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.

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