Building on Sites of Conflict: Lessons for the Future(s) of the Maze Prison Development in Northern Ireland
Aisling Shannon Rusk & Paul Bower
With supervision from Professor Ruth Morrow & Dr Agustina Martire
School of Planning, Architecture & Civil Engineering (SPACE)
Queen’s University Belfast
HM Prison Maze (known colloquially as The Maze or Long Kesh) was a notorious prison in Northern Ireland, used to detain paramilitary prisoners during the thirty years of civil conflict known as ‘The Troubles’. This site, ‘that directly and indirectly administered, facilitated and perpetuated pain on multiple levels’, closed in 2000 as part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and was subsequently transferred to public ownership. The prison has now been largely demolished. All that remain are one of the eight ‘H-Blocks’ (so called due to their shape in plan) and the hospital wing, both of which are now listed buildings.
A government-commissioned masterplan for the future of the prison site was revealed in 2006, but failed to get underway in the economic downturn since 2008. However in 2012, the European Union allocated funding to build a ‘Conflict Transformation Centre’ on the site. Daniel Libeskind, global ‘starchitect’ renowned for working on sites of conflict and trauma, was announced as the lead designer.
Twelve years after it ceased to function as a prison, this site remains a contentious and emotion-ridden place of memory that is highly politicised, with potent symbolic status. To some, for example, it is seen as a place of shame which should be obliterated; to others it is a shrine to the Republican struggle and the 1981 hunger strikers who died there and should therefore be memorialised.
This paper will question the contribution that ‘starchitect’-designed, peace-oriented buildings, which attract worldwide attention, can make to places that are, to varying degrees, still embroiled in conflict. This will involve an exploration around the following themes:
• To what extent narratives of conflict and its transformation can be conveyed in a building design;
• Whether the infrastructure that was used to manage the conflict can be the same infrastructure that helps to transform it;
• The merits of the decision to locate the conflict resolution centre rurally, at the Maze, where it is removed from the nexus of Belfast’s community groups, research institutions and conflict archives;
• Whether a building whose design, in the words of Libeskind, attempts to ‘bring something really positive’, and tell the ‘whole story’ of the Northern Ireland peace process, can deliver the very conflict transformation it purports to advocate.
Drawing from concepts of politics of difference, identity and memory theory, it will question the ethical values and strategic design thinking that underpin such initiatives. Charting the decision-making and design process through official documents, media representation and responses from leading commentators in Northern Ireland, the paper will present the multiple agendas of the Maze development. Multiple perspectives will be presented, leaving it to the reader to draw their own conclusions regarding possible futures for this and other hotly contested sites.
Aisling Shannon Rusk has worked as an architect across the UK and abroad. Her PhD research explores the ethical engagement of architects in contested space in divided societies. She also leads walking tours in Belfast that explore how the city has been shaped by conflict.
Paul Bower is an urban designer and researcher based in Manchester with experience working across the UK for both public and private sector clients. His Phd is looking at the impact of social conflict on architectural practice in ‘post-conflict’ Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is also a founding member of the Carbon Coop – a co-operative aiming at reducing energy use at a neighbourhood level by delivering retrofit works to homes across Greater Manchester.
 McDOWELL S, 2009. ‘Negotiating Places of Pain in Post-Conflict Northern Ireland’, in: Logan W, ed. 2009. Places of Pain and Shame: Dealing with ‘Difficult’ Heritage. New York: Routledge. p.216
 GLENDINNING M, 2010. Architecture’s Evil Empire: The Triumph and Tragedy of Global Modernism, London: Reaktion Books.
 JARMAN N, 2000. ‘Material Remnants: Dealing with the remains of conflict in Northern Ireland’, in: Scholfeild J. et al., eds. 2000. Materiel Culture: The Archaeology of 20th Century Conflict. London and New York: Routledge. p.290
 BBC Northern Ireland website (11-09-2012) ‘Daniel Libeskind to ‘bring life’ to Maze prison site’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-19560966 [accessed 25-09-12]