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.