beginning of the decade) while Ian McKnight of Belfast practice Hackett Hall McKnight reflected upon his employment in David Chipperfield's London office. What emerged from both talks was that, much like Tom de Paor's office, both firms possess rigorous design methodologies. George Brennan abbreviated Foster's unique modus operandi to listening (conversations and consultations); analysing (sketching); proposing (drawing); testing (modeling); delivering.

Discussing Chipperfield's approach, Ian McKnight described the technique in two distinct sections, processing and process. Processing consists of consideration of context (either reactionary or sympathetic), techniques of construction and materiality, and formal approaches (suggesting a series of default methodologies). Process consists of concept (in the form of sketches), modeling (for both development and representation) and drawing.

From these talks we can devise an (almost) exhaustive design checklist. Makovecz asks us to devise a concept is based upon local and national identity, dealing with symbolism and issues of political power. Tom de Paor asserts that once devised the concept is rigorously applied throughout the project. Chipperfield suggests that a hermeneutic design process should be implemented, using the concept, the context the client and the end user as tools for interpretation. Foster tells us that the design must be tested and retested using a combination of sketching, drawing, modeling and proposing; a process continuing throughout construction. Party encourages an enjoyment and pleasure derived from the fabrication of a technological and sociological space existing in spite of its context and because of its context simultaneously.

The 'Passion and Love‘ lecture series is set to continue in the New Year.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Alleyspace Intervention, Belfast's Holylands

The following was published in RSUA Perspective magazine, July 2009.

The word ‘student’ has become a four-letter word in Belfast’s Holy Lands. The events of St Patrick’s Day three months ago served to underline years of strife between the student population and local residents of the South Belfast neighbourhood. A fledgling Architecture student society based at the University of Ulster decided to try and turn the tide of local opinion in student’s favour.
Born out of an RSUA organised student forum held at PLACE, the idea was not established as a direct response to St Patrick’s day, but rather sought to re-evaluate the vernacular Belfast terrace, paying particular attention to what the society’s members regarded as it’s biggest design flaw, the rear alleyway. This leftover, utilitarian space has become synonymous with anti-social behaviour, including drug-use and fly tipping, and is often used by burglars to gain discrete entry into properties.
After talking with the local residents of University and College Park Avenue the students came to the conclusion that this was mainly due to the lack of surveillance. One local resident recalled the days when, instead of being confined by nine-foot high walls, private yards were enclosed with two-foot fences over which gossip and chat were exchanged, intended to simply demarcate ownership rather than create an aggressive fortification.
This vision of the alleyways’ halcyon days inspired the society to attempt to recapture this atmosphere, and use it in an attempt to address the anti-social behaviour that takes place in such spaces. Hugh Magee, one of the event’s organisers remarked “No space is provided for interacting with your neighbours any more while the alleyway would be perfect for this. If we can make landlords and residents rethink this space a greater sense of community and security could be created.” Time and budget restraints made any permanent intervention unrealistic, so the group decided upon attempting to transform the existing alley space into a social area, creating a positive interface between the Holy Land’s permanent and temporary denizens. 

This was the thinking that led to the student collaboration invading one of these alley spaces on the 5th of June. A series of simple plywood partitions created a sense of place along the linear spine of the alley. A basic roof structure combined with overhanging foliage proved effective in creating the perception of an urban garden. And most importantly a bottle of beer, free food and a warm greeting created a welcoming atmosphere for anyone who turned up.

Despite initial fears that the event would be treated with suspicion and apathy in the wake of St Patrick’s Day, the intervention was greeted with overwhelming positivity from all who attended. Over sixty people turned up over the three hours the intervention was in place, and even the PSNI made an appearance condoning the positive student action within the area. Local resident and psychology lecturer at the University of Ulster Professor Peter Weinreich gave his thoughts on the intervention, saying “the evening transformation of part of this space by this group of students was a lively encouraging event, successfully bringing together students and local long-term residents for lively chat. Music, food and beverage outside in the open contributed to a pleasurable occasion.”

The group is currently planning further interventions within the city.


Daniel Bell
Rory Caithness
Conor Gallagher
Janet Hall
Dean Johnson
Ian leinster
Hugh Magee
Chris Weir

Thanks to Able Builders for providing materials

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Respecting Buildings in NI

The Following was published in September edition of The Ulster Folk arts magazine and also on the PLACE blog.

I was brought up in the tail end of 'The Troubles,' so much so that I never really felt affected by them. It's only in retrospect I see that it has entirely defined the relationship I have with the city I call home.

'The Town,' as Belfast city centre was ominously referred to in my youth, felt like another country; full of danger, glimpsed only in grainy news reports and rushed shopping trips. This is why I found the Urban Design Summer School hosted by PLACE, Belfast's centre for architecture and the built environment, so refreshing.
 Based in an empty shop unit in the Obel Tower, this week long summer school was open exclusively to people aged 14 to 19. Activities over the week included presentations by local designers, theorists and built environment professionals, tours of contemporary iconic architecture around Belfast such as the MAC, the Lyric and the newly renovated Ulster Museum and sketching and model making workshops. A particularly revealing workshop asked 'what is Belfast missing,' prompting a diversity of responses from 'more appreciation for historic buildings' to 'warehouse raves.'

I believe initiatives like this enable the young participants to have a dramatically different relationship with the city than I did in the years leading up to and immediately after the 'peace process.' But further than this, it also tackles an unforeseen product of peace; the widespread attitude that, because the city was so starved of civic progress during the violence, any development is good development. So much of our built environment is judged purely from the view of short term financial gain rather than the long term goal of a quality urban condition.

Director of PLACE and local architect Aidan McGrath describes the intentions of the school. "It’s not our objective to encourage these 30 young people into a career in architecture or town planning. We're just hoping to make them...more discerning, more critical of the built environment, and more demanding of those professionals and politicians who deliver it."

The recently approved Royal Exchange scheme, which includes bulldozing North Street Arcade and the disruption of the unique grain of warren-like alleyways, and the decision to demolish the Athletic Stores are examples of financially led decisions which get the go ahead despite being largely opposed by all apart from business concerns which stand to make a lot of money, to hell with the city! Yet the only groups speaking up seem to be the built environment professionals, so often viewed as being intellectually warped or biased. Perhaps a more knowledgable populace would feel confident enough to join these debates, paving the way for more considered urban development.

An informed, proactive, critical and involved populace is key to the development of a quality public realm. Initiatives like this, 'somewhereto_' and the 'I Wish This Was...' workshops will hopefully arm the citizens of Belfast with the knowledge and confidence to demand better from those with the power to shape the city.
Now that we've started to heal our social situation perhaps it's time to heal our urban situation.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Belfast: A Case Study

I wrote the following as a way of convincing myself that I need a practical foundation for my current research, something I'm not totally convinced of. I got a bit emotional near the end, forgive me!

I hope to frame the theoretical ideas of my research with practical ‘on-the-ground’ observations. I have chosen Belfast as a case study, not just because it’s the city in which I live, but because it raises a set of interesting ontological questions with which I could interrogate the, at times, difficult to fathom conceptual notions of prime interest.

When dealing with the shift from architecture as an objective practice to a subjective art, I will inevitably be dealing with notions of individual and communal identity, particularly with regards to how the autonomous entities we refer to as conscious human beings organise themselves into sets of communities which, in turn, arrange themselves into societies. This will then in turn allow us to say something about designing spaces for these individuals, communities and societies.

Belfast, as a contested city, has been dealing with a magnified version of these issues, with particular regard to the period starting in the late 1960s up to now. Up to this time Belfast was experiencing significant growth, leading to severe strain on the city’s transport network. The famous ‘Matthew Plan’ introduced a stopline to Belfast’s development along with a series of ‘new towns’ to absorb any excess population who could not be accommodated within city limits.

This was closely followed by plans for a new urban motorway which was to take the form of a ringroad right round the urban core, proposed in 1967 and followed by the Belfast Urban Area Plan in 1969. The primary idea of this plan was, based on a projection that the growth of the city’s population would continue, to create a series of 12 district centres which would serve the primary core, with specific amenities including shopping, leisure and education, provided at a district level. Co-ordinated ‘slum clearance’ was also proposed.

This plan corresponded with the beginning of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, often perceived to have started in Belfast with the burning of 44 catholic homes in Bombay Street in the west of the city in August 1969. The riots that ensued, coupled with attacks on civil rights marches by police, lead to the re-emergence of the IRA. Soon after the loyalist UVF was formed.

The explosion of violence that followed resulted in a sharp decline in Belfast’s population, making the 1967 Belfast Urban Motorway and 1969 Belfast Urban Area Plan, both of which were based on continued population growth, essentially irrelevant. On top of this, there was wide-scale opposition to both proposals, particularly from the residents of north and west Belfast who were to be either displaced or traumatically affected by the motorway plans.

This manifested itself with the idea of ‘community action,’ made evident by the Save The Shankill campaign and the Lower Falls Residents Committee, whose tactics ranged from grassroots political lobbying to threats of violence against the council workers and contractors dispatched to clear the slums. These groups acted on the assumption that, since the plans laid out by the Belfast Urban Motorway and the Urban Area Plan were now essentially unneeded yet were still going ahead, the work proposed for west and north Belfast was intended to fragment these ‘troublesome communities’ and move them away from the city centre. How else could anyone justify the systematic deconstruction of this particular way of life, as embodied in the old Victorian terraces?
Thanks to ongoing resistance from the residents coupled with the escalation of the violence, the majority of these plans were shelved. However, a significant amount of the ‘slum clearance’ went ahead, particularly on the lower Falls, and phase 1 of the Urban Motorway went ahead, albeit in the altered sunken version of ‘The Westlink’ (see above). These measures were enough to blight the area, blight which is still significant to this day.

At the same time, due to the co-ordinated paramilitary violence against businesses in the city centre, the infamous ‘ring of steel’ (see below) began to take shape around the city centre. Beginning with informal checkpoints and military presence on major routes in and out of the city core, security measures intensified over the 1980s to the point where citizens who wanted to access the city core were made to queue up to pass through turnstyles in ten foot high steel walls, only being granted access once their shopping bags, purses and briefcases had been searched and they had been frisked by military personnel. This led to a negation of ownership with regards to the city. The city centre was owned by someone else, be they military or paramilitary.
This removal of people from the city centre, be it through intimidation, both sectarian and state sponsored, or physical removal, both sectarian and state sponsored, coupled with a denial of civic ownership still profoundly defines Belfast today. The physical conflict has gradually dies out since the ceasefires of the early 1990s, causing politicians to hail the success of the ‘peace process.’ The sterilised neutrality of the city centre along with the extreme blight of inner city neighborhoods suggests that the conflict has changed fronts. We now have an ontological conflict.

In their article ‘Redrawing cognitive maps of conflict: Lost spaces and forgetting in Belfast’ Catherine Switzer and Sara McDowell describe how Belfast city centre is totally devoid of any official memorials or markers for the at times appalling atrocities commited in the past 40 years. Oxford Street bus station, a building that became synonymous with ‘Bloody Friday,’ has been scoured from the street and replaced with a contemporary office complex. The reports of eye-witnesses on the ground that day are gruesomely descriptive, comparable to reports coming out of Kosovo and Syria in recent years. Yet this traumatic event goes unmarked spatially, consisting only of individual memory and official documents. 

When we compare this to a city like Berlin, where a large number of extraordinarily traumatic incidents were focussed over a relatively short period of time, these events are writ large in Berlin’s urban structure. The Mitte area alone is replete with plaques and memorials, the most significant and moving being the Book Burning memorial in Bebelplatz and Peter Eisenmann’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
This failure to deal with the past not only leads to a culturally vacuous urban centre which becomes the domain for the tourist and the shopkeep, but also a more significant problem. As Switzer and McDowell note, there are memorials and plaques outside the city centre, each community choosing to memorialise specific events within their own areas. This causes misremembered and highly editorialised versions of these events to be passed down the generations, reinforcing the ‘us and them’ tradition. Peter Shirlow describes this as “The criminilisation of the ‘other’ community and the failure to recognise (that) suffering was endured within both communities...”

What we need is a meaningfully culturally vibrant city centre which goes beyond gaudy tourist attractions, polished glass shopping centres and the halcyon days of linen and shipbuilding, beginning to speak of what we’ve been through and confront us with how truly awful it was in our day-to-day civic engagements. This will enable us to move forwards and mark off how far we’ve come. More than this, it will allow us to reclaim our city before someone else does.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Comic Books, Glove Puppets and Metaphors

I've always been a fan of comic books. From the Beano when I was under 10, to 2000AD, Spiderman, X-Men and Batman in my teenage years (and beyond!). I was 15 years old when I encountered a house brick of a graphic novel (as 'grown up' comic books are pretentiously referred to by the broadsheets) called 'From Hell' by a writer called Alan Moore. I didn't make it past the first chapter, returning to the relative safety of Gotham and Mega City One.

I attempted From Hell again around five years later and, despite an initial struggle, managed to wade my way through it, holding on to the convoluted narrative for dear life. It took three readings to begin to grasp this astoundingly complex and intricately researched work.
I'm not particularly interested in this becoming anything as bland as a book review, but this work led on to my discovering Moore's other work such as 'Watchmen,' 'V for Vendetta,' and 'Promethea,' and it turns out I probably started with his least accessible text.

Each work is breathtaking in its complexity; complexity which could only be achieved in the comic book medium. Each frame is loaded with information and symbolism easily overlooked yet subtly affecting your reading experience.

This passing interest led to a viewing of the documentary 'The Mindscape of Alan Moore' which I found to be a revelation. Not only is Moore an unparalleled story writer he is a political theoretician, subversive social philosopher and occult icon.
Describing himself as a magician, he explains that magic is the manipulation of symbols to affect people's minds and our barrier to it lies on the mystification of certain semantics (casting a spell is literally spelling, a grimoire is the Latin for grammar, etc). All art, he claims, is magic and has the ability to subvert and change the world for the better, yet this 'magic' is only utilised these days by big business and advertisers.

Moore subscribes to the notion discussed in my previous post of the manifestation of the 'real' world through metaphor and symbolism alone. He discusses the alchemical notion of 'solve e coagulum,' or 'dissolve and coagulate.' This is much the same as Ian McGilchrist's concept of abstraction and metaphor; understanding the world by isolating objects for ease of digestion then reintegrating them into context in order to create a view of the world (I discussed this subject in my undergrad thesis under the banner of 'abstraction and empathy,' put forward by early 20th century art historian Wilhelm Worringer. See appendix 1 of my postgrad thesis). This view of the world becomes a religion, be it spiritual (Christianity, Islam, etc), or political (conservatism, Marxism, etc), anything capable of developing dogmas. All claims to knowledge such as this, according to Moore, are ridiculous; this explains his decision to worship the snake god Glycon, a deity exposed as a glove puppet in the 2nd century.

Now I understand a bit about Moore's approach to the nature of reality I can see this reflected in his work. The depth of symbolism which underlies a story like Watchmen, a story which could be read on the surface as a superhero exploitation comic, lends it a profundity which can be translated and retranslated; challenging the reader in countless ways.

I didn't expect to draw such inspiration from my love of comics. Perhaps I'm becoming so intellectually warped I'm finding these patterns everywhere. 

This, however, feels fairly apt. Perhaps, like agent Aldo Sax, I'm developing 'high abstract patterning skills.' I fucking hope so!

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

'The Destruction of Architecture' a criticism

Before starting my PhD I thought it might be a good idea to revisit my Masters dissertation (full text here, PDF format), the piece of writing which made concrete desire to take on a doctorate.
I now see I really missed the point! I spent the majority of the writing combining the thoughts of three diverse thinkers into an alternative view of society and then resorted to an irritatingly architectural language in the closing sections which is still based on the reliance on an objective reality, something which I thought I had discarded in the preceding chapters. Perhaps I only realise this now as I've had time to overthink these concepts.

Ian McGilchrist's 'The Master and His Emissary' allowed me to view and expand on the Heideggerian model which my original text relied on. McGilchrist explains that there are two main modes of thinking, illustrated by the 'left brain-right brain' cliché (this is only used to illustrate his ideas; while some brain functions are localised to the brain's hemispheres they are not a prescribed as this now debunked archaic paradigm). These modes of thinking can be described as 'abstraction' and 'metaphor.' Abstraction breaks our world down into discrete chunks we can understand, wresting theses 'bits' from their context, perceiving them in isolation. The alternative mode does the opposite. It looks at the entire picture and sees the connection between things. It manifests through metaphor and creativity.

The revelation of this text was that abstraction, despite it's apparent domination of modern life, is subservient to metaphor, illustrated by the beguiling notion that music preceded spoken language as a method of communication amount humans. understanding depends on metaphor.

These ideas became reinforced by a chance encounter with the work of physicist and consciousness philosopher, Dr Tom Campbell. I had encountered the famous 'Double Slit,' experiment before I started listening to Dr Campbell's lectures online, but I had never heard it described so elegantly, nor had its startling implications ever been spelt out so fully to me.
The themes of this experiment are too large to discuss in this already bloated post, but essentially Campbell's theory (which he playfully names 'My Big TOE,' TOE being Theory Of Everything) suggests that our concept of objective reality is false and is actually a probabalistic infomration field. This field seeks to lower it's level of entropy (uncertainty, chaos) and does so in an evolutionary fashion (this links up neatly with Richard Dawkins' description of Darwinian evolution as described in 'The Selfish Gene,' particularly when Dawkins begins to describe it as a concept which reaches beyond the idea of genes). As the system evolves and it's level of entropy decreases, the system becomes more and more stable and rules are 'imposed' (these become the basics of Newtonian physics). These give the illusion of an objective reality.

These two notions, 'abstraction as servant to metaphor' and 'reality as a field of probabilities,' hold the potential for a powerful tool for examining society. The pieces don't quite fit in my mind however...yet...

To return to my master's thesis, I suppose the aim of this initial piece of writing was simply to straighten out several key concepts and ensure I had an understanding of them. If I were to define an objective now it would be trying to understand how architecture's purpose could be re-understood considering this new model of subjective reality.

A bit lofty at the moment, I know. I hope there's nothing wrong with starting off this big!

As an aside, the two theories outlined in this post, that of Ian McGilchrist and Tom Campbell, have been severly squashed to fit into this post and I have probably done them a massive disservice! They involve major paradigm shifts and dramatically challenge the 'common sense' notions of reality and the self. If you are interested please seek out their books and particularly Tom campbell's numerous lectures, available free on youtube. This is a good place to start.