Monday, 24 November 2014

'European Heritage Open Days' 2014 - Short film Competition winner

In September of this year I submitted a short section of my longer 'Myths of Belfast' thesis film to the European Heritage Open Days (EHOD) short film competition. The brief for the competition was as follows.
  • The film’s subject matter must be concerned with Northern Ireland’s built heritage.
  • The film MUST qualify for a ‘Universal’ age group and therefore be family friendly e.g. no swearing, no exposures to violence on camera.
  • The film must last no longer than 5 minutes, and be submitted in the appropriate format.

The competition was judged by Stephen Hackett of the Belfast Film Festival, who said of my film "This film demonstrates an excellent understanding of the architectural history of Belfast.  The visual effects used are both interesting and creative." My entry won the award for 'best film,' and was shown as part of the EHOD2014 Thank You event held at Brownlow House in Lurgan on the 22nd November 2014. I received my prize of £200 from Michael Weir, the director of the Belfast Photo Festival, and Colin McCusker, the Mayor of Craigavon.
Michael Weir, director of the Belfast Photo Festival, Colin McCusker, Mayor of Craigavon and myself at the EHOD2014 Thank You event in Brownlow House, Lurgan, 22.11.14
You can view the winning film below. The longer film, 'Myths of Belfast,' will be available to view online and on DVD in the new year.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014 Part 3 - Urban Exploration and Fergus Jordan's 'Garden Estate'

The following are notes made for a presentation made at Belfast Exposed gallery at Fergus Jordan's 'Garden Estate' exhibition on 30th October 2013. More on the photographic series can be viewed here. A film of the presentation is also included. While this presentation was not part of the 'Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014' series of events, the subject matter is extremely pertinent.

My research is an attempt to relocate our understanding of space from the common-sense objective point of view to one which takes account of our own subjectivity. As such I indulge frequently in a bit of what is known as psychogeography; that is the creative use of the city, the performance of divergent acts in the field staged so as to reach a deeper reading of the space of the city.

Around these walls you see the products of an act of psychogeography; outputs of the process of the lone artist in the field (Fergus with his camera), examining what is there and passing it through a personal interpretive process, the filter of what could be referred to as ‘style’ but is perhaps more aptly viewed a radical reinterpretation of the sub-utopian landscape of the Dunclug housing estate.

Psychogeography derives from the work of the revolutionary artist collective the Situationist Internationale, based in France in the late 1950s. They sought to disrupt the common-sense attitudes to life, which they saw as being largely driven by the capitalist market, and replace it with a more fundamental social interpretation based largely on a reinterpretation of Marxist thought deriving from the work of Henri Lefebvre. This disruption was normally achieved through what they referred to as ‘detournement’ or distraction.

The primary mode of distraction with regards to psychogeography and the city was the derive, or drift; an aimless walk through the city which would begin to expose the psychological relationships which inform our experience of space. I have several difficulties with the situationist way of thinking, a minor one being, surely the act of creating a psychogeographical profile of a city imbues any walk through the city with a purpose, displacing the act of ‘aimless walking,’ and this is but the beginning of the fundamental problems I have with situationism, and indeed architectural theory in general, something which field art practice has long since overcome without difficulty.

Essentially, I believe that we all have a ‘common-sense’ attitude to how we are in the world; an idea which derives largely from the philosophy of Rene Descartes. Cartesian philosophy, as it came to be known, suggests that we are three dimensional objects existing in a three dimensional world with other three dimensional objects, which we can perceive, understand and act upon accordingly. This is the assumption which Newtonian physics was based on. Science now regards Newtonian physics as a model and has moved on to things like quantum physics, etc. The old model still applies, but other models are required to fill the gaps, as it were.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we abandon cartesian philosophy and start to radically change the way we conduct our everyday understandings of space and place, but as we start to try to change, adjust and tweak our surroundings in order to improve them, which is what architects and urbanists hope to do, I think we need to start to leave behind the ‘common-sense’ model of being, which Cartesian philosophy could now be called; I believe it is causing us big problems.

What problems is it causing? Well, the idea that we are totally objectified 3D objects, but that we are somehow gifted with the ability to understand other 3D objects is a problem. There is a clear gap in the thinking here which lead Descartes to believe that the mind is also objectified, it exists in three dimensions much like the body. This idea became known as Cartesian Dualism, the idea that mind and body are separate and can be separated from each other. This runs counter with most of what contemporary neuroscience suggests; the mind is a process, not a thing, a paradigm shift which is perhaps more incredible than it sounds, and is supported by philosophers like Martin Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Richard Rorty, as well as most of contemporary sociology.

How does this idea, then, affect our understanding of the city, and how does it help us to critique situationism? I would suggest that most theorists believe there to be some sort of objective foundation to the sociology of the city. There is an attempt to reduce architectural theory down to a mathematical formula which is a symptom of Cartesian Dualism. The social, much like the mind, is a process and as such is not located in three dimensional space.

So, when the situationists assume that by decontextualising the city they can expose some sort of naked objective sociological framework, all they end up exposing is their own naked subjective interpretation of the city.

Returning to architectural theory and the idea of the garden estate, we can start to anlalyse the intentions of the designers behind the ‘Radburn estate’ ideal on which Dunclug was based. Situationism is often referred to as one of the utopian movements in political art practice, and the radburn estate or the garden city idea is certainly one of the utopian movements in late modernism. Based upon an extremely robust and intelligent architectural theory largely stemming from frank Lloyd Wright, who was no doubt influenced by early modernist European Architects like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, who in turn had substantial connections within the Bauhaus; architectural royalty! these ideas we can now see resulted in nightmarish social conditions for the normal citizens these designs were inflicted upon.

The problem, I believe, resides in the Cartesian ideas which formed the foundations of architectural thought, and still does to this day. There are some architects who seem to think that if they design and construct a space in a specific way that this will instigate a particular behaviour in an individual; almost like a human being entering a building or a space is like a ball bearing entering a machine. There is a clear input; the human, and a clear output; a behaviour. And of course we know this is not the case; we have free will and we cannot help but exercise it. So when the modernists did their calculations and figured out that we should all live in high-rise flats or in the garden estates they could not foresee what would actually happen, what we see in Fergus’ photos.

Turning back to the problems of psychogeography, what I am trying to move toward with my architectural theorising is something that art practice seems to have taken for granted for a long time and never bothered naming. That is the idea of ‘mytho-geography’ as coined by performance artist Phil Smith. This is a practice which has a latent understanding that, once decontextualisied, the city needs recontexualised. Mytho-geography suggests this should be in an abstract or oblique way, as Phil Smith suggests this is ‘the art of walking sideways.’ Field artists already do this. 

Fergus used to live in the estate and therefore knows it very well. Regardless of this, he returned to it as a stranger with a camera, normally in the dead of night. This, in itself, is the practice of detournement, or distraction. He was in the context, understood the context, but abstracted himself from the context in order to view it obliquely. The resultant photographs which we see are Dunclug recontextualised, interpreted through Fergus’ camera, a side of the garden estate none of us would be aware of. Fergus has turned our attention towards it.

As an architect and designer this speaks volumes to me of the failure of modernism, the ends of design. It tells me there is something fundamentally amiss in what we hope to do both as professionals and human beings; and it is something I hope desperately to address and correct in my own work.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014 Part 2

The following are notes made for a bus tour of Craigavon which took place on 1st November 2014. This was part of the Absorbing Modernity series of events based on the themes of the Venice Biennale. The bus tour was organised and hosted by PLACE.

Up until around 3 or 4years ago Craigavon was a bit of black spot in my geographical knowledge of N.Ireland. I found it difficult to get beyond ‘Craigavon as local laughing stock,’ an image which I now see as largely undeserved. I’m going to attempt to explain the broader international context for Modernist new towns and cities and then hone in on the specifically local circumstances which caused and affected the establishment of Craigavon.

Establishing new towns in this part of Ireland of course isn’t a new endeavour, the plantation towns of the Elizabethan era forwards were all described as ‘new towns,’ Modernist new towns however, were based on a totally different set of political constructs. The basis of the architectural and artistic ‘style’ that we call Modernism can trace it’s roots back to the age of enlightenment in the 16th and 17th centuries which saw people starting to turn away from medieval spiritualism and towards reason and rationality and on the back of this came the idea that mankind could begin to analyse, understand and shape it’s environment to improve quality of life rather than being subject to the whims of unseen spirits.

The rise of science then lead to the industrial revolution of the 18th century, which was essentially the intensifying and gathering together of human endeavour focused on the perceived development of society and culture. This lead to increasingly urbanised populations, and with that, increasingly poor, unhealthy and polluted environments in which people lived. By the beginning of the 20th century it became clear that this process needed to be scrutinised and the development controlled and planned to ensure that it contributed to human progress and was not detrimental to humankind.

So at this time you have people like Patrick Geddes and Ebenezer Howard who, at the turn of the century were being to theorise and put forward ideas which proved to be the genesis of what we regard today as ‘planning.’ Patrick Geddes took Darwin’s theory of Evolution to suggest that the city is humankind’s habitat and that, as such, you could arrange it in a scientifically idealised fashion and by way of evolutionary eugenics humankind would evolve to be a more perfect organism. Using these ideas Ebenezer Howard developed the idea of the ‘garden city’ which was an idealised utopia based around several settlements, limited in size, connected by public transport systems and surrounded by greenbelts.

It’s ideals like these which formed the roots of the planning movement across the UK in the first half of the 20th century, all concentrating on attempting to control the development of our cities and, in doing so, ensure that human progress not only continued unhindered but was scientifically guaranteed. Two world wars naturally limited the development of these ideas until 1945, but the Blitz across the UK helped to highlight the poor quality and ageing inner-city Victorian housing stock in big cities including Belfast, but was also, maybe quite perversely, seen as an opportunity by city planners to begin to re-order the cities. The housing need highlighted by the war lead to the 1946 New Towns Act which proposed the creation of 26 new towns across the UK to house the burgeoning UK population.

Belfast had it’s own set of planning proposals, beginning with the ‘Davidge report, commissioned in 1945 which began to look at how the city should be developed. This, however, didn’t really go anywhere apart from an overhaul of the roads system including the construction of the Sydenham bypass in East Belfast. However, the big moment for Belfast and Northern ireland came with the commissioning of the ‘Belfast Regional Survey and Plan,’ commonly referred to as ‘The Matthew Plan’ after it’s author the visionary Scottish architect-planner Robert Matthew. This came at the end of Lord Brookeborough’s 20 year stint as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. The Unionist party had held unbroken political power since the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 and had done so by strictly adhering to their strict conservative values. As such they opposed anything which vaguely resembled socialism, and the concept of planning was considered to be connected to the communist ideals of a ‘planned economy.’ So these ideas were treated with deep suspicion.

The policy of ‘parity’ with the mainland, while seen as being important to uphold the union, started to unravel slightly as social and economic reforms such as the establishment of the welfare state came into being, these being socialist ideas. Things like this started to create rifts within the Unionist party as two distinct camps, conservatives and reformists, began to emerge. The newly stablished Ministry of Health and Local Government was firmly under control of the reformist camp, including the young and innovative ministers Ronald Green and John Oliver, began to put pressure on the conservative Belfast Corporation who were opposed to inner-city slum clearance coupled with public housing schemes. Oliver and Green managed to back Belfast Corporation into a corner and forced them to agree to allow an independent adviser to come over and assess the housing problems in the city. The ministers immediately contacted Robert Matthew, this was in 1960, an experienced architect-planner from Edinburgh, to put together a report on the development of Belfast. This report quickly expanded into a full ‘regional survey and plan,’ looking not just at Belfast but at Belfast in it’s region as the economic centre of Northern Ireland.
The plan itself proposed a hard stopline around Belfast to stop it’s sprawling outward expansion. As the population of Belfast was increasing exponentially the stopline limited this, so several towns in the region were designated to be redeveloped to deal with what was referred to as the ‘overspill’ of population. These expansion towns would ‘demagnetise’ Belfast. A newly established motorway system, which was already on the table, would allow people to commute in and out of Belfast for work, while new industries would also be established in the expansion towns. At the same time, a new city was to be built between Lurgan and Portadown.


LURGAN/PORTADOWN: A REGIONAL CITY - It is proposed that the existing towns of Lurgan and Portadown be expanded into a substantial new city of approximately 100,000 people, this being the most important single new development suggested in the Plan. These two towns, with existing populations of 18,667 and 17,873 respectively, are three miles apart and are selected for major expansion for the following reasons.
  1. Their location beyond the head of the Lagan valley is in the natural direction of development into the hinterland and close enough to Belfast to attract industrial enterprise.
  2. They have good rail connections with Belfast and the south and can easily be linked, by road to the proposed Belfast-Dungannon motorway (M1). Their proximity to Lough Neagh could take advantage of water transport, should it develop on the largest stretch of inland water in the British Isles.
  3. The configuration of the land is well suited for building. It is not of first class agricultural quality, but has a ready availability of utility services, such as water and electricity.
  4. The existing urban centres have established populations and reasonable existing social and commercial facilities which would make a sound base for expansion.
The proposal, which it is important to regard as of first priority, is to create a major new urban area for administration, industry, marketing, technical education and recreational activities. It presents an opportunity to create a contemporary urban environment of high quality, which could serve as a major symbol of regeneration within Northern Ireland.
In 1963, the year the Matthew Plan was published, Lord Brookeborough stepped down as PM due to health reasons and Terrence O’Neill took over. This is important because O’Neill was very much in the reformist camp. He therefore fully supported the distinct social edge of the Matthew report and the proposed planning and housing reforms albeit without significant support from the staunchly conservative Unionist party. O’Neill managed to push through the majority of the reforms to the planning system including the stopline, along with the establishment of the new town, at break-neck speed, to the degree that the new city planning team was established barely a month after the report being published.

By December that year 8000 acres of largely agricultural land between Lurgan and Portadown had been vested and the highly influential ‘new city’ architect Geoffrey Copcutt was given the job of leading the new city design team. The following was taken from Miles Glendinning's 'Modern Architect,' an excellent biography of Robert Matthew.
During 1964, Copcutt's team had completed a preliminary report on the new city, which, when eventually published, proposed a basic structure like a more dispersed Cumbernauld, with a 'linear urban core,' strongly set apart from the countryside around by a ring distribution road, and individual zones containing fairly dense 'clusters' of compact residential 'sections' - each with its communal facilities (such as schools) grouped at the centre, implicitly intended to encourage Catholic-Protestant integration. These would be interspersed by three commercial centres: Lurgan, Portadown and a new regional high-grade shopping and office centre between.
Copcutt became increasingly frustrated with Stormont politics, claiming that his designs were being scrutinised by civil servants to ensure the subtly gerrymandered civic balance wasn’t being upset. He even went further suggesting that the best way to allow Ulster to progress was to have a United Ireland. In August 1964 Copcutt send a memo to several major newspapers in N.Ireland decrying the new city project as a failure before it started and claiming that the Matthew Plan was seriously flawed. He suggested that the money being used to develop the new city should be used to invest in N.Ireland’s current second city, Londonderry, and that the decision not to do so was political, sectarian and demonstrated O’Neill’s blind adherence to the Matthew plan in the absence of any political support. Copcutt immediately resigned, mere months after being appointed. Copcutt's memo was used by Nationalists to claim O’neill and the Matthew Plan were sectarian constructs, while the conservatives within the Unionist party used it to claim that the Matthew Plan and the new city were socialist constructs. Another furore was sparked when the new city was named Craigavon, after NI’s first prime minister. O’Neill’s political support was getting ever smaller.

By the time residents moved into Brownlow in 1967, the first of a proposed three housing estates in Craigavon, the entire project was already viewed as a failure.The onset of the ‘Troubles’ in 1969 also put a firm end to Prime Minister O’Neill’s liberal experimentation and he resigned. As we now know the political system in NI unravelled over the next 5years resulting in the imposition of direct rule in 1974. Meanwhile the ‘failed’ new city of Craigavon went through it’s own set of trials and tribulations. First of all, not enough people moved out, but with the escalation of the Troubles and the corresponding deterioration of inner-city Belfast, young families trying to escape the violence were attracted to the city. Additionally, new citizens were given an initial amount of £250 to move out, later bumped up to £500. On paper it was an allowance to furnish a new house but is thought by many to be vulgar bribe.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014 Part 1

The following was prepared as part of panel discussion which took place in the Ulster Museum on 25/10/2014 as part of the Belfast Festival's 'Ulster Museum Day,' looking at 'Absorbing Modernity' in Northern Ireland.

Modernity is often described as a total break with tradition. Certainly stylistically this appears the case, yet theoretically it is part of a continuum which began with the Renaissance, by way of the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution. The rejection of medieval spiritualism and superstition in favour of logic and reason applied by freewilled individuals lead to a period of intense scientific and technological advancement which changed the world at an exponential rate over the proceeding centuries until, at the end of the 19th century, our newly urbanised cities felt like threatening and inhuman environments, detrimental to the delicate human body and the life it was seen to contain.

The new speed of the world, created by international travel and transatlantic TV and radio broadcasts, allowed mankind a previously unthinkable ‘God’s Eye’ view of global societies. Ironically, the work of the logical and rational freewilled individuals of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment lead to a new radical understanding of the multitude, now on an international level. The analogy given to us by Descartes of the human form as an objectified machine, albeit one possessed by a soul (the ghost in the machine), was now applied to all human life, including the socio-political discourses which are seen to form societies.

Descartes’ dualist model, that we are a mind resident within a physical body, combined with Thomas Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ model of society and state began to deny the individualism which had allowed the Renaissance thinkers to question the religious and spiritual superstition of the dark ages. The soul as a metaphysical concept could be in possession of an entire society, the body-politic as opposed to the individual human form.

The Victorian pre-modernist proto-planner Patrick Geddes used these ideas, along with Darwin’s model of evolution, to suggest a kind of benign eugenics in which the city, as mankind’s habitat, can be laid out in an idealised way to enable the human animal to evolve into a better organism. The foundations of contemporary planning were established on the ideal that the city, as an environment, could be organised in such a way as to satisfy the needs of society as a multitude of individuals of a single species, in possession of mechanical bodies.

Corbusier advanced these ideas by claiming that the house should be ‘a machine for living in.’ Corbusier’s ideals, much like Geddes’, suggest that the city and it’s architecture could be conceived of mechanistically and that it’s human users would interact with it in a similar way as ballbearings within a machine. A well designed urban and architectural system would elicit a predetermined and prescribed response from each and every individual that enters the system.

The spatial problems caused by an increasing urban population across Western Europe in the first half of the 20th century desperately needed to be addressed and, much like every other major city in the UK and Ireland, a set of regional proposals based on modernist principles were developed for the city of Belfast. The most ambitious was the ‘1962 Belfast Regional Survey and Plan,’ commonly known as the ‘Matthew Plan’ after it’s author Robert Matthew, the ambitious Scottish architect-planner. On the back of this came an urban motorway system, the utopian new town of Craigavon and high rise ‘streets-in-the-sky,’ all of which can be said to have failed to varying degrees and for a range of reasons both local and more broadly theoretical.

For me the problem really is at the theoretical root of Modernism, in it’s strict adherence to determinism and the belief that we are machines. To do so is to reject the subjectivity and individuality of each and every individual who goes to form the multitude of society. 

While the analogy of the anatomical to mechanical is compelling, the analogy collapses when it comes to individual mindfulness. In it’s hurry to totally eschew the superstitions which dogged society prior to the Renaissance it appears Modernism entangled the idea of the mind became with the idea of the metaphysical soul and, in turn, rejected them both in favour of the mechanical body with it’s on board computer in the form of the brain.

It’s my view that the complexity and diversity of subjective human experience creates innumerable variables which simply cannot be accounted for in any scientifically based architectural scheme or urban masterplan. I think we need to be mindful of the deep theoretical basis of Modernism and grateful for what it has given us while at the same time learning from it’s mistakes and not falling victim to these same subtle theoretical failings.