This week I have come to understand how Belfast is going through multiple processes- one of which is the peace process. Yes, the Troubles have ended, but everything was not suddenly mended- finding a lasting peace throughout the city will take time, and the process will take longer for some factions of the city than it will for others. For those communities where it will take longer, the emphasis does seem to be on building peace for the next generation. A West Belfast resident told me that a survey was done about removing the peace lines and 80% agreed that they should be taken down… eventually, but not right now. A quote written on the Cupar Street Peace Line that picks up on what I think is a recurring sentiment: “Peace- If it’s not what we want, it might be what our children need.”
President Mary McAleese gave her annual PJ McGrory Human Rights Lecture on Tuesday. I was fortunate to come within two feet of the President without even having to pay for a ticket! She emphasized the process aspect of finding peace and commemorated the many people who have been working for peace for a long time.
I met with Dr. Brendan Murtagh, a Professor from Queens University on Wednesday and he pointed out a different process- one of socio-economic segregation that has become more profound as the city development has taken off since the end of the Troubles. As the middle-class neighborhoods are growing and becoming more diverse, and the economic status of working-class neighborhoods is falling, these less well off neighborhoods are remaining traditionally segregated and also retaining their sectarian territorial markings, such as flags, murals, etc. How can this trend be changed? Can sectarianism only be diffused by economic success? If we translate this to the realm of architecture and urban design: are the most successful shared public spaces commercial because they inherently attract mainly a consumer class who no longer need to care about sectarianism because, as Dr. Murtagh said, “they are too busy making money instead”?
How about public buildings that are not commercial? I joined Alison, a student from RCA doing postgraduate research on a topic similar to mine, to a few meetings with various local architecture firms this week. In one of our meetings, we toured a new publicly funded facility, The Grove Wellness Center, located in North Belfast in an area that had been splintered by the Troubles. It includes as leisure center complete with a pool and a gym, and on the opposite end of the building is a public medical practice. A public library beautifully connects the other two programs and cantilevers over the main entrance. This merge of the three programs as a holistic wellness center is becoming more common and is creating a new building typography in its own right- and it is especially intriguing in this case as it was completely publicly funded and serves the residents of a local community that never had facilities quite like it before. The architect claimed that the only prominent way that the recent conflict affected the design was in color palette, which had to be politically-neutral.
This project was funded jointly with another leisure center on Falls Road in West Belfast, which has won various awards including one from RIBA. The Falls Road building is located right along the peace line that separates was the Falls area (traditionally Catholic Nationalist) from the Shankill (traditionally Protestant Unionist) I asked the manager if the facility only drew residents of the Lower Falls, or if residents from Shankill would also use the building. He replied that a few people from Shankill do use the facility, but just like most outcomes of the peace process, it will take years for a significant number of Shankill residents to become comfortable using the Falls Road facility, but he believes it will eventually happen. Once again, putting an emphasis on how it is a process that will take time.
Another interior public space is St. George’s Market, which underwent a huge 3.5-million pound refurbishment funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It attracts a great crowd of people, and definitely has some reasonable prices for produce, meats and crafts.
In a meeting with Todd Architects, I learned more about plans for the Titanic Quarter. It looks like there will be a significant amount of shared space in the plans. I have been a little worried that such space would not relate to the human scale and fail to draw many regular people, as I have observed about much of the public space in the Laganside Developments. Given that retail seems to characterize the most lively public spaces in the city, I asked whether small businesses and retail spaces would be included in the Titanic Quarter. It turns out that this is a point of debate because the Belfast Urban Plan restricts most retail to the city center, which traditionally has not included any land east of the river Lagan. It looks, however, like there will be many strategies employed to create active spaces, including a memorial to those who died in the Titanic disaster. Apparently, the history of the Titanic has been somewhat difficult for the shipyard to reconcile over the years, so the memorial and museum in the new development may be very good for the identity of the shipyard and Belfast itself. I did find out, however, that the project failed to receive national lottery money because there was lack of interaction with the existing local community… I guess only time will tell how this all works out. Until then, I still have not made it over to the site as each time I attempted to take a bus there, it was over a 2 hour wait for the next bus, and when I tried walking over, I got lost in a maze of highways… perhaps another thing to note about transportation access, or maybe I am missing out on a better way to get there.
The importance of Belfast undergoing a process of pedestrianisation has been brought up by a new group, Forum for an Alternative Belfast, which was just recently started by local progressive architects and planners. forumfab.wordpress.com/ I am looking forward to joining in on some discussions and design projects as part of a summer school run by FAB that will take place during my last week here.
This upcoming week, I will be meeting with various regeneration trusts, and an architect that is a leader in The Belfast Streets Ahead programme, which is funded by the Department for Social Development (DSD). More on the programme after my meeting…
Also to follow-up on my last post that mentioned the Black Taxi Tours, I found out that the black taxis still run services for many residents in West Belfast. The service started during the Troubles when very few buses dared to drive on Falls Road because buses were often bomb targets. I went on a Black Taxi tour myself, and below is a photo of the Bobby Sands mural that I just had to take because according to my taxi driver it is the most photographed mural in the world.