Without a plan, Belfast is ‘nobody’s project’
The devastating legacy of the ‘Troubles’ has left Northern Ireland’s capital without a roadmap for development, writes Laura Mark
Three years ago Mark Hackett’s Forum for Alternative Belfast (FAB) revealed a map of Belfast, entitled ‘Missing City’, charting empty sites within 20 minutes’ walk of the city centre.
It showed that, if combined, these undeveloped sites would make up an area the same size as Belfast’s existing city core. Much of this abandoned land stock remains the same today and in the coming weeks FAB will unveil a 1:500 scale model of the city, with the aim of making it easier for the people of Belfast to recognise where these gaping holes are and see the impact they have on the texture of their townscape.
Hackett was instrumental in the design of Hackett Hall McKnight’s MAC, which AJ’s Irish correspondent Stephen Best described as ‘a powerful and decidedly individual Metropolitan Arts Centre’ (AJ 10.05.13). Before it completed however, he quit the RIBA-award winning practice to set up FAB. The MAC is one of the city’s more thoughtful new buildings, and contrasts sharply with the Titanic Experience and the Titanic Quarter masterplan set to transform derelict land that was once a bustling shipyard. The MAC is in the city centre, tucked in behind St Anne’s Cathedral and a pastiche mixed-use commercial project alongside. Its two theatres and three galleries and its café and bar are busy every day and night. It is £18 million well spent. On the other hand, with the exception of a few office developments and the looming iconic form of the £97 million visitor attraction, little of the Eric Kuhne-planned city quarter conceived in 2005 has been built: it is more tumbleweed than townscape as things stand today.
The inherent insecurity and lack of confidence of a city with no vision or plan was exploited in a random way
It is this lack of connection between the two differing visions of how the city should progress that has frustrated Hackett so much in recent years, as Belfast looks to move on from the 30-year long sectarian conflict. Belfast is ‘nobody’s project’, he says. ‘During the recent boom there was a free-for-all. The inherent insecurity and lack of confidence of a city with no vision or plan was exploited in a random way.’
The Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP), for example, has not yet been adopted and will not be considered until at least 2015. So for the time being, Belfast has no roadmap for development.
Paul Crowe of AJ100 practice TODD Architects, which has a long history of working in its home city, agrees: ‘There is no forward planning in Belfast. It has no city plan. The BMAP has been 10 years in the making and it is still not yet adopted.’
Hackett, however, doesn’t hold out much hope for the BMAP. He says the document merely sets out ‘land use’ and has neither ‘vision nor any drawings’. ‘Its focus is too wide. [When it was drawn up] there was no analysis of the real city problems, such as disconnections due to poor road planning.
‘And some of its more important aspects are already being ignored, such as height guidance and commitments to social housing. It’s not a city plan as any architect or designer would recognise it. It may be scrapped anyway under a new council.’
The backdrop to this long-term strategising is Belfast’s on-going division. This month marked the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, a defining moment in Northern Ireland’s peace process.
Yet the city still bears the scars of more than 40 Peace Walls, first erected in 1969 to separate warring catholic and protestant communities. Originally planned as temporary structures with a projected life of just six months, there are now 21 miles of these segregating ‘lines’. In 2012 a study showed that more than two thirds of the population still wanted them.
On the regeneration front, the city’s planners and architects are also split about both the success of what has been constructed over the past decade and about what is needed in the future.
Kieran McGonigle of emerging Belfast practice McGonigle McGrath says: ‘Regeneration in the centre of Belfast has not been well thought-out. Recent schemes such as the Victoria Centre and Castle Court ripped the heart out of the centre. Regeneration opportunities are constantly shifting the focus of the town.’
No one would have been brave enough to make good architecture during the Troubles
Neil Mathews, principal of Belfast-based Neil Mathews Architects adds: ‘There are two schools of thought on the architectural state of Belfast. Some would say we have done remarkably well, while others would say that if it hadn’t been for the Troubles we would be further ahead than where we are now. No one would have been brave enough to make good architecture during the Troubles.’
However, Alistair Hall of Hall McKnight, believes a number of Northern Irish projects shows there is hope. ‘Architecture has been suffering in Belfast for a long time. But buildings like Heneghan Peng’s Giant’s Causeway visitor centre, An Gaeláras and The Lyric Theatre, both by O’Donnell + Tuomey, have shown that we, too, can do good architecture.’
Last month planning permission was granted for yet another high-profile project – Daniel Libeskind’s Peace Building and Reconciliation Centre at the Maze Prison site. The news was met with a decidedly mixed reaction, provoking a debate about whether international architects can really understand the complex nature of designing for a city with such a troubled past – or whether it should be left to the region’s own talent.
‘Belfast’s problems can’t be solved by star architects,’ says Hackett. ‘First we need to understand the real nature of the problems and have locally worked-out solutions – that is what planning and city governance should lead.’
Libeskind is working with Belfast-based McAdam Design on the project at the infamous former prison nine miles south-west of the city, which was used to house paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles, and was the site of the 1981 hunger strikes. Commentators on TheAJ.co.uk described the designs as ‘soulless, lifeless, thoughtless, and uninspiring’.
A more general disapproval prompted Libeskind to respond in the Belfast Telegraph, saying: ‘I would not have become involved if I did not think [this project] was important. It’s about people and a place moving forward into the 21st century.’
There are other big-name architects involved in remaking Belfast. The aforementioned Eric Kuhne & Associates’ Titanic Quarter masterplan is the largest single waterfront regeneration project in Europe. ‘We knew that if our plan was to thrive, it would have to offer compelling reasons to reverse the mass migration of citizens to the surrounding countryside,’ says Kuhne.
Drawing inspiration from Belfast’s surrounding rural areas, Kuhne set out to create ‘eight distinct residential village communities […] interspersed with centres of employment, entertainment and leisure’.
A major feature of the masterplan was a visitor centre celebrating the building of RMS Titanic. This angular centrepiece of the waterside quarter was completed in March 2012. TODD joined the team, developing the scheme with Kuhne to RIBA Stage D, before being appointed as lead consultant from construction through to completion.
The quarter has been billed as a ‘flagship scheme’, potentially creating 12,000 new homes for 26,000 residents, along with 20,000 new jobs and reclaiming a once industrial area of Belfast which is still the base for Titanic shipbuilders Harland and Wolff.
It has undoubtedly been successful in attracting tourism – some 3,000 visitors a day to the Titanic Experience during the Easter holidays.
Yet, for some, the Titanic Quarter and the landmark museum stand as a symbol of the city’s lack of foresight in regeneration.
Hackett again: ‘Kuhne’s work was in a wholly private development. We can’t understand why people imagine this is part of the real city; it’s simply an unnecessary extension. Titanic Quarter should have used its post-industrial nature and turned into an innovative park, with its large, interesting buildings being re-used.
‘It’s not a place for anyone to live in. Nobody ever lived there. It could have been, or can be, a different sort of place for the city.’
FAB has been running summer schools looking at how the development of the city has hampered efforts to unite its residents because Hackett feels almost all regeneration in Belfast ‘has been built to exclude people who actually live in the city.’
A lot of smaller practices have come out of these struggles
Yet, despite the apparent lack of planning, the absence of a proper development framework and the closure of offices run by big commercial players like BDP (AJ 03.11.11), the more compact, fleet-of-foot practices in the city are thriving.
‘Small and medium-sized practices are doing okay in Northern Ireland at the moment,’ says McGonigle. ‘Larger practices are struggling. A lot of smaller practices have come out of these struggles. Those made redundant have started their own. So there is more competition with small practices – but that is not necessarily a bad thing.’
Nine of the best recent projects in the city and Northern Ireland
University of Ulster Belfast City Campus
Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Received planning March 2013, first phase scheduled to complete in 2015, second phase to complete in 2018.
Located on the edge of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter Feilden Clegg Bradley Studio’s competition-winning scheme for the £250 million University of Ulster city campus development comprises three buildings ranging from four to 12 storeys in height.
Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre
Completed May 2012
Using basalt to create the facades of the building, Heneghan Peng’s RIBA regional award-shortlisted visitor centre is nestled into the landscape of the Giant’s Causeway Unesco World Heritage Site.
Eric Kuhne & Associates with TODD Architects
Eric Kuhne & Associates appointed to masterplan the area in 2005, Titanic Experience completed March 2012.
The Titanic Quarter, the largest single waterfront regeneration project in Europe, aims to create 12,000 new homes for 26,000 residents, along with 20,000 new jobs, reclaiming a once industrial area of Belfast.
The Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC)
Hackett Hall McKnight
Completed February 2012
The RIBA regional award-shortlisted Metropolitan Arts Centre is a new flagship arts centre for the city, housing two theatres, art galleries, bars, and rehearsal and education spaces within its sculptural form.
Shortlisted for a RIBA regional award, Hall McKnight’s refurbishment of an industrial facility in Lisburn has created a modern headquarters through simple interventions to the building’s existing structure.
O’Donnell + Tuomey
Completed April 2011
The Stirling Prize-shortlisted Lyric Theatre on the bank of the River Lagan in Belfast is a considered response to the surrounding residential area and the needs of an established theatre company through the use of materials sympathetic to the local context (AJ 10.10.12).
Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI)
Completed July 2010
One of the first buildings to be completed as part of the Titanic Quarter, TODD Architect’s £18.1 million Public Records Office building won an RIBA award in 2012.
O’Donnell + Tuomey
Completed July 2009
Located on a constrained site in Derry, O’Donnell + Tuomey’s 2011 Stirling Prize-shortlisted Irish Language arts and cultural centre features a central courtyard sculpted from the four floors and lit from skylights above (AJ 29.09.11).
Completed April 2008
BDP’s Victoria Square scheme aimed to regenerate Belfast city centre, creating a new urban shopping district containing residential and retail uses below a large spanning glass roof.