A view of the courtyard of the Keir building, with Belfast surrounding - image from Wikipedia
John Graham discusses some of the issues coming out of the 2009 Summer School recently held by the Forum for Alternative Belfast.
I wonder if the Forum has been an expression of the paradox of inertia that is present on the Belfast landscape. The fact there is a mix of opinion forming examinations. Some from an economic imperative. Some from a recycled town planning objective. Some with a dispersal background - continuing the patterns of the recent past. Some with no constraint of an agreed path and heightened by greed not need. Some media generalities and a lot falsehoods fashioned around a paucity of research or interest and even determination to inform. There is a tapestry of lots of mixed messages and even built
examples, which defy belief in some quarters.
Where this exists though hope and optimism can flame the kindling which the Forum has brought forward. Examining the challenges through exploratory openness and reasoned debate added to an all too forgotten, negated and sidelined aspect of community - robust inclusion of community in place of a territory for exploitation.
Instead of the backward thinking associated with greed over need and spin meister indoctrination of stalled governance and intellect there is a capacity recognised for change. And much desired change. The appetite and awareness is manifest in the continuing metamorphosis of the Forum and its engagement at all levels.
The manifesto and subject have a certain enormity. Yet the scale of the task and the case for raising issues and examining them is the first step towards resolution of some basic problems and fundamentally flawed approaches. The evidence base is being assembled and looked at through the Forum. Out of it need arise clearer understanding of the challenges presented.
TOWNSCAPE and ESCAPE
The paradox of inertia is the focus of the Forum. It brought with it, the do it through robust and unfettered independent thought, in the medium of collective resourcefulness. From the studio of the School of Architecture/Town Planning room at the top floor of the David Kier building the view favoured the green topped urban landscape of South Belfast and out to the hills of the East. Stormont visible in the distance sitting stubbornly attached to its hill as if defying the sliding reality of the mechanisms of politics. The sun was cast upon a calming and relatively cohesive vision of Belfast. In the East a nucleus of industry in the Shipyard estate, the airport. The greenery was there in large part through the parks, Botanic, Ormeau and this landscape seemed to carefully and randomly merge with the hills.
How different the opposite view where the hills rise quickly and arrestingly. Where the hills are seemingly hostile environments and attempts at codifying access has ran into a wild west field of recreation.
The topography and natural separations have been logged into Belfast’s fabric for hundreds of years and in the last period, the hostile period, it has become a victim of its aggressive discontent. A legacy of imported defensive Architectural and Town Planning design in Northern Ireland and then some. One query often coming up was that of dereliction and its origin. What has been the cause of dereliction?
I would lay it at the feet of institutionalised crisis management and the coat tailing lobby of sectional interests of all shades of narrowness, it expands further.
Town Planning has despoiled the residential areas and in the south even allowed a kind of sectarianism to happen. Over large parts of the area the densities have increased, the population made transient, the long term residents pressured out and new buyers blocked out by grant aided schemes and a dominant form of occupancy. Decent family homes have not been reformed, remodelled, instead they have been subjected to internal carve ups which teeter on the lowest level of spatial need. They also bring forward hybrid notions of standards. Not applied anywhere else. At a previous Forum discussion the subject of the wretched spatial standards we continue to perpetuate was noted, added to which is the non-evolution of better forms of living. The extent of child poverty is not even on the radar. That NI still has some of the worst housing conditions in the islands and has a large housing waiting list looking incapable of redress is focus enough presently.
While politicians and others claim governance over their budgets and perform stunts to reclaim tokens for constituents they themselves indulge in the property merry-go-round though even their dumbness and greed is set for a mood change. The introductory film reels off the visual, as Source has done over the years with images of the static, a
portrait of a troubled and segregated city. No longer entangled with the shackles of historical dispute, (we have agreed to disagree that disagreement is destructive and agree we must move on by turning backwards and forwards in unison), but now also dealing with the backwash up the Lough of years of tribal planning and exercises in containment. The economic wars are upon the population as are the ever changing atmospheric imponderables presented by environmental change and the wonderment of discoveries and expanse of knowledge achieved through science. Many of the certitudes and hardened attitudes are being bent by change. Forced into radically thinking and not applying the gathering of information for purposes other than holding onto it, repackaging it in unfeasibility studies and casting it out as work accomplished. Change exists in the present. From one second to the next as it always has. There is also an adjustment taking place with mankind in response to the onerous demands of planet living.
Unmistakably, and the view from the studio testifies to it, the sudden downpours, the blistering sunshine, the wind thrown tree tops and the boiling greenery show us that nature dictates and also empowers us. The built environment of Belfast sometimes acknowledges this and occasionally it pointedly indicates a way forward. Without nature and the capacity to feed nations and cities nothing of our making survives. It becomes consigned to a temporary history made and forgotten and remade as the times require. It was an act of kindness using the predication Summer School in a truly Irish summer. Northern Ireland and the Island of Ireland has survived in its form through its management of land and its survival depends on the productiveness of that land. Be it in educating the brains to command suitable endeavours and futures, be it expressing life, be it exploring who and what we are. It is all in, as the Frank Mitchell book title neatly puts it, examined in Reading the Irish Landscape. The book has a revelatory significance as it links the human to the landscape. There is a sociological portrait of the island and its relation to nature at the basic level which confounds us and inspires us. It reminds us much is unknown yet we still believe in some dreary absolutes.
Times shifts us forward and it does it on our landscape.
The climate has put heavy demands on infrastructure and environmental response.
Northern Ireland according to some does not do vision. Its potential is actually largely untapped though and if the nurturing of its roots are not cut off with dated gardening techniques, which head always in the direction of chemical warfare, then it will continue to be disabled.
The Forum is as much about conceptual change and alternative views of the future as it is about using acquired skills, experience and knowledge in an attempt to fashion some built environment that can be shared and be useful to all.
A key part was identifying the linkages across the river which have become neglected in the hospitable sense, are hostile environments and devoted to car movements basically. When the Titanic section was mentioned the chains of linkage appeared. It was as if an anchor was thrown out but what is on either end of the chain is barely defined or firmly conceived. A one act play or brand which brooks companionship with a college and another stream of financial HQs and a package of land filled opportunities complete with a gift shop furnished with crystal glass from China no doubt.
A great deal more than the seed capital is needed for around 185 acres of a small part of the entire estate. The detachments, gates are already evident. The connections and directions are not. At the Lough location, the present phase if one exists, (an inertia is mainly apparent and more apt a description,) is a Baltimorisation of the natural assets. Creating copies of dated responses in belated hope and expectation. So dominant is the Lough feature all manner of attachments and reshaped sentiments are gathered to project an idea upon the space beside it. Impressive towers poke upwards insightfully raising expectations?
No vision of a knowledge based/medical based community or other but a catalyst of tourism. Instead water features and landmark buildings are the extent of inspiration development.
The existing clutter of street level buildings erodes any sense of the nature of tall buildings in the midst of this area. The forgotten trade marks of this type of design - part of a city grid, or district pattern, of street level courtyards - that they ease up areas of the street - become informal courts and the meeting places between are in the public realm is all absent. Instead the payoff for the top bit is the sacrifice of the lower bit and with it a spatial land grab.
It borrows (poorly) any attachments instead of contributing to them. The Lough provides no spatial help either as there are only a few in the city who can walk on water. Out of the David Kier building you do not have to look far to see how it should be done with the white decoratively restrained Ashby Building which sits back from the road and delivers into the centre of the Stranmillis village a little patch of additional and important green. The fact is the tall Ashby Building relies heavily on the space at its foot in its design as townscape. It even succeeds in being of place, strengthening identity and a sense of place. It has also become a visible landmark from some roads and bridges around South Belfast. It may seem bogus or pretentious to claim other benefits of the Ashby Building but it is a defined sense of time and place which most locals will recognise.
The school tried to vigorously examine and present their findings as well as enabling peoples sightlines to be improved and raised by looking at the city by applying observational skills and assigning reason to it.
Being in the David Kier Building; it is in the Telephone exchange tradition of masterful brickwork and august rigour, I thought as I looked around the spaces within it, that the large wall mounted map enjoyed the height of the space and having light cascading in from the South and the students and assembled were able to be uplifted by it.
The internal space had given room for some free thinking, it did not constrain or limit. The building has covered and open courtyards with generous core staircases and free and clear movement. All done under large span steel and bolted technologies. No welding or concealment and decorative expectation.
The map was like a symbol of reverse engineering the city and the functional backdrop unwittingly played a part. The Summer school had this willing assistant as a memory of the past, in the form of the building and a versatility of use. The expectations are not dissimilar in the new University Building for its capacity to facilitate thought and inspire. One wonders.
The view from the upper levels of the Kier building are interesting in lots of ways. There we see conventions of land use, parks, roads, residential, commerce and the tacked on interventions of out of centre shopping. Consumer logic pails significantly, becomes a back flip on the experiences the recent history has played out. The energies and evidence of value added endeavour do not look good when summoned to thought. It has a rather chaotic and un-uniform look to it. Any sense of a city in progress or a society in concert is absent. The severity of the difficulties presented by the recent past has not been realised. The future restructures itself with or without intervention, the future possibilities depend on preparation as well as what awaits.
Imagine a boulevard Belfast, opening up the savaged, torn strips of community binding and boundaries. How can a visitor walk out of the centre into any area? It only appears comfortable purviewed from a bus or special taxi. Drop the inner city speed for any vehicle to 20 mph. Find out how public transport can best develop without the enforced congestion of personalised transport.
The shifting possibilities of transport will in any case very quickly take on Moore’s Law in degrees of efficiency and energy use as to become almost axiomatic. A long way to go yet but not so long in timescale terms it sometimes seems. How then the old street patterns and means of distributing goods and persons?
The main cost is in freeing up and reforming established routes and making better use of existing infrastructure. Imagine the boundary walls of community being brought to ground level and in their place a seat or bench a place to stop and talk or reflect. The removal of the Berlin Wall became as much a linear division which required to remain in some form, in locality in order it could be confronted and made plain. So it became, not something we looked over, but something you could walk over. Belfast has no less potential.
The Forum presented several examples on which several aspects of the approach to design and remodelling had been taken forward. It pointed to the need for consolidated thought and an appraisal of the Town Planning needs. Becoming signatories to proposals which are under evaluated, wrongly centred and without a basis of good practice and exemplary design serves only short term interests. Nowhere is any accord with social need embraced.
A ‘master plan’ is not a strategy, an urban plan is a carefully formed piece of quality objectives. It requires to be responsive and based on continued nuancing and adjustment in the way master plans cannot. Narrow, all encompassing solutions tend to fail, and fail spectacularly. There is an intent already clear in making Belfast a place of academical excellence, to build on the exposure to learning and the immediacy of requirements to service the future with clever, smart, intelligence based ideas.
Major US cities have been ravaged by scale and large industry has imploded in some cities, their core industries fallen. Belfast’s scale is small in comparison with most cities of its industrialised type. The city has though a unique position as being one of the few on the island. Most Irish cities are ports and sea dependent. The Harbour is becoming a key element in Belfast again but without the previous levels of manpower. It has advanced and altered without carrying industry with it. Instead it has become the servant of the consumer politic. The first educational lesson will be that the industrial age is in dry dock and no replacement industries other than services exchanges are in their place and they are transitory and unencumbered by boundaries or allegiances. There will be future forensics on this phase that will present some obvious directional nonsenses.
The examination of the patient is incomplete but there is reason to consider the forms of intervention previously taken have in large parts failed.
A great deal is owed to the 40 to 50 or so persons who sat down and sifted through all manner of information to arrive at some analysis of the condition. Like doctors they worked on the physiological structure the Belfast DNA was made of and they looked at the life support systems that made it function. There was a lot of head shaking disbelief at the actualities, at the prognosis, at the explanations of the topographical images seen in visual confrontations. Some anticipated the visceral, were there perhaps to see magical solutions arise on the screens, however the reality is as always slowly revelatory. Otherwise we would have done things differently and better.
It was as C. S. Lewis found when traversing the border of the real and unreal. This is Strandtown but not as I know it, this is the Mournes but not as I know it. The invisibility of the DNA was something not even contemplated in that age yet we reference it all the time as a genus loci. Good reason could have it that all cities are amorphous and the purpose and heartbeat constantly changes. Belfast's DNA is suitably complex and challenging.
Nevertheless by exploring things as they seemed to appear, the observations catalogued and presented, it was possible to determine how they actually were. The maps once they started to appear unwittingly or intentionally had a lot of red on them.
It was a creation of matured clinical difficulties in an operating theatre.
Where the leg operates the arm is barely functioning, where air is required it is absent and thin, where verdant gardens flourish excess is encountered in temporal fusion. Wild imaginings overcome logic and the will is rendered lost.
Without the encumbrance of the normal formalised constraints the purview could be brought into focus. This can produce in equal quantities dismay and hope. The fundamental requirement is however to not only be cognisant of the facts but to realise the scope to act and improve the outlook and enable progression, it is after all a necessity.
As well as the works in progress and the continued discussions around moving some forward there were several instances of an unsatisfied appetite for the information needed to give studied and timely consideration to elements of interest. The main difficulty was in consolidating the database and finding a route for it to take. In scarcely 4 days the team had put together a robust level of the status of most of the cities buildings in terms of their use and occupancy and also identified the outlying derelict scraps and not so scrap of the euphemism brownfield sections.
It was a stark exercise and the debates and faffing around garden land grabbing were neatly contrasted with some actual figures and indicators. The photographic evidence brought some honesty forward. In order to make best use of this information and to see it does not become swamped under counter intelligence moves by the usual suspects, it is worth bearing in mind the campaign underway to FREE OUR DATA as is locked away under the control of OS Ordnance Survey and introducing it to the link world of the internet. The Digital Britain project currently has it in its sights but the detail and outworking of the OS Data usage has several things to overcome.
Many people wish to have access to and make use of this evolving data and are outside of Town Planning, the natural home of such information. Many other sectors recognise the value and potential in having collective ownership of the DATA and allowing it to be designed forward to encapsulate many digital uses.
The Land Registry could use it, there could be a live register in use for all property and land. Agricultural, Health and Social agencies could set up their own layers of information and make it work for improved practice.
All manner of uses could be found for it and the Public could access information which many preciously make their life’s work to hang on to. Flood Plain maps, Geological maps, Population dispersal maps and many other packages of information could be established using the Ordnance Survey Data as the central component. The Database. Many industries and professionals are now familiar with the use of layered information in IT and it is in use in very many aspects of our lives already. Some readiness to extend its potential and knowledge gathering forward is clearly needed. One commentator at the recent discussion brought forward the notion of it being a Wikipedia type database and while this is not the ideal model, (it has no ‘public’ responsibility) it is not far from the requirement and need.
The FREE OUR DATA quest is a larger and potentially valuable concept to be hold of in forward discussions and indeed actions. Government is distinctly in need of such fundamental change and it is undergoing many aspects of IT management which it has so far failed to properly deliver. The OS provides a model and the Planning models etc. can all be linked across formats. NI has already, it appears, spent a colossal sum in putting Planning details on line and has yet to achieve it. There is need of a breakthrough and a general acceptance of approach is needed for it to not prove impossible in the short and long term.
CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment)
For a long time it has been evident the design of the urban areas has been displaced to align with commercial and movement imperatives. The design of buildings stops at the elevations in many instances and the spaces between building has become a battle of clutter, identity and image. Temporary elements are always present and when Belfast hosted the Tall Ships even the main streets had contractors' Tonka toys, hoardings and lines of plastic bricks shepherding visitors and locals around the centre. Even the riverside was not functioning as a continuous walkway and surfaces failed the task put to them. A clear up of sorts happened but it showed the city had yet to understand people.
Outsiders look at Belfast from the perspective of their own experiences. Some of the extreme expectations have been hopefully overcome and are not to be found.
Nevertheless the striking thing about Belfast to an outsider on a tour of European cities must firstly be how uniform it is becoming in comparison with cities near and far. Add on the scarring and planning debris of the past few decades and there is a view of transition, not quite together, struggle for cohesion. All this is evident in the Forum examinations. The means of pursuing a better rationale for cityscapes has been advanced by various cities. Helsinki, Copenhagen were mentioned. The formation in England of the unit, CABE, Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, has realised a lot of successful interventions with councils and procurement agencies at several levels. Its purpose is proven and its benefits are evident. Northern Ireland needs also to confront the mediocrity of everyday design seek out decent design and demand that anyone wishing to construct something, have it put down as part of our built fabric must do so in a decent manner. The infancy of the MAG group has well meaning direction however it needs clout and activated programmes to lead the debate forward and out of its malaise and contradictory aspects. It must not dictate alone on the ‘elite’ proposals but get into the very basics including the spaces between buildings.
The quality of architecture needs to radically improve and that includes all forms of public architecture. It needs also to be real about the ‘eco-towns’ it flags up in arable countryside, where ‘non-towns’ expand as dormitory motorway suburbs with all the strain taken by the city. These nonsensical schemes need halted.
The information gap is one which was unknown to our forefathers, the OS co-ordination of mapping and building occupancy and usage was a very strategic part of public information use. Whether you needed to know or not, it could tell you pre-1840, that the city centre was full of all kinds of teaching establishments, even boarding schools, 4 pupils, 30 pupils etc, teaching everything you needed to know on mathematics, Latin, drawing, primitive sciences et al.
It also told of the numbers of churches, inns, timber yards, dog yards, brickworks. Every conceivable use the city was put to was recorded. It then could also point to the odd phenomenon that in the Ann Street area, dozens of straw hat manufacturers took up their trade. Striving for an efficiency - of sorts.
Is the city so uniform it does not require this degree of scrutiny and record of usage? The point is, it is not, as the witness of dereliction has been inescapable, and questions of intent of usages are not to be avoided. One site mentioned is Berry Street, the pre-history of which includes the Belfast Dispensary and Fever Hospital. There is a long roll call of delinquent sites and continued documentation, an overall live register would enable some thinking to overlap for once.
I noted in recent times a bewildering indictment of how far back practice has fallen when I noted a local government advertisement seeking Consultants to determine the best methods of obtaining good school design. There are many stepping of points for that but surely it has not been the educationalists design that they have forgotten the principles of procurement and cannot dovetail with larger and detailed examinations of the very same difficulties already produced. The debate on school design has been the subject of creative criticism through CABE, various providers and ministers ‘who know’ in the UK. One stepping off point is the example set through charitable status in producing decent schools, The Coram Foundation. An exemplar, if there was one of providing the right primary facilities.
When you look at building types and aspire to a form of architecture very little of the meaning is gathered. The colonnades and walkways for example get lost in translation. They are borne out of the andante pace of historical cities and searing heat. The shade is a place of functional architecture and we must also determine the need and capacity of such entities in design of the city. Instead of trying to appear as a grand city such as Rome and five centuries of nurturing we need look to alternatives.
The red brick Bologna (35 kilometres of shade!) - was beset by war but was able to hold onto its identity and as an active preservation. Not some dreamed up notional paddywhackery for the simple consumption of others.
It belies Belfast’s potential as well as becoming deceitful about the past. There are other comparators and many smart ideas which cut across the crude across-the-board solutions which appear in any other venture would be dismissed.
There was no reference to a reliance on the Regional Development Strategy which is coming forward. Its core strategies are insufficiently defined and its scope and ambition only that. No actual projections can be made under the cloak of an economic catastrophe. No alternative economic model has been constructed to fashion the ‘Chinese dollar’ into the equation. A single currency I see as the Axiom.
Without a linkage between all costs and uniformity the expectations and projections are fanciful and unanchored. It is then an agency concern to produce its own corn, the presence of gross mental indolence, of obdurate spin and hype needs to be consigned to history. The Public Service model is in need of returning to being the servant of the people and not the exchange counter for dubious third party service provisions. Housing provision has been a prime example of the collective failure to meet the issues and like a stone in a pond the outward rings of its corrupt market has been damaging beyond its initial leverage. The first ring being the 1988 Housing Act on which every subsequent Housing decision was formed.
SUBJECTS FOR DISCUSSION
Subjects for discussion are numerous, including:
as well as the abstract, bells and whistles and content?, homogenous design, bitter fruit, inference and perception. There are many other elements.
THE FUTURE IS
From the curse of the past 200 years, (from one period of enlightenment) there is a realisation it has run its course and there is, almost out of brinkmanship and grief held over continental divisions, a new spirit of enlightenment. It is not inconceivable to have upon us the relative and new proximity of nurtured global pathways.
Decisive and dynamic negation of the ineffective, centrifugal politics of old and a structure of centripetal paradigms. They all might not be exacting and precisely identical but disposed to location and its capabilities alone and joined.
It will be youth who determine the means of appropriating this future and it is their understanding of the inbuilt and systems of the everyday that will enable their futures.
The underpinning ongoing development is the access to core knowledge and uncompromising freedom of thought brought through digital means.
Many ’unintended consequences’ of information access are apparent and some are very harmful. Formerly ’stable’ societies are disrupted in a moment and destroyed or disfigured through digital access. The evolution is in dealing with its reality.
A recent study, RSA Social Brain project, has it, to put it crudely, that the right-wing emphasis of human willpower overcoming the environment, derives from childhood depravation scarring. On the other that to co-operate and seek out overall approval inhibits creativity and exploration for the sake of it.
Neither is integrally correct as the need for formal systems, management is well understood, it is in place to counter stupidity for the most part. If we were to act intelligently and smartly then these elements would not inhibit forward thought.
Remodelling the financial landscape has become a 21st century affliction brought on by two major economies China, India, having their industrial revolution in the space of a few decades. Except it did not go according to plan and is stalled on the premise that the Western model worked. Bring into it enforced environmental change, most of it driven by this phenomenon being allied to Western culture then there is unmistakably a need for new solutions and unheard and unspoken ones. A reliance on science would only partially create a correction and then only, with adjusted models, unpractised, unheralded. The immediacy brings with it peril as well as potential.
The posture of risk averse is not wholly beneficial, it inhibits trial and occasional error, but also the debt driven growth is a legacy of former times - which informs basically every aspect of planning going forward.
The models of doing just in time business are also undermined as the strain is felt at all levels. Cleverness, smart business and organic growth is required now as never before.
FREE OUR DATA
This is fundamental. The need to put in place the instruments to allow all the factors to be openly viewed and built upon is essential. The instruments are the information strands. A layered version of the OS data could bring with it access to a live register. It could link with Planning and Land Registry. It could also be of use for many society groups and individuals. Indeed the pressure on the OS to free their data comes not in the main from planning/built environment interests but many different and additional strands of community.
Every venture has some peril and the security of information is important and requires proper management - however the digital age has ways of taking care to build reputation, and therefore integrity, and this can be embraced.
John Graham is a "lapsed architectural type" living in Belfast with a continuing interest in the standards adpoted around housing and the core dynamics it calls up for everyone.