A potted (hi)story of Belfast’s ‘post-conflict’ architectural landscape, 1945-2015

After World War II, British cities rebuilt at pace and Belfast was no different. Despite not having a university-based school of architecture to call its own, Belfast rebuilt in the bomb-blitzed sites that pockmarked the city with the aid of mainly London-based architects. The architecture course taught within the arts at the Technical Art College between 1849 and 1969 (full time course in 1956) did contribute to producing many Northern Irish architects, however they would still need to be fully registered and certified in London. Some returning soldiers put down guns and took up fine-line pens to study architecture alongside younger Northern Irish students who had decided to study architecture overseas in England. The Festival of Britain in 1951 set the tone for this period, architecture and the architect acted as its public servants in its quest to lift the nation emotionally and economically.

The festival promoted British contributions to architecture alongside industry, science and the arts. Although Modernism was already half a century old, the Festival opened the door to the wider influence of Le Corbusier amongst other Modernist architects of the International Style sweeping European architecture in the preceding decades. Belfast’s contribution to the Festival saw a rising crop of young Northern Irish architecture students surface, such as Max Clendenning, Ian Campbell and Raymond Leith.

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1948 – 1958 Post-war International Style

With new levels of optimism and a growing appetite for modern architecture, Northern Ireland’s demand for better housing and public services saw local authority architecture departments set out to deliver their visions of a better future. Divis flats, Victoria Barracks and Aldergrove airport are three such projects in and around Belfast which capture the spirit of this hopeful moment and a faith in architecture for social betterment. A dedicated school of architecture opened at Queen’s University Belfast in 1965 after many years of discussion. Despite this new found confidence, architectural commissions, both public and private, were still heavily influenced by who you knew and what side of the religious divide you were associated with in Belfast. This unhealthy mix of cronyism and sectarianism – in both society and architecture – came together in discriminatory public housing allocation to disastrous consequences.

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1958 – 1968 Hope and Social Revolution
(lower photograph by Jez Coulson)

A campaign of street riots, bombs and shootings followed the bloody suppression of civil protest created in part by the discrimination against Catholic citizens shook the social dimensions of the city. Meanwhile the metrication of the imperial-based construction industry saw the physical dimensions shift for working architects. Political dimensions were changing also as Direct Rule (Political governance of Northern Ireland from Westminster in London, England) was implemented upon Northern Ireland for the first time as the violent conflict took hold across the country’s urban centres and border territories. In the face of these challenges, some of Belfast’s most ambitious built architecture was created during this time. Education, housing and leisure projects such as the the Ulster Museum extension, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Valley Leisure Centre were brave pioneers in these sectors. Everything else was up in the air…

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1968 – 1978 Imperial Rule(r)
(Original BW photograph by Clive Limpkin, adapted by Author)

A sustained campaign of paramilitary attacks and British army enforced curfews saw parts of Belfast become no-go areas or of heightened risk. Unfortunately misrepresentation by the press, including the architectural media, created an image of the city built solely on defence and security, rather than an enduring and complex place filled with people who were finding ways to survive and innovate despite the potential dangers faced. Many ambitious plans were drawn up behind this facade of defensive architecture. In amongst the burgeoning Northern Irish punk scene, imported Italian contemporary furniture, Winter schools/festivals of architecture and Delorean car manufacture grew promises of a future Belfast. The proposed, Cedric Price inspired, ‘Fun Palace’ called the Belfast Urban Park was to sew the seeds for many future city centre cultural and leisure facilities to come. Outsiders bolstered the energy provided by local agents, whilst others left to seek new experiences, safety and work overseas, this movement created a flow of ideas in and out of Northern Ireland. The city and its residents were in flux…

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1978 – 1988 Promise of a Belfast Kiss

Towards the end of the Cold War and the re-emergence of a peace process through paramilitary ceasefire and political will in Northern Ireland, Belfast’s school of architecture was close to closing. Many prospective students left and few were willing to come to study from elsewhere, a pattern mimicked by private investment and overseas business. And yet, a few entrepreneurs and visionaries inside Belfast saw social and economic opportunities in the evacuated Victorian building stock – swimming baths became art galleries; Gasworks became places to work again; people began to move back into the city centre. Promise gave way to money and action…

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1988 – 1998 Moving towards the Agreement

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1998 – 2008 The ‘Post-conflict’ world and 9/11

The new millennia brought local eyes to global crises. Climate change, 9/11, the London bombings, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and credit crunches would intertwine with local issues in Northern Ireland. A global financial crisis across America and Europe, led to Government backed bank bail-outs on both sides of the Irish Sea to prevent the financial system as we knew it from self-destructing. The private housing market, often held up as a prime indicator of a healthy growing economy was decimated as credit to build houses dried up. Speculative commercial development, dependent on a buoyant market, plummeted bankrupting developers in the process and draining the heavily dependent construction industry of jobs and prospects. With housing market value rises higher than anywhere outside of London,  coupled with the economic plight of those who shared the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland had the furthest to fall.

Award winning buildings up for sale at bargain basement prices in less than 4 years. Empty buildings and closing down sales are the norm, not the exception. Public finances slashed, jobs lost, overburdensome procurement – frustrations boil over.

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2008 – The Recession

And yet, despite these potentially dire situations, persistent and passionate clients give life to seminal projects in testing circumstances. NHS Health and Well being Centres, Sina’s cafe, Skainos, the MAC, and the Lyric to name but a few. Project gestations measured by decades not years, pro-bono work, ongoing political tensions, flags, parades and the past – always marching on, all marching in time.

Postscript

New Year’s Day 2014 – The burnt-out husk of a joy-ridden car sits mounted on the pavement. A young tree lies ripped from its roots beside the wreckage. An award-winning glazed building glows in the background. Nobody is around for now, except the landscape. This is the architecture of the contemporary, the here and now, the present – the place beyond ‘post-conflict’ awaiting to be discovered.

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Contemporary Architecture
(Original photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Kevin Sharkey)

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