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
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New Futures Adrift

This post is a report on the triple book launch of Future Practice, the latest issue of Volume ‘Centers Adrift’, and the catalogue of the New Order exhibit. It featured presentations by Reinier de Graaf (AMO), Wouter Vanstiphout (Crimson) and Sandra Kaji-O’Grady (University of Sydney), and was hosted by Volume magazine and Mediamatic in Amsterdam.
For the full experience, watch the video, embedded below

New Futures Adrift from Rory Hyde on Vimeo.

Last month, Arjen Oosterman of Volume and myself hosted New Futures Adrift, an event with a title compiled from words drawn from each of the three publications we launched: ‘New’ from New Order, ‘Futures’ from Future Practice, and ‘Adrift’ from Centers Adrift.

But beyond that literal definition, the title was meant to convey a sense of contemporary ambiguity in regards to what is new in architecture today. I would say we’re undergoing a period of subtle recalibration, where the once-reliable trajectories of technology-led progress are being overturned by a pervasive pluralism of approaches to what architecture can be.

For example, the recent Venice Biennale curated by David Chipperfield sought to define the ‘common ground’ which architects share, but instead was inevitably infiltrated by as many competing ideas as there were participants. This is not a period of shared ambitions. There are no movements or ideological battles anymore, we live in the era of the ‘like’ button, of uncritical encouragement and dwindling attention.

Within this ambiguous and pluralist context, where do we look for what’s next? How do we decide which conceptual horse to back? How do we look beyond our own limited horizons to discover what’s new?

To help wrestle with these questions, we invited three guests — Sandra Kaji O’Grady, Wouter Vanstiphout and Reinier de Graaf — to present their perspectives on this nebulous idea of the future of architecture. This was followed by a panel discussion where Arjen and myself attempted to bring some of the threads together.

You can watch the video of the presentations and discussions, embedded above, and on Vimeo here, (unfortunately I forgot to start the camera to catch the introductions by Arjen and I).

Sandra Kaji O’Grady

First up was Sandra Kaji O’Grady, Professor of Architecture from the University of Sydney, and, with John de Manincor, is creative director of ‘Material’, the 2013 Australian Institute of Architects national conference, an important platform for shaping the future conversation around architecture in Australia.

Sandra is currently in Europe researching what she describes as “A history of the long present through the relationship of architecture with science.” Her focus is on laboratory buildings, and for this presentation, the obscure architectural fragment of the double helix staircase.

Importantly, this element originates in architecture, “it’s not coming from anywhere else.” Early examples include Bramante’s staircase in the Vatican museum and the staircase of the Chateau Chambord, variously attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.

But, as Sandra explains, “following Watson and Crick’s discovery of the form of DNA as a double helix, we get a real shift in the way the double helix staircase then operates in architecture.” The double helix, once an architectural device, now becomes an “image of science-ness”, deployed in laboratory buildings to — as one architect explains — “allow scientists to inhabit an oversized DNA spiral while enhancing interaction.”

Sandra’s conclusion, and where this relates to the future, is that we “are now in a situation, viewed in the long history over several centuries, where architecture is no longer at the forefront of inventing and originating form. We are responding, interpreting and translating ideas that are coming from elsewhere.” We are adrift.

Wouter Vanstiphout

Next up was Wouter Vanstiphout, Professor of Design and Politics at TU Delft, and partner of the Rotterdam-based collective of architectural historians Crimson. My interview with Wouter for Future Practice, also published in Architecture Review Australia, can be read online here.

Wouter made it clear from the outset that he’s not an architect, but that his relationship to architecture makes him somewhat of a “stowaway on board of your sinking ship.” A statement which quickly revealed his perspective on the state of ‘our’ profession. The reasons for this sinking were elaborated through three themes: multidisciplinarity, participation, and cities / sustainability.

Wouter began by outlining the various ways architecture has recently aligned itself with the other design disciplines — graphic design, multimedia, product design, etc — to now form part of the ‘creative industries’ within Dutch cultural policy, and elsewhere. Despite the tears shed over this, Wouter argues that it is a move that has been self-imposed, by our constant calls to dissolve the boundaries and expand the discipline of architecture. But rather than a means to become more powerful and more effective, this rush to the multidisciplinarity has become “another type of marginalisation”.

The next target in his sights is participation. Using the example of Indy Johar’s Compendium for the Civic Economy, which presents various examples of community-driven projects that empower neighbourhoods by providing services that are neglected by the government. And while (I would suggest) these projects are laudable, Wouter argues that “on more negative days you could also see it as a kind of progressive left-wing hipster legitimisation of neo-liberal retreat of government from the public sphere.”

In conclusion, Wouter advocates for architects to re-engage with the messy, unglamorous reality of politics — or, to use his memorable phrase, now much elaborated upon by Dan Hill — the ‘dark matter’. Design has become a “beautiful fantastic groupthink on solutions, a kind of permanent orgy for solution-finding”, but by having been “absorbed into this cosy family of designers, we [architects] have drifted away from the cold halls of politics.”

Reinier de Graaf

The final presentation was from Reinier de Graaf, Partner of OMA/AMO, and director of its in-house think-tank AMO. I also interviewed Reinier for Future Practice, along with AMO team member Laura Baird (this one’s not online – buy the book!), which focuses on the recently established architecture school Strelka in Moscow, for which AMO devised the curriculum.

Reinier’s presentation used the preparation for a forthcoming course at Strelka titled ‘Foresight in Hindsight’, a “history of predictions, predictions from the past about the present.” This practice of future predictions, Reinier admits, is “a very dodgy territory”, and one that is littered with spectacular misjudgements. Reinier’s express tour through famous forecasting includes the Mayan apocalypse, Y2K (“some predictions mobilise vast amounts of resources to avert a thing that never happens”), the telephone, the television (“people would get bored”), computers (“there is no reason why anyone would want a computer in their home”), stock market crashes, etc.

Of course some predictions turn out to be prescient, such as the ’newspad’ depicted in Kubrick’s 2001, which would become the iPad. Or were Apple influenced by this vision? In this sense, as Reinier explains, “predictions have an interference with the future, and are certainly not passive instruments”. Where all this intersects with architecture is in the anticipated health of our planet. Predictions of climate change, of a collapse of resources, or population crash, have a critical bearing on how we build for the future. This, Reinier concludes, is “where the whole thing touches our profession, and where to some extent our profession has a certain responsibility to look at the future, or is by definition about the future.”


If architecture is “by definition about the future”, the panel discussion would unpack the manifold ways in which this is played out, firstly through its relationship to evidence. Sandra offers a corrective to her portrayal of the architect as merely expressing larger scientific discoveries literally through form, by drawing our attention to the “enormous confidence scientists have in what architects might enable for them in terms of setting up an interdisciplinary platform … without any evidential basis for how space might structure [this].” Compared to science, architecture is an ambiguous art at best, as Reinier states, “architects have a very curious relationship to evidence, because they are invariably condemned to speak in the absence of evidence”, adding that “a history of predictions is probably a nice thing for architecture, because the past is at times the only evidence you have.”

Architecture is necessarily predictive, it is a slow discipline, one that must attempt to anticipate a potential future if it is to address its proper need. Of course, much of these attempts survive around us, but perhaps we only notice the ones that stick out, the result of inaccurate predictions. Wouter refers to “a strange redundancy of concrete, of infrastructure”, created by a era of architects and planners in the ‘60s and ‘70s who were “absolutely sure that in the year 2000 there would be 20 million people living in the Netherlands, as opposed to 15 million,” forming a “physical archaeology of predictions.” The evidence of a more visionary era, unfortunately remembered for its poor judgement.

Predictable predictions
But are all predictions created equal? I suggest that some predictions are more, well, predictable. Demography can be anticipated with some foresight as the wave of population ripples through the generations, similarly, global trends in transportation or energy use operate on long timespans and are culturally embedded. Should we become braver in our predictions, instead of retiring to the needs of the present? On the contrary, Wouter argues that it is architects’ impatience with their past predictions that may be our undoing, by being “too fast in developing completely new alternatives to the last.” Using the example of the Bijlmermeer — the ‘failed’ high-rise social housing estates in the south of Amsterdam — Wouter claims that it was “killed by the speed at which planners thought of an alternative, being the low-rise alternative of Almere.” Victims of our own success?

Some disciplines are by their very nature geared around predictions. Sandra raises the role of insurance companies, who have “entire departments of people who are calculating your premium based on sea level rise, storm surges, age, etc.” Although we may think of them as inherently conservative and passive, Reinier adds that “in some senses insurance companies do have an effect on the future, perhaps more than architecture, because they dictate the rules, and will only insure people who comply with the rules.”

The big prediction we’re living through at the moment is climate change, with science betting one way, and a very vocal faction of deniers betting the other. The insurance companies have done the numbers, but do we have to make a choice as architects? Reinier argues ‘no’, as this implies a conscience, when we would willingly design a building directly on a soon-to-be inundated beach but include “an installation that works on tidal energy, [because] architects are perfectly capable, vain human beings who will gladly help any political system only to demonstrate their own virtuosity.” This willing complicity with beliefs we may disagree with, or intentional ignorance of the larger forces at work, is, Reinier suggests, “a pretty good argument to expand the discipline, not just by doing something else, but to increase the awareness of what we are being put to use to. Because there is always somebody that puts you to use for something, … and I think that’s a pretty predictable prediction.”

OMA’s exhibition ‘Public Works’ presented at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

This co-opting of the architect to serve the purposes of others, stands as a strong example of the declining status of our role today. Interestingly, both Reiner and Wouter are currently presenting exhibitions at the Venice Biennale, which each in their own ways engage with the legacy of post-war planning and architecture, and look back to a time when architects were more instrumental in society. Reinier’s exhibit with OMA titled ‘Public Works’ presents 15 projects designed by “anonymous bureaucrats” employed in the public sector. Wouter’s exhibit, with his practice Crimson, titled ‘The Banality of Good’ examines the evolution of urban planning throughout the 20th century by focussing on six ‘new towns’. Both exhibits communicate the decline in public planning, as this role has been taken up by the private sector, and with it a decline in the social function of architecture and urbanism. Not only did the welfare state look after people, it looked after architects too.

Should we be nostalgic for this period? Reiner, in a line that received one of the biggest reactions of the evening, embraced this notion, claiming that “nostalgia is a hugely interesting and positive phenomenon in a context dominated by amnesia.” But what exactly should we be nostalgic for? As Wouter argues, it’s not so much the role the architect used to occupy in society that we ought to covet, but the role of government in society. Referring to London’s massive Southbank Centre, examined in OMA’s exhibit, Wouter argues that “these buildings are from a time when government defined itself by what it added. Today a bureaucrat is somebody who adds — to put it bluntly — slogans about how government is not needed anymore.”

In a statement that was perhaps unnecessarily pessimistic as a conclusion, Reinier summarised that “architecture argues very elaborately for its own abolition at times; government argues very elaborately for its own abolition in favour of society; and society argues very elaborately for its own abolition as well. It’s a kind of collective retreat.”

The giant mandala to Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of To-morrow in Crimson’s ‘The Banality of Good’ exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale.


What does this mean for architecture? And how might this inform how we recast the discipline? Amongst this tide of retreat outlined by Reiner, the resurgence of architecture (and architects) in the public sphere seems implausible. But surely there is space for a correction away from the limited motivations of the market; away from the co-option of image-making in speculation; away from the marginalising effect of the ‘creative industries’ and back toward a more instrumental role. This may not require a dramatic expansion of the role of the architect, or an opportunistic repositioning, but perhaps just some hard graft. A re-engagement with the slog of bureaucracy and policy, with the possibilities of large-scale planning, and with a more critical application of architectural intelligence.

Posted: October 7th, 2012
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Secret Moons and Black Worlds – Interview with Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen, ‘They Watch the Moon’, 2010.

This is a belated posting of a piece Timothy Moore and I contributed to the Moon issue of Volume, released at the end of 2011. We spoke to artist and self-described ‘experimental geographer’ Trevor Paglen about his work peering into the dark worlds of the military industrial complex. Here’s the lead from the original publication:

Our vision of planet Earth is oft-skewed by accepted grand narratives, which cloak alternative realities from view. Trevor Paglen, artist, author and experimental geographer, visualizes elements in these shadowlands, from military installations to classified reconnaissance satellites, in order to return the gaze back upon democratic institutions. By combining empirical research with artistic interpretations, Paglen questions the truths told about the frontier landscapes of today.

Timothy Moore: In a period where the whole world can be seemingly mapped, we still have a plenitude of blind spots. And in this blindness, we can find so-called ‘black architecture’. Can you describe this black world?

Trevor Paglen: The black world is a phrase that emerged in the 1980s when the amount of spending in the American defence and intelligence budget reached historic highs. Billions of dollars were being spent on secret programs: on everything from stealth fighters and bombers and weird ‘Star Wars’ space weapon systems, to spy satellites and all kinds of very expensive technology projects.
There was an extension of what they called ‘covert operations’, which are paramilitary operations. In the 1980s, this was mostly in Afghanistan and Central America where the American government was fighting in secret. Because this secret part of the state had become so prominent, yet strangely invisible, people in defence and intelligence circles started to talk about something called the black world. There is a materiality to this world so when we talk about secrecy, we are not just talking about secret documents, we are talking about an entire landscape and a geography of secret things.
I started to research this world before there was Google Earth, Terraserver or other commercially available satellite imagery. Back then, if you wanted to look at aerial or satellite photographs, you would have to go to government archives. But the US geological archives are incomplete. There are photos that do not appear in those archives. When you go through them, you notice some are missing. You literally had blank spots on the map.
I thought it was an apt metaphor as blank spots allude to European and imperial histories: dark spaces inhabited by ‘dark’ people, places where fantasy and reality became intertwined in some very violent ways. To me, it seemed like this metaphor also worked for some of these military and intelligence geographies because they were also places that we did not have access to, and were marked by fantasies and extreme forms of what we may call informal violence.

TM: Yet this black world is maintained by infrastructure and logistics. For example, if the military are testing new fighter planes, they need a landing strip. People also have to commute daily to work on these projects. How is it plausible that this black world remains hidden?

TP: I am not sure this world remains hidden from our view. When we talk about the way we see, it’s a matter of believing in something and then seeing it. For example, when we look at its architecture, like the National Reconnaissance Office in Northern Virginia, it looks totally unremarkable. It looks like a big office building. Thousands of people drive past it each day and don’t know what it is. That is one form of this architecture. It looks like anything else. But parts of this architecture are more remarkable but hidden in different ways. In the state of Nevada, which is basically a giant desert, the military has a section of Nevada called the Nellis Range, where they have their own country. It’s the size of Switzerland. Nobody is allowed in there. There are other ways that secrecy works as well like setting up outposts in remote parts of the world, like Afghanistan.

TM: How does one pick up on traces or signs where the secret world intersects with the world we know?

TP: If you can describe the borders of it, you can get a negative image of it. Architecture has to interface in all kind of ways. You have to find where those intersections or contradictions are. Then you can perhaps learn something about that world. In Torture Taxi, I looked at the CIA’s rendition program: a program that kidnaps and tortures people. The CIA, and parts of the military, use a civilian cover during these operations. The whole point is you don’t want your fingerprints on it. You don’t want it to point to you. Often you will adopt the guise of private enterprise or corporations to do these operations. The advantage of this is that you are able to hide in plain sight.
The problem is, if you are setting up an airplane company for instance, the aviation industry is highly regulated so you actually generate a paper trail in public. One of the things that we realized is that if you could figure out what airplanes the CIA was using for this program, then you could learn quite a lot about the structure of the front companies. You could follow where the airplanes went and that would give you some clues to the outlines of the program’s spatial geography. You collect data points and connect them to other data points. It happened a number of times when somebody got out of one of these secret places and said, ‘you’d never believe what happened to me. I was tortured for the last six months and I was not actually sure of where I was but I think it was Afghanistan’, and he could give you some details like he was kidnapped at a certain date. Then we find a tail number from one of the airplanes that we have connected to the program landing in an airport from where he was kidnapped from and then flying to Afghanistan.

Trevor Paglen, ‘Morning Commute, ‘Gold Coast’ Terminal, Las Vegas, Nevada, 2006′

Rory Hyde: As an artist, you must end up with strange neighbours. On the one hand, you have the conspiracy theorists who are scanning the skies for UFOs and wearing silver hats. On the other hand, you have the hardcore investigative journalists. How do you position yourself?

TP: I don’t really hang out with conspiracy theorists. It’s very easy to imagine things into the evidence that you have because the evidence is partial and inconclusive. There is always an opportunity to imagine it as being something completely different than what it probably actually is.

RH: Do you have an agenda? Is there an instrumentality to what you produce?

TP: With the visual works, it is about a political epistemology. How do we know what we know in a political moment where it’s unclear what the state is doing? What is the difference between truth, falsehood and propaganda when it’s unclear how to differentiate these things from one another? With the Torture Taxi book, I had a clear agenda. The whole point of the book was to shut the project down.

TM: And you are trained as a geographer, so there is the notion you are still generating or producing space.

TP: This is what I call ‘experimental geography’, something I have written about, which explores the dynamics between research, geography and artistic practices. Geography provides a powerful way of thinking. It is the last materialist discipline. It emphasizes the way we produce the world around us, and are produced by it. There’s a whole tradition in comparative literature and semiotics about how our world is meaningful and socially constructed.
If you reframe those questions as questions about geography and the dialectical relationship that we have with the surface of the Earth, it is a much more convincing way to approach these questions, whether you are studying global warming or ecosystems. It gives you a framework within which you see the role that humans play in sculpting or changing the surface of the Earth.

TM: Or the skies above us. You talk about satellites as secret moons in your project The Other Night Sky, where you capture traces of covert spacecraft. What do you mean by secret moons?

TP: The Other Night Sky is a project that involves tracking all of the spacecraft in orbit around the Earth. The United States military strategic command has a catalogue of the spacecraft, which has about 20,000 objects, and includes French spy satellites and German spy satellites. Other countries get cranky when the US military publishes it for everyone to see. What is not in the catalogue is all of the secret US and Japanese satellites. A friend of mine, as a hobby for about 30 years, has been maintaining a supplement, which is all of the things that are missing from the military catalogue. He does that by going out with binoculars and telescopes and making observation of these objects, keeping track of them and trying to follow new launches as they go up.
The Other Night Sky uses this catalogue based on amateur observations to track all of these secret satellites and photograph them. To do this work, you are basically using seventeenth-century maths. You are using Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. Here we are in the twenty-first century, and we are able to use the actual basic tools of the early Enlightenment to do a very similar type of work.

Trevor Paglen, ‘Four Geostationary Satellites Above the Sierra Nevada’, 2007.

Galileo famously looked up with a telescope in 1609 and saw Jupiter had moons that were not supposed to be there. That fact undermined what was established as truth. So the Ptolemaic worldview had to be wrong. The second part of that was even more radical: anyone with a telescope could look up and see the exact same thing. Right there, at the very sight of truth, there was a reorientation towards what we might call the ‘liberal’ or ‘bourgeois’ subject. It didn’t matter who you were but you could look up to the sky and see the same thing and the truth would emerge from this rational consensus. It’s very interesting for me to think about what we can still recover from the early Enlightenment project. Those ideas that were so radical at that time: are they still radical at this point? Is there something that we can recover politically?

RH: It’s interesting that this Enlightenment idea of the bourgeois subject has never eventuated. The evident truth – looking through the telescope – has not trickled down beyond a small cluster of experts. We still have an ‘us versus them’ scenario, whether it be against the Catholic Church or the military. Despite shared knowledge or shared expertise, we haven’t found a common ground. In your position as an artist, would you be interested in working from the other side of the fence, from within the military for instance?

TP: A lot of my work relies heavily on collaboration with people in the military and intelligence services, but off the record. Would I like to join the military? Absolutely not.

RH: The reason I ask is that one of the other ideas we’ve been discussing as part of the research for this issue is broadening the kinds of experience of those participating in space or military research. If we sent an artist into space, what might we learn that would be different? Or how could you tinker with the space program to create different outcomes beyond science, outcomes that are potentially more important and relevant for society?

TP: People have always looked to the skies to understand ourselves or the world, whether that’s looking at the constellations and explaining events on Earth, or sending up a Hubble Space Telescope and trying to see the most distant reaches of the universe and its origins; where we come from and where we are going. Of course, when we look at the science of space, it is dominated by the empirical tradition of rationally trying to understand what is out there. But there are limitations to that and perhaps that is where artists have a role to explore space which we don’t know or cannot know due to the limitations of a rational empirical approach. I’ve been talking to guys from Mountain View and Berkeley who search for extra-terrestrials, and I’ve been really fascinated by them because of lot of what they do is trying to understand what humans are. A part of the project of trying to discover aliens, or to communicate with them, is trying to radically imagine different ways of being in the universe.

TM: Is the universe the frontier landscape of today?

TP: The frontier has always been in our minds. [Laughs] It is the imagination of empty space. There is always something there. In a cultural sense, the frontier has shifted to space. This was more true in the Star Trek era: space as the final frontier. People were actually figuring out things like how to go to the Moon. That’s over. If we wanted to go to the Moon today, we couldn’t do it. There a lot of people who imagine space as a frontier to be conquered. More practically, it represents a condition of confinement. Space is more so a prison than a frontier and that notion is depressing. To me, the most powerful image having to do with space is Pale Blue Dot, requested by Carl Sagan and taken by Voyager. It makes me think of space not as a condition of possibility but as a condition of confinement. It reorients our tension to the Earth itself when we realize that there is no place else to go – so we better not mess this up … People get angry when I say this, but I don’t see us colonizing space: who’s going to pay for it?

For more on Trevor Paglen see and his recent monograph Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes, published by Aperture.

Related: my other piece for Volume’s Moon issue: ‘Whole Earth Rise‘.

Posted: October 24th, 2011
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Venice or bust

A quick announcement to say that the team of Kate Rhodes (creative director of the State of Design Festival, on now in Melbourne), Justine Clarke (former editor of Architecture Australia) and myself have been shortlisted in the bid for the role of Creative Director of the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012.

Our scheme is titled Office for Opportunistic Architecture (or OOA, as in ‘ooh, aah’), and, well, that’s about as much as I can say about it for the moment… Winners will be announced in September and until then it’s top secret unfortunately. Needless to say we’re chuffed to get this far, but well aware that the real work still lies ahead. Especially as we’re up against an impressive array of thinkers and doers, wish us luck!

1. The Voyage/Voyeur
Creative team: Amelia McPhee & Andrew Maynard

2. Super Seed
Creative team: Jan van Schaik (Minifie van Schaik Architects), Cameron Bruhn (Architecture Media) & Andy Sargent (SouthSouthWest)

3. Practice Formations; Agency and Architecture.
Creative team: Gerard Reinmuth & Anthony Burke with TOKO (graphic design)

4. RISING INFLECTION. From here to there to here to here to there…….
Creative Team: Robert Grace, with team members Monique Vaute, Denise Neri, Richard Allan, Liz Stirling, Felicity D Scott, Esther Charlesworth, Joanna Goldstein, Warren Ellis, Labotorio Morsoletto, Linus Gruszewski

Interviews from Venice 2010

This seemed like an opportune moment to throw up some interviews I did at the Vernissage (that’s a snooty French word for exclusive preview) of the biennale last year. I’ve been sitting on these for almost 12 months, but with the speed of architecture, they’re still very much within their use-by date. Here’s a selection of the twelve I did in three days, completely hectic, but really great to meet all these people just wandering around Venice, like exotic beasts in an architectural zoo…

Interview with Momoyo Kajima – Atelier Bow Wow

Momoyo Kajima is a partner of the Japanese architecture firm Atelier Bow Wow. Her studio / house was featured in the Japanese pavilion as a huge 1:3 scale model, extending throughout the space. She discusses how this project fits into the theme of the Japanese pavilion, Tokyo Metabolizing.

Interview with Momoyo Kajima by Rory Hyde

Interview with DUS Architects

DUS are an Amsterdam-based architecture practice led by Hedwig Heinsman, Hans Vermeulen and Martine de Wit, best known for combining architecture with social experience through urban interventions. Their Gecekondu project, a temporary summer house / event space built in one night, was featured in the Vacant NL exhibit in the Dutch pavilion at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale.

Interview with DUS Architects by Rory Hyde

Interview with Ross Lovegrove

Ross Lovegrove is a British industrial designer, increasingly working on building-scale projects. While not involved in any particular exhibit at the Venice Architecture Biennale, his chairs were everywhere.

Interview with Ross Lovegrove by Rory Hyde

Interview with Jeffrey Inaba

Jeffrey Inaba is director of Columbia University’s Laboratory for Architectural Broadcasting (C-Lab), founder of Inaba Projects, and special features editor of Volume magazine.

I spoke to him about the latest issue of Volume produced by C-Lab, Counterculture.

Interview with Jeffrey Inaba by Rory Hyde

Interview with Fuad al Ansari

Dr. Fuad al Ansari is curator (with Noura Al Sayeh) of the exhibit Reclaim Bahrain, which was awarded the Golden Lion for Best National Participation at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale.

Also see my review of Reclaim Bahrain, co-written with Todd Reisz for the Huffington Post.

Interview with Fuad al Ansari by Rory Hyde

Interview with Ronald Rietveld and Saskia van Stein

Ronald Rietveld and Saskia van Stein are curators (with Erik Rietveld and Jurgen Bey) of the exhibit Vacant NL in the Dutch pavilion at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale.

Interview with Ronald Rietveld and Saskia van Stein by Rory Hyde

Interview with Ivan Rijavec

Ivan Rijavec is a Melbourne-based architect, and curator with John Gollings of the exhibit Now and When at the Australian Pavilion as part of the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale. (And just by-the-by, Ivan gave me my first job in architecture, making models in his Fitzroy studio.)

Interview with Ivan Rijavec by Rory Hyde

Posted: July 18th, 2011
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