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.