Could a seat-plan be a more effective and cheaper way to test conflict transformation than a £18.1 million Peace-building and Conflict Resolution Centre (PbCRC)?
As I write this question, I have last Friday’s copy of the Belfast Telegraph newspaper in front of me. The headline: ‘Lost in a Maze: centre mired in IRA shrine fears’ is coupled with a grainy Sketchup image of the proposed Daniel Libeskind designed PbCRC building juxtaposed with the familiar smiling portrait of the Maze hunger striker Bobby Sands. Leaving to one side the controversy of this particular project and particular site for a moment (more easily said than done), I couldn’t help but feel that the headline ‘Lost in a Maze’ could also equally apply to the state of Northern Ireland.
In the second Peace Monitoring report by the Community Relations Council (CRC) (You can read a summary of it here), ten key points facing Post-conflict Northern Ireland 15 years on from the historic Good Friday/Belfast/Peace Agreement are raised. One of the ten key points, which I think is particularly important and relevant to highlight here, is how over the past 12-18 months the Northern Ireland Assembly has faltered as a legislative chamber.
For those who are unversed in the complex political landscape/maze of Northern Ireland (I’m still trying to get my head around it) the Assembly was part of the 1998 Peace Agreement which saw a power sharing assembly installed at Stormont to ensure that all political parties and cross-community representation existed in the Northern Irish seat of power. The Assembly have the authority to elect an Executive which consists of: a First Minister (Peter Robinson), a Deputy Minister (Martin McGuiness) who sit in the ‘Office of the First Minister and Deputy Minister’ as well as eleven other devolved departments for Northern Ireland. (For a fuller overview of the devolution settlement – see here)
The Peace Monitoring Report describes however, how this particular structure has created a situation where power is being accumulated within the Executive, leaving the Assembly largely impotent to implementing changes to legislation and as an effective political forum. This is illustrated in how key policies, such as the long awaited ‘Cohesion, Sharing & Integration’ document and the Northern Irish Architecture & Built Environment policy have either stalled or stagnated. Whilst an under populated (bums on seats) Assembly chamber is another symptom of this impasse. As a consequence a lot of key decision making is deferred to the sub-committees that occupy the smaller rooms around the edges of Stormont. The decision over the Maze Long Kesh development site was no different – the decisions were made in the committee room; or to use Cluedo-istic language “it was Colonel Stormont, with the devolved legislature in Committee Room 2”
Earlier in the month I published a blogpost entitled ‘Democratic space typologies for Northern Ireland (As Seen On TV)’ – this was a series of pixellated stills of Northern Irish political forums taken from various TV screens I switch between whilst I’m away from Belfast. These included Belfast City Hall, Stormont Assembly Chamber & Committee Room, and the BBC Belfast television studios, where several audience/panel shows are recorded such as the Nolan Show. It dawned on me that the design and spatial dimensions of these and other such spaces are often overlooked for their influence on the political decisions (or lack of) in Northern Ireland. Of course, tables, chairs and room layouts are largely inert artefacts, but when they are occupied they become active spatial (and therefore political) mechanisms capable of either galvanising or paralysing discussions. Therefore could a redesigned seat-plan influence the Northern Irish politic and aid conflict transformation more than a building, and if so might this be an more effective way to spend limited resources?
I raise this question in reaction to the recently publicised £18.1 million Peace-building and Conflict Resolution Centre (PbCRC) building designed by Daniel Libeskind for the Maze Long Kesh former prison site, which was granted planning permission last Friday. In many ways Libeskind has done what he was asked – to produce a building that will publicise the cause of peace-building and conflict resolution in Northern Ireland and attract the world’s media once again to the Maze Long Kesh site. However, what he has produced can also be considered as part of a ‘Libeskind Series’ which has its lineage in numerous ‘Conflict’ related museums, institutes or sites of trauma the ‘starchitect’ has designed over the past decade. So rather than addressing the highly complex and unique political conditions that exist in Northern Ireland, the PbCRC acts more as an autonomous architectural franchise which Northern Ireland has unfortunately bought into.
I am highly critical of this project, but for much more than the formal and banal architectural gestures which you can see in the Libeskind drawings above. The scheme’s critics and promotors to date can be placed into two general groups: The ‘shrine to terrorists’ / ‘memorial to political prisoners’ group and the ‘enormous economic, historical and reconciliation potential of the site’ group. Unfortunately these are the groups that dominate nearly all cross-media discussions when the redevelopment of the Maze Long Kesh prison site is raised. And I suspect were also the main ‘voices’ consulted by the design team.
However I want to amplify what one lone Northern Irish policy analyst and commentator said on Friday: “The last and bitterest irony about the (forbiddingly titled) Peace-building and Conflict Resolution Centre [is that] from London’s point of view, Northern Ireland is ‘sorted’… so far from a model to showcase to the world, we are left with a political system that cannot address our own challenge of reconciliation, never mind move on from the era of the hunger strikes to one where – who would ever of thought it? – some people resort to food banks to survive.” And that for me is the major irony in a nutshell – the PbCRC scheme obscures the real wider issues of austerity-led budget cuts, climate change and widening socio-economic inequality sweeping through Western Europe and does not take into account the maze that is Northern Ireland and the broader political mechanisms that underpin such contested sites.
When the path of the Maze Long Kesh development controversy is retraced in the future, we should make sure not to overlook the seating-plan. When key decisions were made, who sat where and who sat with whom, what could they see, hear, smell? How comfortable were the seats and how much leg room did they have? Would a different seating and spatial arrangement have led to different decisions being made and could it have influenced the path of conflict transformation? What disappoints most is a gut feeling that Libeskind has under estimated the power and persuasion he wields in Northern Ireland and therefore the opportunity for real change in building on sites of conflict has been missed, for now.
The Libeskind designed PbCRC project has subsequently been publicised on the popular architecture and design blogsite Dezeen, drawing over 45 comments to date. The scheme is being judged primarily on its bland and poor graphical representation and unfortunately not on its bland and overly simplified programme and misplaced faith. One of the darker satirical comments read: ‘that cafeteria makes me want to go on hunger strike’ (see Dezeen article here)