Design as Politics: Belfast

In December I went to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to give a lecture at the invitation of the student architecture society of Queens University. I had heard about the history of violence in this city, but had no idea tensions remained so high, and was wholly unprepared for the ongoing consequences of this for the urban fabric. My time there, although brief, left a real impression. I was there to speak about Future Practice, my book which presents various alternate paths for architectural practice going forward. However none of these examples deal explicitly with a post-conflict condition, so I was wary of presenting these ideas within a such a politically-charged and seemingly intractable context. Surely more is needed than new roles?

To these concerns, I was told by my hosts to simply “be optimistic”, to present the work as I would to any audience. The reason for this soon became clear: architects in Belfast are more than anything in need of alternate futures. As one professor put it to me “the students are afraid to turn over the cobblestones because all you find underneath is contested history, all the way down, and it’s all bad.” Operating on the site of a 400 year conflict, how can you design when the context is so overwhelming? How can you make propositions when the space remains so contested? How can you be visionary when faced with such nuanced complexity?

This post is intended to capture some of my first impressions of this incredible city, and to sketch out some potential tactics for how architecture may begin to move forward. Yes, it’s presumptuous and naive, but I’ll explain why.

(If you are familiar with the situation in Belfast, you may want to skip ahead to part 2.)


Map of Religious Distribution in Belfast. Source: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.

A City Divided

First some basic context. Despite the passing of the Good Friday Agreement, securing peace and multi-party status for Northern Ireland, Belfast remains a city divided. 2012 census data reveals that for the first time the proportion of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland is roughly equal, and yet the areas occupied by these respective groups, remain radically segregated.

The map above, based on figures from the previous census in 2001, illustrates the extreme contrast between the Catholic (green) and Protestant (red) neighbourhoods, with little in between. I am told by a local planner that even drawing new plans is an endeavour fraught with issues; so many colours remain off limits due to their political associations “It’s easier just to draw in black, white and grey.”

Front page of the Belfast Telegraph with news on an attack on a policewoman from the night before.

Conflict? What Conflict?

Technically, Northern Ireland is defined as a ‘post-conflict’ state, a distinction that brings with it certain funding, but otherwise doesn’t seem to capture the reality on the ground. While sectarian violence has declined, in a forum hosted by PS2, the state of conflict was described as “in remission, further down the conflict spectrum, but not cured.” Indeed that evening, as part of the week-long ‘flag riots’, a policewoman guarding the offices of an MP was lucky to escape alive after a petrol bomb was thrown into her car.

And just last night, as I write this a week later, Belfast is on the front page as a police office is injured by bricks and bottles being hurled in a protest involving hundreds of people . Again, this is in response to a decision about a flag. The absurdity is not lost on everyone, as my cab driver says, “they could go and put up the fucking Pakistani flag for all I care.”

There is plenty more to be said here, about the police cars decked out as riot vehicles; the ever-present murals — propaganda from both sides, memorialising the leaders of paramilitary groups such as the IRA or the UVF — and the official efforts to de-politicise these murals under the frighteningly Orwellian title of ‘re-imaging’; the role of language in perpetuating sides, where terms such as ‘terrorism’, ‘murdered’, ‘protest’ or ‘demonstration’ are politically loaded and deployed knowingly; etc. This is a city with deep wounds that remain exposed.

Peace wall along Cupar Way, Belfast.


These wounds are most clearly evidenced in the built environment in the form of Belfast’s notorious ‘Peace Lines’. First erected by the British Army in 1969 as a temporary emergency measure to isolate neighbourhoods locked in bloody sectarian violence, they have become a more or less permanent division. There are apparently more than 48 in Belfast today, and I am told that more than half of which—incredibly—have been built since the ‘peace’ agreement of 1998.

Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis wrote of the Berlin wall in 1972, “As so often before in the history of mankind, architecture was the guilty instrument of despair.” Indeed, the Peace Lines are the most blunt instrument of division, an uncompromising physical barrier to separate people locked in mutual fear and hatred. So much has been said of these walls, there is little to be added here, but a number of things about them struck me as truly bizarre.

Firstly, is that the walls are not enclosing, but linear. Whereas Berlin’s walls were fortified and continuous, to stem the tide of evacuation from a territory ruled by one ideology to another, as are those in Israel-Palestine, in Belfast you can just walk around it. Yes, there are gates closed at night, creating a more secure perimeter, but in principle it’s simply a deterrent to the flow of people, rather than an enclosure. There are no checkpoints. The boundaries are fluid and yet strictly obeyed, implicitly impermeable. To my foreign eyes, the seeming pointlessness of a massive wall that you can simply walk around, highlights the utter arbitrarity of what these walls are separating.

This is a simplistic reading however, and I’m corrected by one of my hosts, Ruth Morrow, who explains that this particular spatial configuration is a very specific response to a specific issue:

“The walls effectively bleed into other less territorial areas of dispersed loyalties—more neutral, non contentious zones—so someone from one side of the wall wanting to attack the other side would be moving into grey unclear areas if they walked the length of the wall to go around it. The simple tactic of putting distance and time between the emotion and the act of violence is enough to calm the situation. One could see that as being a very clever reading and manipulation of space, time and emotion.”

House with a backyard facing the peace lines, enclosed by a wire cage presumably to protect against bricks or bottles hurled over the fence.

The second oddity is that these walls are not visible on any official map. After some fruitless googling, I came across this Freedom of Information request asking the authorities for exactly such a thing. The response is blunt: “Both [Police] Districts responded to the effect that they did not hold maps of existing peace lines in Belfast.” That no such official plan exists in public is unbelievable, particularly given the millions in public funds spent constructing and maintaining such walls. (The Belfast Interface Project does maintain a map of the interfaces, but it is treated as a series of points, rather than as a plan.)

Thirdly, is that these walls are, in the most part, demanded by the people, rather than imposed from above. John Calame and Esther Charlesworth in Divided Cities (2009, p.5) present a typical scenario of how these walls come into being:

“What can urban managers do when a group of Belfast teenagers light a bonfire of trash and wood in an empty lot along one of the city’s many Protestant-Catholic interfaces? Their excitement grows if members of a rival group from the adjacent neighbourhood appear at the scene. Alcohol is consumed, taunts are exchanges, and someone throws a stone. When a riot ensues, older community members on both sides are summoned in a ritualised chain reaction. As confrontation escalates slowly over weeks and months, the stakes are gradually raised and houses on one or both sides are attacked, terrorising the inhabitants, who typically have no connection with the violence outside. These victims are innocent but are simply too close to the interface, so they bear the brunt of social, physical, and psychological traumas. Faced with such a chronic problem, the citizens petition their parliamentary representative for an interface wall. If their case is sound, the municipal government allocates the necessary funds and commissions another peaceline. Typically, the restless teenagers at the centre of the drama move onto the next empty pocket and the cycle begins again.”

So these walls serve a purpose, in a way, by creating a tenuous peace through physical separation. But the very physicality of the walls mean that segregation becomes further reinforced in society. Progress toward integration is being made however, with increased Catholic representation in government, and the police force required to meet quotas of diversity. After hearing this, I ask my taxi driver whether there were integrated schools, he laughs, “we’re not there yet!”, as though it were somehow a naively utopian idea. Historian Tony Judt, characterised the religious divide in the 1960s as “correspond[ing] to a communal divide replicated at every stage of life: from birth to death, through education, housing, marriage, employment and recreation.” (Postwar, p.467) It seems little has changed since. And so, the stereotypes and hatred continue to fester in cultural isolation, unchallenged by contact with the ‘other’, and is again instilled in the next generation.

Brick blast wall surrounding the police station in Grosvenor Rd with polychrome brickwork evoking England’s St George’s Cross flag.


Given that the spatial architecture of the wall is largely to blame for the ongoing conflict in Belfast, it is ironic that the architecture of buildings is also a victim. In Terminal Architecture (1998), the late Martin Pawley describes a particular architectural style unique to Belfast, derived from the need to withstand explosions.

“Their in-situ concrete or steel structural frames (no precast concrete is permitted) are monolithic and coherent, designed to be self-supporting so that even if everything else falls down, they will still stand. Brick and concrete block infill panels, once the standby of commercial architecture in the province, are now shunned in favour of quickly replaceable plasterboard panels that will blow out and relieve the pressure of an explosion. Most obviously, large areas of glass, so common in the commercial architecture of London and all the world’s major cities, are virtually non-existent.” (p.152)

Paul Bower, one of my hosts along with Ruth Morrow, points out that the blast wall surrounding the police station in Grosvenor Rd is made up of the St George’s Cross—the flag of Britain—repeated in polychrome brickwork. An egregious bit of unnecessary thumb-biting commissioned by the force, that presumably did little to ease tensions or raise public confidence in the law.

In short, the people of Belfast are really up against it.


The role of architects in such a conflicted context is a difficult one. History is littered with the failed attempts of designers to engage in post-conflict scenarios. As Esther Charlesworth of Architects Without Frontiers explained when I interviewed her last year, “You often have the manmade disaster of war, then there is the political disaster afterwards of incompetence, and then there’s the third disaster: the design disaster.” (Volume: Architecture of Peace, p.24) These missteps are most often attributed to the disastrous combination of two factors: poor understanding of the complexity of the context, and overreaching vision. Charlesworth cites the immediacy with which global architects created proposals for the rebuilding of New York’s World Trade Centre, “before they even knew who owned the site” as an example of how misguided our profession can be. “To inflict these purely speculative ideas of yet another ideal city on an already traumatised community seems totally wacky.”

The alternative, it would seem, is to be informed, sensitive, and polite. Sultan Barakat, Professor of Politics at the University of York and consultant to the UN, argues that “No longer is the architect the forger and executer or a large-scale systematic plan … In the new context of state fragility and internal conflict, the architect must adopt new approaches that are small-scale, bottom-up and community-driven.” (Volume: Architecture of Peace, p.22) What these two positions establish, however, is a false dichotomy. The large-scale and ‘visionary’ is assumed to be ignorant, and the small-scale and polite is assumed to be informed. I would argue these two positions are not mutually exclusive, that it is possible to be objective and bold as well as contextual and informed.

Meanwhile, the architect faced with a difficult context, has become overwhelmed by a desire to understand, and yet paralysed by an inability to act. From Hollow Land, Divided Cities, Atlas of the Conflict, and even to an extent, Al Manakh 2 (which I worked on), bookshelves are heaving with earnest tomes written by architects, offering authoritative evidence of their sympathetic and nuanced understanding of conflicted territories. All of this is incredibly valuable work, and provides a firm foundation for others to build upon, but I would argue few go far enough. Architecture is inherently propositional, and it needs to reclaim the ambition required to take the additional step. As architects stray further into political geography, the challenge going forward is to develop strategies for moving beyond analysis and into synthesis and proposition. As Wouter Vanstiphout, Professor of Design as Politics at TU Delft (from whom I’ve stolen the title of this post), said in an interview I did with him, “If an architect is humble, then what good are they?”

So, having said all this, I’m going to tentatively put my money where my mouth is. What follows is a number of alternate strategies for engaging with conflicted terrain. They are all based on examples drawn from elsewhere, and are informed by numerous discussions with others. They are half-formed thoughts, sketches at best. The intention here is to give them a name, and to pin them up on the wall, so they can be tested, adapted, criticised or ignored.

1. Comprehensive transition

This strategy is otherwise known as the ‘official position’. It is the thorough repair of all aspects of society: historical, cultural, economic, social and spatial. It is a totalising effort, a multi-pronged approach, that seeks to engineer a better public. It is inevitably directed from the top down, and enacted through the big levers of governance, such as policy reform, large-scale planning, and economic stimulus.

Peter McNaney, Chief Executive of the Belfast City Council, when speaking to architects and planners at an event hosted by the Forum for Alternative Belfast in 2009, states “It is absolutely vital that people become involved in the governance of this city. And whether you like it or not, some of you need to join political parties, and some of you need to become elected representatives, and some of you need to shape your future.” The implication here, as far as I can tell given the nature of the forum, is that in order for architects or planners to make a difference in shaping society, they will need to step away from the drawing board and enter government. It’s a fairly condescending position, and says much of the perceived role of designers in regard to their potential for contribution to larger issues today. And that’s the trouble with the comprehensive approach. For an individual—for an architect—the challenge is too great.

2. Ninja move

That’s not to say that McNaney isn’t right, a comprehensive transition is what many post-conflict cities need, but government-driven, top-down, totalising strategies aren’t the only way of enacting change. And besides, seemingly more often than not—in all cities, including those post-conflict—government bureaucracy stands as an impediment to change, rather than a motivator. The ‘ninja move’ (for want of a better title) is the one-inch-punch delivered to bureaucratic bottlenecks. Rather than reshaping the whole system from above, this strategy seeks out the one key impediment to change, and removes it, hopefully unleashing a subsequent torrent of positive stuff.

An example of this is memorably reported by Marcus Westbury of Renew Newcastle fame—perhaps itself another example of the ‘ninja move’ strategy, as I’ve written about previously—which he’s christened ‘Buy John Wardle a Beer Day’. As Marcus tells it, John Wardle, a live music fan, dove into the deep ‘dark matter’ of state government regulations to change the laws to make “performing live music in a venue relatively simple, where it was once impossibly hard.” Through this specific intervention in policy, John has compiled a list of 50 new places that have become live venues since the laws have changed. “A small crack of light that has turned back the forces of darkness and poker machines.”

While this example is decidedly ‘light’, and doesn’t engage with the messy seriousness of a post-conflict condition, it’s not much of a stretch to see how this strategy could be applied elsewhere to similar effect.

Sina’s Cafe, a store made out of a shipping container, and located in the centre of one of Belfast’s contested interface areas.

3. Unsolicited Architecture

If the smoke-filled halls of power and the fossilised ledgers of policy are mired in the comprehensive approach, or refuse to yield to the ninja move, there is another way: just go ahead and do it. Unsolicited Architecture is a strategy I’ve written about extensively elsewhere before, here, here and here. It has its roots in an issue of Volume magazine of the same name from 2007, and can be summed up with the slogan “Don’t wait for the phone to ring!” It’s a manifesto for a pro-active architecture, one that doesn’t wait for sites or briefs or budgets—all things which are contingent on the agendas of others, most often driven by the market—but liberates the architect to propose what is needed. Of course, beyond this idea, there’s a much longer history of people just doing things without waiting for permission, because they knew it was what was needed. And this little cafe in North Belfast is no exception.

Sited in the centre of a large cleared interface area—the zones where segregated residential areas meet, in the absence of a wall—Sina’s Cafe presents itself as a little piece of neutral ground in the middle of a vast contested terrain. I was driven out there by Paul and Ruth, to get a coffee, and to check out one of the sites for an upcoming design studio of Ruth’s. We got chatting to the owner, he bought the land a couple of years ago when it was covered with rubbish and had been the site of one of Belfast’s many provocative bonfires. He originally had bigger ambitions for the site, and describes to us a 2 storey brick building, with a shop and a couple of residences, that he had some local architects draw up for him. With the project delayed by a depressed economy and planning issues, he grew tired of leaving the site unattended, and decided to set up in any way he could. He designed the shipping container shop himself, and had it made up and put on the site. It’s a beautiful little thing, painted a nice grey with a bright red sign, full-height glass down one side, and panels which can be folded back for protection after hours. It’s sited to front onto the roundabout, and has chickens pecking around in front.

Chatting to the owner of Sina’s Cafe.

When I ask why he did it, he says “I don’t know, I just did it.” This may just be guff for tourists like me, as it’s clearly quite a bold gesture and a commitment, but nevertheless, his methods are simple: he arrives every day at 7am, picks up the rubbish, cleans off the graffiti, keeps the place open, with eyes on the street, closes at 7pm, every day. Bizarrely, the city council have a problem with it, and have attempted to close it down. No, he didn’t get permission in the first place, but his attempts to make the thing legal retrospectively have been thwarted at every turn, with the council even arguing that it is “unacceptable in this location, detracting from the existing character of the area.” Character!? Given it is sitting within an urban battlefield, I find the shipping container look to be quite appropriate.

It’s hard for me to judge what impact, if any, it has made on the area. But just simply being there, every day, has surely made the place a little more welcoming and less intimidating. Hopefully the council can see some sense, and instead of opposing creative entrepreneurialism like this, can begin to encourage it.

Lyric Theatre by O’Donnell + Tuomey, via

4. Good buildings

This strategy, if you can even call it that, is one that architects have plenty of experience with. Much of my work, and my writing, is directed toward expanding the capacity of architecture and the terrains that it learns from and engages with. However this is not to overlook the simple yet transformative capacity of plain good buildings. Good quality architecture can impart a dignity to a place, it can raise expectations in people, and bring pride to a community. And what’s more, it’s a lasting contribution. The building I currently live in, in Amsterdam’s West, was built over 100 years ago. Its planning, its relation to the neighbours, its quality of construction, have all been endowed to me for the time I live here by people who are all now long gone. Multiply that by an entire city, and we’re all living in a generous inheritance. This may sound conservative, because that’s exactly what it is. These buildings have been conserved, and they continue to shape the people inside them.

Two recently completed buildings in Belfast, the MAC gallery and performing arts centre by Hackett Hall McKnight, and the Lyric Theatre by O’Donnell + Tuomey, are first rate capital ‘a’ architecture. With a palette of brick, timber, concrete and glass, they will both age well, and continue to serve the city well. They’re aspirational in the best sense, in that they raise the bar on what’s possible, and create space to think ahead. They could also be criticised as being ignorant, by remaining aloof in their obsessive detailing, and not engaging with the difficult reality on the ground. But it might be equally fair to ask, why should they?

‘Soft concrete’ samples by Ruth and Trish Belford of the Tactility factory.

5. “Making mad ideas sane”

“Making mad ideas sane” is a line of Ruth Morrow’s, used to describe the need for new narratives beyond the extreme and polarising ones that have been inherited. Her work in collaboration with textile designer Trish Belford in creating the Tactility Factory, is one such mad idea made sane. They set out to make ‘soft concrete’, combining two disciplines and sets of knowledge that couldn’t be further apart. I had a tour of their research and prototyping lab in the Weaver’s Court creative industries incubator, a space stacked high with beautiful prototypes of concrete panels with textiles embedded in them, drawing on old and new patterns, from William Morris and digital-looking bubbles, even to the ‘peacelines’ pattern, evoking chain link fencing.

What is the strategic value of all this? As Ruth says in her TEDx talk, “Our impulse here in Northern Ireland is to separate things that are in conflict, what if we try to bring them together?” It’s a specific, optimistic, and forward-looking response to a difficult scenario, one that plugs into all the macroeconomic forces that can drive a city, from interdisciplinary collaboration and research-driven innovation to the revival of highly skilled forms of manufacturing. Above all, it’s just terrific stuff, it’s real, it’s made, and they’re getting on with developing and promoting it further.

Holding Pattern installation at MoMA PS1 by Interboro Partners. Via

6. Go through the wall

No matter what strategies are deployed in Belfast, the city is still scratched apart by the great hulking walls carving through it. There is a certain logic that would argue that in order to attain a more sustainable peace, one that’s not just bottled up, the walls need to come down. This debate seems to be happening, although I’m told the walls continue to be built, but none are yet to be demolished. The wall is a symptom, an immune response, and removing it without treating the underlying condition could be making the same single-minded misstep as to build them in the first place.

If we are to accept the difficulty of removing the wall outright, the architectural impulse — the ‘good buildings’ approach — might be to make the wall nice. In a quote from Hollow Land, memorable for the sheer ignorance of the human consequences of the intervention, an architect describes his design efforts on a section of the Israel-Palestine separation wall: “in many places the route has been changed to preserve special sensitive areas like cliffs or eagle nests … my hope is that the route of the separation barrier will become a landscape route in the state of Israel, a touristic route, crossing various kinds of landscapes.” (p.169)

But perhaps there is a third route, that has little to do with intervening in the physicality of the wall itself. ‘Holding Pattern’, a project by Interboro Partners for MoMA’s PS1 takes the 5 meter high massive concrete wall that defines the perimeter of the museum compound as its starting point. Yes, this is New York, hardly Palestine or Berlin or Belfast, but nevertheless, this wall similarly operates as an barrier between stark contrasts: the rarefied modern art gallery on one side, and the down-at-heel Long Island City context on the other. To bridge this barrier, Interboro began by investigating and interviewing the surrounding neighbours and organisations to get an understanding of their spatial needs. These ranged from a tree for a courtyard, a shade canopy for the taxi rank, a foosball table for the local youth centre, a bench for an aged care home, etc. Interboro realised this is just the kind of stuff you need for a summer entertainment area, so using the budget for MoMA’s installation, Interboro purchased these plants and objects, and kept them in a ‘holding pattern’ inside the gallery for the duration of the exhibit, after which they were given to the various people and organisations ‘beyond the wall’.

‘Hold for: …’ tag, Holding Pattern installation, MoMA PS1, Interboro Partners. Via

The extra twist, which really brought the wall crumbling down, was to put tags on each of the objects stating who it was being held for. This provided the added incentive for the surrounding residents—who up to this point had no interest or affiliation in the museum—to come inside and check out the stuff that was soon to be theirs. The relevance of the museum had been expanded, the locals got something back, the physical and conceptual barrier had been crossed, without so much as lifting a hammer.


These strategies are not specific to Belfast, but are to a greater or lesser extent applicable everywhere. The high intensity of this city acts as a catalyst however, which highlights the extreme state to which architecture as an entire discipline has become increasingly irrelevant in engaging with the wider social, political, economic and historical aspects of the built environment.

Thanks in particular again to Paul Bower and Professor Ruth Morrow of Queen’s University Belfast, who acted as my guides and interpreters, most if not all of the ideas above have been either heavily influenced by or hatched out with them. Thanks to PS2 for hosting me, and for introducing me to a group of local architects and planners. Thanks to Julian Manev and Erl Johnston of the Queen’s Architecture Society for the invitation to speak and for coordinating my trip.

Thanks also goes to Arjen Oosterman, Lilet Breddels and Timothy Moore of Volume magazine, with whom I worked with on preparing the Architecture of Peace issue, where much of this thinking and research on post-conflict design began, check out their ongoing work here

All images, except where noted, are my own, more here.

Posted: February 4th, 2013
Tags: , , , , , ,
Comments: 2 »

2 Comments on “Design as Politics: Belfast”

  1. 1 G-ate | Beyond Post-Conflict Architecture said at 10:12 am on March 27th, 2013:

    [...] which leverage big change: RH referenced the ‘Buy John Wardle a beer day’ idea (see ‘Design as Politics’ blogpost by [...]

  2. 2 Regarding “architectural practice going forward…in a post-conflict condition” | Thoughts on Everything under the Sun or I am a guilty Secularist said at 10:15 pm on April 17th, 2013:

    [...] Hyde recently published Design as Politics: (in) Belfast,  In the post he sketches out some potential tactics for how architecture may begin to move [...]

Leave a Reply