Friday, 6 December 2013

The City As An Idea - a reflection on what I'm doing

As the end of the year approaches and I plan and contemplate the body of work ahead I've been, understandably, thinking about what I've done and how it should proceed. I now think I can explain my map and my films in a way I could not have done before, even when I was producing them.

For the first time in a while I listened to the song 'Going to your Funeral' by The Eels, the reprise of which I used in my first film 'To Belfast.'

There is a line in the original song which goes 'Look at all the people with the flowers in their hands. They put the flowers on the box that's holding all the sand that was once you.' It struck me that this has a significance to the last film I made, 'Tomb.' 

The film concludes by suggesting that the attitude that Belfast is in some way dead, or even profoundly damaged, is a total misnomer. Belfast is not a living organism and cannot be dead or even injured. We can use the metaphor to describe our opinions in a poetic and engaging way, but when it comes to honestly trying to get the city working we need to remember they are only metaphorical and ultimately not true. So when E quite unromantically remarks that whatever resides in the box at the funeral is indeed not his loved one but rather a pile of 'sand,' this applies even more readily to a city.

A city is what John Searle would call a social construct (in particular an institutional social construct); if it were not for us grouping the set of phenomena relating to this specific space on earth into a subset which we label Belfast, then Belfast would simply not be. Belfast is a set of ideas, be it the approach to the sandbank ford, the strategic gateway to the Ards, the residence of the Chichester family, the incorporated market town, 'boomtown' of Imperial Victoriana, modernist hub of industry and commerce, religious warzone or 21st century tourism and shopping destination. 

As Alan Moore suggested in 'V for Vendetta,' ideas don't die. Ideas ebb and flow, they contradict and adjust. They defy three dimensional space and fly in the face of logic and rationality. Cities, like ideas, are not things or objects, but are dynamic lived processes which refute absolutism and universality. Any perception we have of an idea dying or not being there is just that; a perception. A perception of the passing of a way-of-being we held dear, or at worst reified. As long as we bear in mind that they are simply ideas which suggest a way of living then their departure should not worry us so much.

Cry onwards to the next 'Belfast!'

Friday, 1 November 2013

Tomb - Notes on a 'Mytho-Geographic' film

The following is a short 'mytho-geographic' film about two distinct and separate locations in the city of Belfast. The locations are not linked, but I never-the-less created a mythic link between them.

Mytho-geography is a technique derived from the art practice of artist Phil Smith as a reaction to the Situationist Internationale's Psychogeography. My own personal take on it is that, where Psychogeography assumes that, through the use of detournement (or distraction), one can decontextualise the city revealing the sociologically objective framework upon which we all build our subjective meanings and interpretations of urban space; Mythogeography is aware of the need to break away from this Cartesian construct and knows that, once the city is decontextualised one needs to recontextualise it. This is done in a surprising way which allows for a deeper reading of the city.

In the film I mythologise myself as a cartographer and urban researcher, casting myself as a film noir detective investigating the death of the city of Belfast. Of course I discover that Belfast was never dead in the first place as time and space are mere constructs and the city actually exists in the lived phenomenological present.

Below are excerpts from my sketchbook which detail my thoughts before during and after the filming of 'Tomb.'

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Belfast by Moonlight - The Ballad of Auld George - A Sense of Place

The following was written for the programmes of Kabosh Theatre's 'Belfast by Moonlight' written by Carlo Gebler, stages in St George's Church. Also included here is a recording of the presentation given at the after-show discussion on 23rd October 2013.

I met Auld George on a dull, muggy day, walking across his courtyard and leaving the uneasy traffic flow of High Street behind; the chaotic, multipurpose deluge at odds with the singular unending flow of the silent river beneath the street.

Standing at the gates I imagine what he would have looked like had the fortunes of the Earl Bishop of Derry been happier. Originally envisioned as a simple squat, yellow-grey sandstone prayer box, Auld George received his new grandly classical face when the Earl Bishop died during the construction of his new house. The finely crafted pediment, distinctly Athenian in appearance, was hauled all the way from Castledawson and was pulled up the Farset by barges to be fixed to Auld George’s facade. His plain face, slightly curved in the centre, is transformed into bold late Georgian classicism, perhaps more befitting of the ornate rituals of the Anglican tradition within.

Before approaching Auld George I glance at the city around him and consider how, despite being so enmeshed in Belfast and it’s past, he seems to sit apart from the city; in the city but not of it. Set back from High Street and protected by three substantial trees, George seems to be putting himself at arms length; perhaps knowing that the greatest service he renders is to provide respite for weary citizens of this tiresome urbanity. To his right he looks onto the backs of the early Victorian terraces on Church Lane; all Bangor Blue, Belfast brick and cast iron downpipes. To his left, he is overshadowed by faceless apartment blocks, as alien to the city as George but lacking his self-awareness and humility. They lean over him in a vain attempt at intimidation, but Auld George is more robust than that.

Facing him is the High Victorian clock known as Albert and it’s modernist counterpart Transport House; friendly faces sympathetic to George’s plight. They too are interlopers from another Belfast. I scan around to the mouth of Bridge Street in the near distance and marvel at how the National Bank Building has survived the blitzkrieg when Arnotts had been flattened to one side and Imperial Buildings to the other had lost it’s head. Returning my gaze to Auld George I consider the close call he had on that grim night in April; that night he lost his school house and watched friends and neighbors burn and fall.

I walk through his grand doors, cross the shallow vestibule and pause before entering his church-proper. The short corridor in which I find myself is littered with the peripheries of worship. Bibles, hymnals, tracts and prayer cushions remind the architectural tourist that Auld George is no archeological artifact, but a living, breathing place of worship. As his door whispers open I slip behind his facade and I am face to face with Auld George himself. The street noise disappears and silence envelopes me. His hard stone floor squeaks under my trainers and I slow my gait, considering each step to guard against the conspicuous noise, almost profane against the din of silence. Even Auld George’s materiality politely requests your respect; material properties which have no doubt heavily contributed to the church’s musical liturgy.

George’s interior itself is as simple and functional as his facade would have been had it not been added to. A demure tiled grey stone floor neatly meets white plastered walls lined with windows with shallow curved heads, four on each side, mostly simple wired glass with a few embellished with delicate stained images. A narrow balcony spans three edges of the room, simply supported by columns with gold-painted corinthian heads; the heads most likely being a late Victorian addition. A second row of large grand windows bathe the space in an even coverage of natural light and offer glimpses of the city beyond. Rows of simple timber pews face an ornate chancel, undoubtedly Auld George’s focal point.

The chancel stands in direct opposition to the austerity of the rest of the hall. The three tall stained glass windows give the presbytery a phosphorescence, an almost ethereal glow. The double-height space is adorned with gold-leaf and medieval style religious murals. The ornamentation draws the eye upwards to exposed timber trusses, painted white and patterned with green stenciled leaves; work completed by architect W.J. Barre, contemporary and rival of the great Charles Lanyon.

I slowly lap the nave, examining the stained glass windows and several memorial plaques inscribed with names I regret I do not know; James Halliday Neill, Sarah May Nelson McTear, John Quiller Lane. And a few I do know, Sir Robert Hugh Hanley Baird, Sir Henry Pottinger; family names spread throughout the city and yet another chunk of Belfast history held by dear Auld George.

I slip into an empty pew and the timber groans under my weight and I sit silently still, only moving if I dare. The silence once again returns and I calmly gaze at my surroundings. The total lack of audio creates a sense of alienation. The empty hall into which I stare could almost be a photograph, I look closely at a candle resting on a nearby cill and I swear it is not even flickering. I try not to let it unnerve me and endeavor to use this lack of sensual stimulation to allow me to see better.

My eyes return to the gaudy late Victorian chancel and find it overloading my mind. I close my eyes and I’m gone, not to somewhere else but to some different stream of experience, stripping out the everyday context of the church and replacing it with the much richer context of Belfast itself.

I see High Street as it would have been, a dirt track running along the south bank of the Farset ending where the stream discharges into the mighty Lagan; the river bed just about visible beneath the rushing waters. Given time and tide the shifting sandbank ford would thrust up through the flow permitting passage to the other bank; a journey far from guaranteed however. The unpredictable Lagan would sometimes surge, washing pilgrims out into the lough. The last piece of dry land, therefore, became an important waypoint; a place of thanksgiving for a successful journey, or a place of prayer for the journey to come.

Given the volumes of pilgrims wishing to cross the river, Auld George is established as a permanent place of worship, although it would be a long time before he is given that name; being originally referred to simply as the Chapel of the Ford. A small village grows along the rough dirt track, which eventually becomes a place with a name, that name being Beal Fierste, the approach to the ford. I see the small village expanding as people establish markets, at first to provide the pilgrims with much needed respite on their journey, and later to profit from them. A stronghold is constructed, a satellite castle to the much larger Carrickfergus. The crossing itself becomes commodified, pilgrims now need to ask the king of the castle for safe passage before asking Auld George for the mercy of the elements.

I see the settlement expanding, coming under control of English planters, it’s name shifting to Belfast, an anglicised version of the more musical gaelic. Land is slowly reclaimed from the surging Lagan and Auld George’s connection with the water dwindles. As the city rises in importance, however, so does Auld George. When the city is made that slick profit-making-machine referred to as the Belfast Corporation, Auld George becomes the chapel of choice for the Burgesses, being recast as the Corporation Church.

The sometimes cartoonish, often tragic politics of Ireland played out around Auld George and he sat on, paying it no mind but often acting as a backdrop. Cromwell’s forces occupied and garrisoned Auld George, defacing and damaging his fabric considerably. Several years later King William himself, on his way from Carrickfergus to face King James at the Boyne, was George’s guest of honor, while a century later the martyred remains of Henry Joy were interred in his graveyard. Auld George welcomed in heroes and villains, blackguards and white knights, showing neither favouritism nor bias.

The aforementioned graveyard, so Cathal O’Byrne tells us, was closed in the early 1800s as the grounds were liable to flooding. O’Byrne goes on to bemoan the defilement of the graves by the rebuilding and extension of Auld George, a fact reinforced by a discussion had with a church member who described an incident which occurred during minor building works. A skeleton was found in the sitting position in the centre of the nave underneath the central walkway, and it remains there to this day. Sitting there in the silence, my eyes slowly opening, I can think of no better place to be laid to rest.

As I leave Auld George behind I am struck by how closely his story is connected to Belfast, the church acting as synecdoche for the entire city. When Belfast flourished so did the church; when Belfast suffered Auld George suffered too; and through the tumult and upheaval he sits on in quiet humility. Unlike his saintly namesake Auld George does not slay the dragons, but rather endures them and by the sheer act of remaining, defeats them.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Why Maps? - A Personal Reaction to my Confirmation Viva

As you may or may not have read on the pages of this blog, I am working a series of diverse fields to formulate a singular theory which attempts to explain how we think about and understand the space around us and either shape it to better our chances of survival and improve our quality of life or adapt ourselves to it. The theory also proffers some suggestions as to how we are perhaps getting it wrong in some cases which inevitably leads to problems, particularly in a field like architecture where the intent is to adjust modes of dwelling in order to improve the aforementioned chances of survival and quality of life.

As you can see from my Confirmation Viva above I have elected to test the theory by making a map of my home city of Belfast using some of the things thrown up by the ideas discussed. In the viva itself I suggest this derives from the absence of intensive site appraisal from the RIBA plan of work. While no doubt a problem I also believe there to be deeper reasons for choosing to test these ideas using cartography as the interpretation and representation of site. I believe this may call for a slight reframing of the theory as outlined in my confirmation viva presentation and texts (which will be uploaded to my website shortly).

The theoretical model begins to describe how we as human beings begin to reach a rational understanding of our world by interpreting phenomena. These interpretations then become commodified, that is relatable to others, through the use of signs and symbols which we tend to refer to as language. This amalgamation of agreed signs and symbols as commodified phenomena couple with appropriate reactions in a given context (space and time) coalesce into human culture or society. We then rely on the expectations and requirements of the culture in which we find ourselves to the point where these reactions to specific phenomena become reflexive. We no longer respond to the living phenomena but rather to the prescribed interpretations of and reactions to similar phenomena.

It is this process which sets the outer boundary to our existence, a metaphysical edge to our mode of dwelling which we cling to, long past it's sell-by-date and point of relevance, out of the fear of anything which does not conform to the narrow view of what is logical; a view which is created by the social construct in which we find ourselves. The enlightenment taught us to enshrine the logical in favour of the imaginative as logic was considered the route to absolute truth. With this in mind one can now see how this simply enshrined a series of interpretations of specific phenomena which lay within the metaphysical edge of a particular mode of dwelling.

With this, imagination allows us to leap beyond the boundaries of the metaphysical edge in order to explain phenomena which is new to us, or has not been adequately interpreted for the lived context. The power of the construct, however, means that even these leaps of imagination will be influenced by it's ideology so that all understanding, even explaining the unexplainable, is driven by it.

The trick, I believe, is to try to react honestly to the lived phenomena to apply lived interpretations to these phenomena rather than prescribed, learned or reflexive responses. This, of course, is not practical in everyday lived experience. We rely on these reflexive responses in order to survive quickly and efficiently in a world full of phenomena which can easily destroy our delicate vessels. When it comes to architecture, however, and the previously discussed desire to improve quality of life by adjusting commodified modes of dwelling, we need to make ourselves aware of the possibly outdated dogmas to which we adhere in order to react to the lived phenomena and adjust the socio-cultural norms as manifested in space and action upon the lived context.

Maps, then, are representations of specific interpretations of space. While no doubt a necessity to navigate a territory, they are often used to understand a particular space as a place. Places, however, are defined not only by the physicalities of space but also by the metaphysical edge to the socio-cultural construct of the society which created it, controls it and uses it as well as that of the individual who perceives it as a phenomena.

The map I hope to create, therefore, will take into account the histories and myths which surround a series of site across Belfast combined with my own feelings, interpretations and experiences of the city in which I have lived my whole life. To this I will add my own myths, derived from intensive research of the sites, which will act as situationist style 'detournements,' or distractions, which will recontextualise these places for other people and allow them to examine their own personal spatial interpretations. This will, at first, alienate them from these places before reintroducing them in an unexpected way, hopefully making them more aware of the lived phenomena present in the lived context resulting in a richer and more sensitive appreciation of place.

The metaphysical edge of the city will, ideally, be reset and reset again, exposing it as an arbitrary construct which we control in the attempt at improving our lives and the lives of those we design for.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Civics of Alfred Brumwell Thomas

Citizens of Belfast seem to take City Hall for granted. It is a magnificent building, but I suppose when beauty becomes part of the every day the beholder becomes numb to it. Disparagingly labelled 'the wedding cake and the pauper's funeral' (I have heard this many times but am yet to find the actual original reference) the CIty Hall was designed to be a grand legislative centre worthy of a capital city of the empire at a time of considerable hardship across the Province and Ireland as a whole.

Sir Alfred Brumwell Thomas
The architectural competition for Belfast City Hall was won in 1897 by a twenty-eight year old called Alfred Brumwell Thomas, a relatively young architect for such a large project. The building was received so well that on it’s completion in 1906, Thomas was awarded a knighthood by King Edward VII. Sir Alfred Brumwell Thomas would go on to design and build numerous other public buildings across the UK, including Stockport and Woolwich town halls, both grand buildings which nevertheless appear mundane in comparison with the exquisite grandeur of Belfast’s City Hall.

The setting out of Royal Avenue lent a greater significance to Donegal Square, making it the starting point of an imposing avenue snaking it’s way northwards. Replacing the fine but rather plain White Linen Hall as it’s centre piece, the construction of the City Hall made the Square the civic heart of the City in the true spirit of classical democracy, providing both an exquisite container for it’s legislative bodies and a magnificent garden for it’s citizens.

The construction of the City Hall, however, was just the beginning of Thomas’s aspirations for Belfast as a ‘Capital City in the Empire.’ He had a series of large-scale design ideas which, given his leanings towards the beaux arts, appears to be based on Ancient Greek ‘Civics,’ but would perhaps today be referred to as ‘urbanism.’

His grandest civic proposal for the city, put before the Belfast Rotary club in 1925, was the suggestion that Wellington Place, Donegal Square North and Chichester Street should become a grand avenue similar to Donegal Place and Royal Avenue. Squares, similar to Donegal Square, would be opened at the ends of Wellington Place and Chichester Street creating “a series of three great squares...joined by imposing streets.” These squares would be surrounded by imposing buildings lending a grandiosity, importance and inspiring classical beauty to these new public spaces.
A diagram showing Brumwell Thomas' civic plan for Belfast
An example of  what Brumwell Thomas envisioned as one of these imposing structures lies in the little known, unrealised project for the Royal Ulster Hotel. This opulent classical building, to be sited between the Methodist Church and the Ocean Insurance building on Donegal Square East, was considered by Thomas to be “of the greatest possible importance and urgency to the city,” a statement which again shows how, even when working on an individual project, Thomas was considering the overall context of the city.
Brumwell Thomas' original drawings of the Royal Ulster Hotel
A series of letters (available to view in PRONI) detail how the project was, despite having the backing of Prime Minister Sir James Craig and many vital business interests in Belfast at the time, beset by financial difficulties and never left the drawing board. The triple square plan, similarly, never got off the ground, much like Thomas’ suggestion that the Northern Irish government building, as opposed to being at Stormont, should be located in the Markets area, near the Albert Bridge.

One can only imagine what Belfast would be like today if Thomas’ ambitions had been realised. Would the Royal Ulster Hotel still exist, an opulent challenge to the 5-star Merchant Hotel? Perhaps it would have went the same unfortunate way of Royal Avenue’s Grand Central Hotel. The Markets area would not have a strong, if troubled, working class community as it does today, and one suspects that the security around the government building would be similarly unfriendly as the high, thick walls around the law courts, or as brutal and aggressive as the barricades around police stations. Lastly, would the two new squares have had any effect on the new road patterns proposed in the late 60s, or would the planners have disregarded the squares, routing the inner ring road through these public spaces regardless?
Computer model of the Royal Ulster Hotel
A speculative map suggesting the layout of Brumwell Thomas’s Belfast. Red indicates extant important civic buildings, while the blue indicates buildings which Brumwell would perhaps have suggested be built to lend a civic grandeur to the new squares.

Friday, 2 August 2013

The Cave Hill Goddess

The Cave Hill, previously referred to as Ben Madigan, dominates the skyline north of the Belfast. It’s resemblance to an upturned face in profile has rendered it an icon. Referred to by Alice Milligan as “The glorious face of the sleeper, That slumbers above Belfast,” the hill is more popularly referred to rather less romantically as ‘Napoleon’s Nose,’ perhaps due to the promontory above the face resembling a tricorn hat. Compellingly, Mary Lowry suggests that “the noble face on the hill has often been called the Goddess of Liberty.”

The aforementioned ‘tricorn hat’ bears an ancient rath referred to as McArt’s Fort which, so the legend goes, was once the seat of the Ulaidh (Ulster is the anglicised form of Ulaidh’s Tir, or the territory of the Ulaidh), the native inhabitants of ancient Ulster. This was, no doubt, the reason why the fort was used by the United Irishmen prior to the 1798 rebellion to swear a “solemn obligation...never to desist in [their] efforts until [they] had subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted her independence.” Perhaps this is why Mary Lowry, writing at the centenary of the rebellion, saw the Hill as a symbol of ‘Liberty.’

The failure of the United Irishmen and the disruption and violence of the 20th century lead to a recasting of the Cave Hill Goddess. In 1898 the stone throne in the centre of McArt’s fort was thrown over the cliff edge and dashed to pieces on the rocks below by an unidentified vandal; perhaps this was a dark portent of the century ahead.

Perhaps Liberty lies imprisoned, much like Gulliver in the village of Lilliput (it is another popular local tale that the ‘face of the sleeper’ inspired Jonathan Swift when he was appointed  as a priest in nearby Kilroot), being used as a pawn in the arbitrary battles between the Little-Endians and the Big-Endians. Perhaps Liberty herself gazes to the heavens and dreams of freedom.

Then again, perhaps it is the over-romanticisation of the mountain that has got us into trouble. The eyes over the Goddess, after all, do not watch over the city but instead gaze upwards and away from the city, not regarding us at all. If, as Mary Lowry suggests, “That wonderful face was there long ages before the Sphinx gazed over the plain at Gizeh, and will be there when all the work of our world is done,” why would the Goddess pay us any mind at all?


- Bardon, Jonathan, and Henry V. Bell. 1982. Belfast :an Illustrated History. Vol. Repr with corrections. Dundonald: Blackstaff Press.

- Milligan, Alice. 1908. Hero Lays. Maunsel.

- Lowry, Mary. 2009. The Story of Belfast and Its Surroundings. Belfast [Northern Ireland]: Appletree Press.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Why am I making films?

My research has taken a sharp turn into how we as humans understand a city as an environment in which to dwell. The theory as related to the reflection/reflexion dichotomy and Bourdieu’s ‘field’ and the ‘habitus’ inevitably led to a consideration of mapping as the end point of an interpretation and the starting point for new interpretation, this one at an arms length from the city itself and therefore potentially alienated or abstracted.

Maps mostly appear to take the form of a series of overlapping networks, breaking the city up into digestible and navigable chunks which, while no doubt useful for the pragmatic and essential everyday use of the city, begin to profoundly affect the way we think of the city and ultimately serve as an alienating device; a barrier between us and our environment. The wayfinding device as a quick route to an understanding begins to erode or entirely replace the urban form it is attached to.

The two films I have made so far have attempted to represent places (as opposed to spaces) within the city using other writers’ interpretations as a starting point. I then counterpoint this with my own interpretation of both the city and the text using moving image and sound. By ensuring that I return to the city itself in the act of filming and sound-recording, the end product (the filmic map) can therefore be said to be an interpretation of the city enriched by the text, rather than an interpretation of the text on it’s own.

The theory I have been looking at with regards to cartography suggests that map users rely on the map as someone else’s interpretation assuming it to be objective. The idea behind this approach was to openly accept this as the unavoidable inevitability of assuming another’s interpretation of a place and attempt to use this to enrich one’s own. What has happened, however, is that this process has made me aware of yet another pitfall.

The more I set about developing the techniques I needed to map in this way along with studying and deciphering the poetic interpretations which I was using as a springboard into my own, the more I got drawn into the objectification of the map, the production of a beautiful yet ultimately empty object. I got drawn into the game and lost the awareness that I was a mere player. I believed I was reflecting, while in actuality my reflexivity was running amok, unchecked. Somewhere, my ego kicked in and I became film-maker/cartographer, rather than the level headed researcher and observer I claim to be.

While it sounds like I regret this, and that I am criticising or even chastising myself, I’m glad that this has happened and that I have managed to step out of it without getting too carried away. I’ve developed a set of technical skills and acquired some physical equipment which I can return to at some point and use in a more intelligent and self-aware manner. Additionally, falling victim to the very things the theory and my own writing warns against I feel I have a better understanding of the fallacy of mapping, and the dangers which come with it.

After three or four weeks away from the books and journals, I now feel I can return to the theory, burying myself in it again before returning to the field smarter and more prepared to produce something worthwhile, helpful to others and free of personal pride and ego.


Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The plan: Walking to Aldergrove

“I’ve taken to long-distance walking,” extolls Will Self at the beginning of one of his ‘Psychogeography’ columns for the Independent, “as a means for dissolving the mechanised matrix which compresses the space-time continuum, and decouples human from physical geography.” Such lofty, high-academic language belies Self’s acute awareness of the modern-day psychogeographer’s position within society. “Most of the psychogeographic fraternity…are really only local historians with an attitude problem. Indeed, real, professional local historians view us as insufferably bogus and traveling - if anywhere at all - right up ourselves."

Despite this withering indictment I have resolved to ape Self’s psychogeographic technique of walking to airports, rather than surrendering to the hermetically sealed box of a car or the automated and undeviating route of a train or bus. This week I will walk from George Best City airport in East Belfast to Aldergrove International airport in the far-flung reaches of darkest Antrim. Admitting it out loud makes me feel embarrassed and concerned that people will not understand and call me mad, or a time-waster, dismiss me out of hand. However, since I first conceived it as a possibility two weeks ago I cannot rest until I have done it.

View Larger Map

Perhaps, as Self suggests, it is the simple idea of ‘The Quest,’ the ‘Epic Journey,’ casting myself as some sort of Tolkienesque hero who’s going to subvert the corrupt social order of car-dependent urbanism by wearing out my own shoe-leather and irreparably damaging my calf muscles in the process. Then again, more modestly I hope to achieve a more acute spatial awareness for the city in which I have lived my entire life , experienced as isolated and disembodied islands of Proustian events and the jumbled phenomena of my adolescence.

I have tried in recents years, and increasingly in recent months, to get to grips with the city by marinating in the historicism and literate narratives of Belfast. Pouring over books, records, novels and poetry, every time a place name is mentioned I reach for my laptop and locate it within Google Maps. Occasionally, if I’m lucky, it’s somewhere I know, or at least adjacent to a familiar spot. More often than not it’s in a part of the city I know only by name or reputation. The narrative is only given power if it becomes connected to space. Space then becomes place.

The epic walk, then, becomes cinematic. Reliance on a car or train becomes similar to a jumpcut, or fast-forwarding to the middle of the story and expecting to be able to follow. I wish to understand the city as a narrative progression beyond the five abstracted Lynchian elements. Paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks are all well and good; I wish to observe what connects them, the bleed between them, the ‘dark-matter’ of urbanism.

Since I’ve already invoked particle physics, I wish to declare a niggling worry; the process of recording the journey. I will be carrying with me a GPS logger, inscribing my route as a wiggling line of points across Google earth, while also making use of a video camera literally clamped to my hip. Will this act as the detector at the double-slit, abstracting the wave of my journey into a simple and predictable A to B route? Lets not get too carried away with that analogy, lest I get into trouble with my brother...

I’ll report back in a few days with the results of my anti-urbanist walk.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Belfast 400 Easter Festival

April 27th 2013 marked four hundred years since Sir Arthur Chichester read out Belfast’s Royal Charter received from King James I and granting Belfast’s town status, a moment immortalised by John Luke’s fantastically vibrant mural under the dome of City Hall. Belfast City Council took the opportunity of this date lying so near the long Easter weekend to throw open the doors of the City Hall and host an array of events celebrating this anniversary, all absolutely free to anyone who wanted to come along. For a self-confessed ‘Belfast geek’ (or should that be ‘enthusiast?’) such as myself this was an opportunity too good to miss.
I kicked off the weekend with Ruairí Ó Baoill’s’ ‘Hidden History’ archeological walking tour, taking a look at the often overlooked and invisible parts of Belfast’s past which it turns out extends far beyond the 400 year remit of the festival. We met at the front of the City Hall, where I had a few minutes to take in the extent of the celebrations before we set off. There was a collection of remarkable classic cars lined up beside Victoria, which a small sign informed me were courtesy of the ‘Banbridge Old Vehicle Club.’ On the other lawn, to Victoria’s right, were a crowd of ribbon dancers passing out ribbons to excited youngsters and encouraging them to join in. Crowds of people thronged around the entrance to the building, waiting for the doors to be opened for the host of events within.

I located Ruairí at the front gates, wearing in a high-visibility jacket and waiting with his son, similarly attired, who was to be his dad’s ‘glamorous assistant’ for the day. Each of us was given a copy of Thomas Phillip’s famous 1685 map of Belfast (often credited with being the first map of the town) annotated with the contemporary street names enabling us to orientate ourselves. The tour took us from the City Hall to Arthur Square, St George’s Church, Cotton Court off Waring Street and finally Writer’s Square in front of St Anne’s Cathedral. Along the way we were provided with snatches of history, unique insights, fascinating anecdotes, images of archeological digs and the beguiling objects found just beneath our feet.
As a perfect counterpoint to this tour, the next one kicked off at half two from the same spot. This one was the Architectural walking tour, hosted by PLACE and ably lead by Gary Potter of PLACE and the Future Belfast website. The route was similar to Ruairí’s, but provided a totally different set of insights into the city. Looking specifically at the existing buildings this was the visible history of Belfast, pointing out what there is to see even if we don’t see it in our day to day interactions with the city. I must confess that I feel rather ashamed to admit I had never looked up at the fantastic Art Deco facades in Ann Street; neither was I aware of the one original 18th century house still standing in Donegal Place nor the oddly incestuous nature of the competition to design the Albert Clock. Just some of Belfast’s architectural quirks highlighted on the tour.

After four hours of tours I really felt I’d earned my pint in the Washington Bar before heading home to warm up.

The next day I made my way to the Harbour Commissioner’s offices off Corporation Street. The unpleasant walk under the motorway and rail bridges, through eerily deserted car-parks, proved more than worth it to get a rare glimpse inside this magnificent building. The tour was hosted by a blue-badge tour guide, who informed us how woefully under-attended the tours had been over the weekend (perhaps a lack of advertising). This, however, made for a fascinating and intimate tour of this breathtaking building. I would urge anyone to include this on your list of places to visit in September’s European Heritage Open Days.

That night I attended the evening tour of the City Hall. Entering through the back gate (an entrance I had previously used only once before, on my wedding day), I waited patiently under the City Hall’s dome for a few minutes as my fellow tour-attendee’s gathered. The tour was guided by Michael Livingstone, an official guide for Belfast City Council, who started off by pointing out some historical artifacts and documents arranged around the reception area (including the original 400 year old copy James I’s charter). We ascended the grand stair case and all stood around the rotunda beneath John Luke’s previously mentioned mural. It was here it became clear this was not your standard historical tour. A man in 18th century garb was suddenly standing before us, animatedly reading a description of the old White Linen Hall. The tour continued in this way for just over an hour; a standard (if not fascinating) tour with these unexpected, humorous and at times moving dramatic counterpoints which breathed life and emotion into the history which surrounded us. All together an excellently put together tour/production which was over far too soon.

There were of course many more events over the weekend and I really do regret not making it to more; particularly the lectures in the great hall and the film screenings in the QFT and the Lyric Theatre. There was a fantastic atmosphere around the City Hall and in the city centre in general which personally proved a tonic for the city’s uncomfortable and unfortunate start to 2013.

Loving Belfast is never easy, but after a few difficult months the Belfast 400 festival gives us license to be proud again.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Belfast Derivé

I've started doing a bit of situationist style 'drifting,' or 'derivé,' around Belfast. It's initially so I can get to know some unexplored areas of the city and revisit some places I haven't been in a long time. I'm trying to video each of the walk (by means of a subtly hidden camera in my lapel pocket to allow me to enjoy the dander, and avoid strange looks from people). I'll be adding these to the map as and when I can get them edited and uploaded to YouTube. One or two are already added, just click the lines on the map below to view them.


View Derive in a larger map

Thursday, 7 February 2013

To Belfast - A short film about a city

Another video blog entry, a set of maps detailing the development of Belfast set to some music and poetry which illustrates my bitter-sweet relationship with the city along with the difficulty of maps for representation.

Music - 'Going to Your Funeral prt2' by The Eels, taken from the album 'Electro-Shock Blues'

Words - 'To Belfast' by Alan Gillis, taken from the book 'Somebody, Somewhere.' Please see previous 
 post ( for  words.

Sources - 
Bardon, J. & Bell, H.V. (1982) Belfast :an illustrated history. Repr with corrections edn, Dundonald: Blackstaff Press.
Bardon, J. & Conlin, S. (1985) Belfast: 1000 years. Belfast: Blackstaff.
Gillespie, R. & Royle, S.A. (2006) Belfast C.1600 to 1900 :the making of the modern city. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.
Patton, M. & Ulster Architectural Heritage Society (1993) Central Belfast: an historical gazetteer. Belfast: Ulster Architectural Heritage Society.
Royle, S.A. (2007) Belfast, 1840 to 1900. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Forgetting Belfast

This was originally published in the December 2012 issue of 'The Ulster Folk.' This is a highly edited version of a previous blog post, found here.

Northern Ireland is booming. ‘Our time, our place’ screams the slogan from every billboard, television and radio, not only across the province but also the UK and Ireland (a Dubliner recently told me he’s sick of hearing it). My question is who exactly is the ‘us’ of this slogan. Who’s time? Who’s place? The motivation behind redevelopments such as Victoria Square and Titanic Quarter along with future proposals such as Royal Exchange and the new University of Ulster appears to be either tourism or big business, the citizens of Belfast apparently not taken into account.

Belfast has never fully recovered from the conflict, still reading as a cultural waste-ground, and the current bout of redevelopment and investment doesn’t seem to be helping. But how did Belfast become a cultural void; forty years of ‘The Troubles’? A cursory look at the history of planning decisions in Belfast reveals it hasn’t all been caused by terrorism.

In the early 1960s Belfast was experiencing significant growth leading to a strained transport network. The Belfast Corporation developed a series of large-scale planning proposals including a massive urban motorway encircling the city core and a new urban masterplan. The timing of these plans corresponded with the beginning of ‘The Troubles,’ the explosion of violence resulting in a sharp decline in Belfast’s population and essentially rendering the proposals irrelevant.

Thanks to ongoing resistance from residents coupled with the escalation of violence the majority of these plans were shelved. However, a significant amount of the ‘slum clearance’ went ahead, as did phase one of the motorway; albeit in the altered sunken version of ‘The Westlink.’ These measures were enough to significantly blight inner north and west Belfast to this day, which a suspicious person may suggest was the intention of the plans in the first place in order to fragment these ‘troublesome communities.’

At the same time, due to co-ordinated paramilitary violence against businesses in the city, the infamous ‘ring of steel’ began to take shape around the city core. Beginning with informal military checkpoints on major routes, security measures intensified over the 1980s to the point where citizens who wanted to access central Belfast were made to queue up to pass through turnstyles in ten foot high steel walls, only being granted access once 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 has created the cultural vacuum that is Belfast city centre today. The physical conflict has gradually died out since the ceasefires of the early 1990s, causing politicians to hail the success of the ‘peace process.’ The neutrality of the city centre, sterilised so as not to scare off investors, along with the segregation of inner city neighborhoods suggests that the conflict is far from gone.

In Belfast we are proud of our past, particularly with regards to shipbuilding and linen, yet the city centre is totally devoid of any official memorials or markers for the appalling atrocities committed in the past forty years. Oxford Street bus station, a building that became synonymous with ‘Bloody Friday,’ has been scoured from the street and replaced with an office complex. The gruesome descriptions from eyewitnesses on the ground that day are comparable to reports coming out of Kosovo and Syria in recent years. Yet this traumatic event goes unmarked, consisting only of individual memory and official documents.
A culturally empty urban centre is but a small problem, however, when we consider the memorials and plaques outside the city centre; each community choosing to memorialise specific events within their own areas. This causes misremembered and editorialised versions of these events to be passed down the generations, reinforcing the ‘us and them’ tradition. Local urban geographer Peter Shirlow describes this as “The criminilisation of the ‘other’ community and the failure to recognise suffering was endured within both communities...”

What we need is a meaningfully cultural city centre that goes beyond gaudy tourist attractions, glass shopping centres and the halcyon days of linen and shipbuilding and begins to speak of what we’ve been through, confronting us with how 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 the city before someone else does.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Laganside - Belfast Sonic Poetry App

This article was published initially on the PLACE blog and then in the December 2012 edition of 'The Ulster Folk.'
It seems all too easy to criticise Belfast’s tired looking Langanside development, perhaps this is because it’s all too easy to forget how bad the post-industrial wasteland the banks of the Lagan were in the late eighties. It’s also easy to forget how incredible the aspirations of the Laganside Corporation were, given that it formed almost a decade before the Good Friday Agreement.

A new smartphone app called ‘Laganside’ highlights this dichotomy, enabling users to engage with this at times forsaken area; an area where Belfast’s aspirations, past, present and future, are made flesh. Developed by PhD music student John D’Arcy, the app was  launched on Culture Night 2012.

Taking on and surpassing the recent sonic arts trend in “digitised relational maps using embedded media,” ‘Laganside’ makes use of the contemporary epic poem of the same name, with a great reading by voice over artist Patrick FitzSymons. D’Arcy explains the reasons for choosing this particular piece by Belfast poet Alan Gillis. “Laganside doesn’t name particular places, but you know where he’s talking about, or you think you know and make your own connections based on your experience of Belfast, your personal history of it.” The app makes the academic fields of the sonic arts and poetry immediate and accessible, allowing the user to bridge the gap between the text and the space to which it refers.

The app’s unique design, by visual artist Gerard Carson, makes use of the smart phone’s ‘geo-location’ ability to track the user’s position along a three mile walk hugging the river. As the user approaches specific areas ‘soundscapes’ are triggered. A flurry of distorted music, sound effects and barely audible voices heightens the experience and lends further weight to both poem and locale. “The poem remains the same,” John explains, “but depending on your location your experience of it differs.” There are a number of other poems which can only be ‘collected’ by visiting locations along the route, something which should lend the app longevity, and perhaps suggesting that further routes could be added in the future.

The first soundscape I experienced was located at a platform jutting out into the river immediately behind the Waterfront Hall. As I ascended the short ramp to the platform a frenzy of noise overwhelmed me and the previously jovial voice in my ear took on a sinister air. I stood overlooking the river; several seagulls lined up along the steel balustrade eyed me resentfully before one by one taking off toward the lough; a train glided gently over the water; the city loomed behind. I felt consumed by sound, the  rhythm of the verse and my environment.

The meandering cadence of the poem, which describes a man’s walk along the regenerated riverfront with his ‘better half,’ gradually builds towards an understated yet profound climax. “Leaving me to find our way back to the streets, knowing I’ll never leave here, or come back again.” Fighting back the lump in my throat, the words resonated so strongly. From the grit and filth of the late eighties Belfast has surpassed itself, moving so fast the city is at times hard to recognise. The Laganside area is the embodiment of Belfast’s decline and regeneration; a city which never fails to impress and disappoint in equal measure.

‘Laganside - Belfast Sonic Poetry App’ is available for free on iTunes for iOS and Google Play for Android. Visit for information on the app or for other projects by John D'Arcy.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Critical Writing Part 2 of 2 - Belfast of New

The following was written as part of a critical writing workshop held at PLACE, run by art and architecture critic Marianne O'Kane Boal. This is a critical article on the new MAC theatre, meant as a companion piece to a critique of St George's Church, found here.

I remember watching the MAC being constructed from the architecture studio of the neighbouring University of Ulster. I distinctly recall the surface of my black coffee shimmering as the building’s piles were driven down into the sleech upon which most of central Belfast rests. I later remember observing the jutting cast concrete forms and, comparing them to the drawings and renders of the building, thinking ‘too complicated, too much going on, too busy.’ In retrospect I see I was becoming ‘Architect,’ and ‘Architect’ could always do better, ‘Architect’ is always cynical.

Now the MAC is open I am a regular visitor; be it for coffee with friends, visiting an exhibition in the galleries or informal tutorials and meetings as part of my research. It’s a building I make use of regularly, all of my initial reservations being erased by the elemental act of utility. In mid January 2013 I was lucky enough to be part of a group to receive a guided tour of the building by project-architect and associate of Hall McKnight (previously Hackett & Hall) architects Nigel Murray. This gave me opportunity to sort through my contradicting thoughts.

The new MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre) replaces an older Georgian building referred to as the OMAC (Old Museum Arts Centre), updating the slightly beleaguered building while significantly expanding the theatre’s capacity as well as relocating to the Cathedral Quarter; Belfast’s greatest hope for a vibrant, bohemian district. The building’s brief fills a definite gap in the city, providing an alternative theatre space to the formality of the Grand Opera House, acting as a companion piece both architecturally and programmatically to affluent South Belfast’s Lyric theatre in not-so-affluent North Belfast.

The MAC is a hopeful building.

The theatre/galley, which completes the fourth edge of the much derided St Anne’s Square, has two entrances. The red brick mass which faces the university (in anticipation of a future adjoining development) wraps round the corner and steps back at a right-angle, inviting pedestrians of Exchange Street into the building. Facing St Anne’s Square, a black basalt mass gives way to a sliding glass door, enhancing rather than shaming the previously odd and uncomfortable plastic classicism of the plaza. Both entrances lead to a broad public concourse, providing an alternative, and arguably preferable, route through the square.

The MAC is a public building.

The building is comprised of three forms; the imposing block of the main theatre and ‘Upper Gallery,’ the floating wedge of the smaller theatre and ‘Tall Gallery,’ and the residual space caught between the two which forms the public concourse. It was this third space which concerned me the most when gazing out from the University or pouring over the drawings and images made available online. The space seemed too awkward, the angles too severe; a space already complicated by the difficult site further abstracted by the positioning of the two hulking forms. Ironically, this is the part of the building that, for me, works the best. The vaulting brick piers and long, high windows lend a vaguely religious aspect to the building. The subtle material changes, from bare concrete, slick terrazzo, warm wood of an almost burnt hue, suggest but don’t prescribe journeys and activities. The seating areas feel like intimate retreats from the bustle and business of the cafe and box office; a range of booths allowing you to step away for a moment while the low ceiling height of the open-seating area offers a sense of enclosure.

The MAC is an intimate building.

As we wind our way upwards, the obtuse angles become quite disorientating. We walk up the main stair, across a landing overlooking the bar and up a more intimate set of steps and for a moment I feel lost. This feeling, however, is never unpleasant. As our journey ribbons through the building the building wraps around us. We enter the tall gallery and all feeling of disorientation is exploded as we are confronted with a huge picture window. Where another designer would have centered this window on the squat yet majestic bulk of St Anne’s Cathedral, Hackett & Hall invite us to look beyond it. The church features on the periphery of a magnificent view of the city itself.

The MAC is a civic building.

The rest of our tour reinforces these initial impressions. Stepping out from the dark warmth of the main 350 seat theatre, a large window reconnects you with the square. Ascending the stair you note the feeling of warm leather under your palm, enclosing the industrial handrails. The confusing warren of corridors connecting the teaching spaces, offices and dance studios are relieved by occasional, sometimes tantalising views of the city or neighbouring buildings. These dichotomies, public - private, warm - cold, light - dark, lost - found, all brought forth by the difficult site and complicated brief, are reconciled harmoniously within this envelope; achieved by the delicate balance of spatial requirements, careful consideration of thresholds and impeccable detailing.

The MAC is a complex building.