Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Your City: Planning in Sight

PLACE held a week long summer school in August and offered the 27 attendees aged 14 to 20 the opportunity to write a short text relating to their built environment. To coincide with the launch of the summer school exhibition entitled "Your City" PLACE will publish the articles by Senan Kelly and Finn MacMillan this week on the Blog.

The "Your City" exhibition launches this Thursday 13th September from 6 - 7.30pm at PLACE, 40 Fountain Street, Belfast. Everyone is welcome and refreshments will be provided. The exhibition will display the images captured by disposable film cameras alongside a selection of models and sketchbooks by the participants.

Planning in Sight
By Senan Kelly

The ‘Spirit of Belfast’ public art sculpture, the brainchild of Dan George, is located in the forecourt to the Victoria Square shopping centre. From first sight it evokes a greater sense of ‘a free space’ than mechanical artistic flair.

Spirit of Belfast, Arthur Square.

The spaces that wind between the steel sheets allow every admirer to appreciate not only the work individually, but the spaces in sight - all of which revolve around the 360 degree platform ‘Spirit’ encompasses. How often have you appreciated the breathing space above yourself in city centre Belfast?

Shoulders hunched, feet charging forwards; the average passer-by is oblivious to the upper tiers of our built environment. It is this element of our cityscape that subtly speaks creativity and architectural beauty to the public yet scorns below to our increasingly commercialised shops fronts and dollar waving multinationals. For a city rich in diversity and a cultural re-birth of collective community understanding we should look up - see what was built before us to be utilised by us. 

Charles Lanyon's Freemason Hall, Arthur Square.

From the ascetic freedom of the open-plan Victoria Square shopping centre itself, to the boldness of red brick and stone present on the iconic National Bank Building and the magnificent bridge to twentieth century design immortalised on the Bank Buildings, or the splendid Victorian architecture magnetised by City Hall, Belfast is rich with character. Charles Lanyon, himself a globally celebrated architect, decorated Belfast so finely with his work of splendid detail dashed with grand authority. A glance skywards from the Spirit of Belfast sculpture on Arthur Street and you can take in one of his ‘un-sighted’ buildings: Masonic Hall. The building makes particular reference to Lanyon’s freemason background, with the Masonic symbol of square and compasses (tools of the trade) for instance, while also on the same floor there is a roundel containing a glide five-pointed star (another freemason symbol of the five points of fellowship). Lanyon’s building therefore resonates on a personal level - something which new-builds dominated by progressive materials often forsake.

Commercial clamour, head-level views; is this profit or profanity?
Belfast’s new architectural class is littered with second storey emptiness - boards upon boards of ‘To Let/For Sale’ signs - signalling that it’s time to sign up for change. The Athletic Stores lay neglected for years and only as recently as 2009 did the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society call for it to be reinstated. However, after a high court case was turned over to the local Planning Council’s control their decision has ceased the life of this celebrated building. With whose interests in mind we may question: perhaps the developer’s? The building is now due to be demolished. 

Swanston's Linen Warehouse (The Athletic Stores), Queen Street.

With offices and apartments pushed out and crammed together out of town - in developments such as The Titanic Quarter, there is a fear the city is losing its hold on control. Belfast is a city with history, a capital city. However, is it one unable to fulfil its title or one that is an architectural shell waiting to be filled with success?

Transformation is merely a word whose meaning lies worryingly with drastic overhauls and is seldom influenced and embroiled in the pursuit of a quick sale, at the expense of a sustainable future. Restoration is Spirit: “The loyalty and feeling of inclusion in the social history or collective essence of an institution or group”, or to take its Latin form Belfast’s restoration can “breathe” new life into an already spirited city.

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