Brian Anson, the Northern Irish Conflict & Wallace and Gromit

The Painter Mouse - a children's book written and illustrated by Brian Anson (1973)

The Painter Mouse – a children’s book written and illustrated by Brian Anson (1973)

As well as studying those architects and actors/agents from Northern Ireland (‘insiders’) who practiced during and after the conflict, the PhD is also looking to those agents who came into Northern Ireland to practice – what I have been calling ‘outsiders’.

One such external agent was Brian Anson, (1935-2009) the architect and planner provocateur, (educator, political activist, storyteller, illustrator, painter, folk-singer among other things) who is perhaps best known for his participation in the Covent Garden redevelopment during the ’70s in London. An episode which saw him lose his job from the Greater London Council when he sided with the residents in their fight to save their neighbourhood from demolition and gentrification from a masterplan that he was, until that point, overseeing. A story he colourfully depicts in his 1981 book: ‘I’ll Fight You For It! – Behind the Struggle For Covent Garden”

'I'll Fight You For It! - Behind the Struggle for Covent Garden' (front cover) Anson, (1981)

‘I’ll Fight You For It! – Behind the Struggle for Covent Garden’ (front cover) Anson, (1981)

But I am interested in Brian Anson for two other reasons (although there are many reasons to take interest in Brian Anson).

1. For his time as a design tutor at the Architectural Association (AA) in the ’70s immediately after Covent Garden.

2. For his work in Belfast in the early ’80s (post AA) – in particular his support for the residents’ campaign to demolish Divis Flats – a notorious ’60s slab block housing estate on the city centre edge of West Belfast.

AJ Front Cover

Anson, special AJ issue

Anson edits special Architects Journal issue – 30th June 1982

At the end of last year (December 2012) I was fortunate enough to get to spend a few hours in the company of one of Brian’s former AA students during the early 70’s. Together they went on to work with each other beyond the AA for several projects initiated as student briefs, what we would perhaps recognise as live projects today. In addition they worked together on the Divis Flats campaign in Belfast which was part of Brian’s ‘Mobile Planning Unit’ tour of Britain and Ireland in a converted camper van funded by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) in the early ’80s. Brian was joined for the ‘Mobile Planning Unit’ by Mike Beazley as they travelled between communities offering free planning advice and hands-on help where possible.

Brian’s former student went on to work for a Local Authority housing department in London, not as an architect but as a project manager overseeing the refurbishment of existing stock as well as delivering new homes. Born in Ireland during a time when internment was being increasingly used on anyone with connections to the Republican movement. His family soon left Ireland for London. Throughout this period (’50s – today) he continued to keep an interest in Irish/Anglo politics and the developing civil unrest with annual visits to Northern Ireland to collect and document ‘conflict ephemera’ – posters, badges, postcards, marches, parades, murals etc… a collection he maintains and adds to today. As a teenager he would travel back to Northern Ireland and in particular Londonderry/Derry to man the barricades – an experience which he tells me made him a “militant pacifist” (as the sepia photo below suggests) A few years later this same boy enrolled in the Architectural Association under the chair of Alvin Boyarsky, one of the last student intakes before public subsidies were cut.

Battle of the Bogside (1969) - photograph by Gilles Caron

Battle of the Bogside (1969) – photograph by Gilles Caron. A teenage boy looks down to the police and British army with a line of Molotov cocktails and dust-bin shield at his feet. This boy went on to study architecture at the Architectural Association under Brian Anson in the 70s.

Here is a short extract from our conversation about a project brief at the AA Brian devised:

1: So I stayed in Brian’s unit until I finished the AA. I was probably Brian’s favourite student, but his worse. Brian had an attitude that everybody was an expert, particularly in the built environment. The real experts, were not those who made it but those who lived in it. So Brian was very influential in my further development, but I didn’t do a lot of [Capital-A] ‘Architecture’. I worked on a range of mostly community activist projects; Covent Garden, the Colne Valley, Bridgetown in Staffordshire, a project in South Wales in the Avon Valley and a couple of small projects around London. The biggest being Ealing in West London.

I was doing bits of architecture, but nothing significant, nothing worthwhile really. And then Brian devised a project in my last year called ‘Libertaria’ which was a fascinating project, it could have been designed for me.

Libertaria was an island, a mythical, ‘made-up’ island. It had been colonised and the native population wanted their independence. They had just discovered off-shore oil and gas, so the colonial government wanted to keep control of the island. Brian had done up a plan of the capital city which was a mix of a bit of Covent Garden, a bit of Paris, a bit of Barcelona and a bit of Dublin.

PB: A collage city?

1: Yeah. We were just given the plans and a map of the island and a bit of the political history of the island and off you go. And initially you’re an architect working for the Government and there is urban insurrection happening and there is all this oil money, so the colonial government want a really prestigious, glossy redevelopment of the city centre.”

Like many architecture tutors before and after Brian, the projects they set their students often reflect the preoccupations and interests filling their minds at the time. Libertaria happened at the peak of ‘the Troubles‘ in Northern Ireland, but it could also stand for the many ‘wars’ of independence and battles with colonialism being witnessed globally. Yet at the same time Libertaria was seemingly a politicised utopia that had been designed and was to be re-designed by Brian’s AA students – was this not just repeating history?

Later on I asked about Brian’s position in relation to Northern Ireland:

PB: I’ve been calling Brian an ‘outsider’ as an English, Liverpudlian architect working in Belfast. To what extent do you think this is true?

 1: Brian was very connected. Brian was a Republican. Brian became a Republican because he came from a Loyalist background from Bootle, North of Liverpool. Brian married a woman called Mary O’Shea from Galway. Mary’s family from 1916 to 1920s were very heavily involved in Irish Republican activity and Irish Republican politics and it was through meeting with a woman by the name of Tess O’Shea, (a specialist doctor), that got Brian seeing this woman’s passion about Irish history and politics, so there must be something in it, so Brian started reading. So Brian became a Republican.

By the time we were in Divis, one of the first things Brian would say to people is “I’m a Republican – that’s where we’re starting from’

PB: So he was partisan?

1: Absolutely. And a great singer as well! A good rebel song singer. Brian saw a wonderful potential opportunity with the Divis project. That because of the military situation in the North of Ireland, if Sinn Fein could be convinced of the potential to create something really new and exciting, then Sinn Fein may have been able to have some influence on the IRA to back up our argument. Sinn Fein were never interested, they never went in for it.

The exhibition, when it was held in London, the TCPA offices in the Mall, just outside from Trafalgar Square on the run up to Betty Windsor’s house. Because those who had been offered money to work on Divis declined the offer of money. So we were paying our own fares for going backward and forward to meet with the residents and so on. We had a huge reserve of monies for paying for the physical costs of the exhibition itself. So we decided that a major component to the exhibition would be the people themselves. So something like 20 Divis residents came over (to London) for the opening of the exhibition. We had people harassed on the way over of course because some of them were Sinn Feiners, some of them, quite a few of them had been in prison, quite a few would have sons and daughters in prison.

PB: Was this before or after the Brighton Hotel bombing of 1984?

1: After, it would be about 89’.

PB: So there was still clearly an atmosphere or suspicion, fear and paranoia in mainland Britain regarding the IRA and Northern Ireland?

1: Yes. So we put up Divis residents. Everyone got ‘billeted around’ as they say in Belfast. So I had two staying with with me. The exhibition was a huge success. Very stark images, perfect wording, having the 20 odd residents there was great.

Ken Livingstone invited the Divis residents to tea at County Hall. The Daily Mail and the Daily Express were apoplectic – it was great, absolutely wonderful. We got publicity for that exhibition as far away as Australia. Questions were being asked in the Houses of Parliament, in the House of Lords, in the House of Representatives in the States and in the Senate. It was just one of those dream projects that just came together. The exhibition came about 2 years into the 4 year duration.

So the outcome of the exhibition, and that exhibition toured around different places as well, and ended up in Belfast. The pressure on Government was huge and they decided that they would demolish Divis. So we then started a campaign, with Brian, this was Brian’s dream project, where we become the architects to redevelop Divis and we do a ‘Libertaria’ project on it.

PB: Was he open to the idea of any other person designing an aspect of the site? Because what you have just said could be described as a traditional modernist architectural approach, where all that has gone before is wiped clean to create the conditions for implementing an architects utopian ‘vision’?

1: It was him, me and the others doing it. In conjunction with the residents and in conjunction with the principles developed through the ‘Libertaria’ student project. Brian thought that a potential threat could be implied by the Sinn Fein and IRA connection, but that never happened.

Politically in the north, as soon as a decision to demolish Divis was made, every political party of size, jumped on the band wagon and said it was all their hard-work, that behind the scenes that had helped with Divis. The only political party that did not make any statement claiming credit was Sinn Fein and they were the only political party who put any effort, time or personnel into it. But they said it was all down to the people of Divis, not anyone else.

We had a number of meetings with the NI Housing Executive, with a view to doing the design. But, however the Housing Executive certainly weren’t going to wear that.

In my conversation with Brian’s former student and friend I discovered at times Brian showed traits that were more akin to Howard Roark  – i.e. an architect who wanted his vision to be implemented at any cost – than an activist who was working with the community to deliver a shared vision and action plan. However there is no denying the sheer passion, energy and commitment Brian gave to not only communities all over Britain and Ireland but the students and colleagues he worked with. He and others, gave voice to some of the most under heard and hidden parts of society and they did it through architecture and planning.

In a recent talk by Wouter Vanstiphout for Strelka entitled “Damn the Masters Plan!”. Vanstiphout makes a well argued plea for architecture to become a much more political profession. He suggests two pieces of advice to move towards this ‘Design as Politics’; firstly that architects should become much more aware and knowledgable of the technocratic, bureaucratic machinery that underpins society and everyday life. Secondly that architects should place greater value on the importance of both story-telling and story-listening to their role as agents in the built environment and society. In Brian Anson, I believe we had both characteristics and that more than anytime before we (the profession of architecture and society) need more of this type of spatial agent to step forward.

Wallace & Gromit collection

Wallace & Gromit collection.

“Why Wallace & Gromit? – well Paul, if you collect as much conflict ephemera as I do then you need something a little more lighthearted to lift the mood every now and again.” 🙂

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