Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Journeys through the Hidden City: Giving Visibility to the Material Events of Conflict in Belfast

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Journeys through the Hidden City: Giving Visibility to the Material Events of Conflict in Belfast

Article excerpt

Introduction

Calvino (1997) wrote of the Invisible Cities. This mystical collection of narratives discussed what was in fact the real city of Venice. Yet through a corpus of imaginative tales Venice is also at once the city of Zirma, of Armilla, of Baucis, of Moriana and of Argia (to name but a few). This fictional association is a deliberate provocation to establish the challenge inherent in conducting an examination of architecture created, transformed and destroyed by conflict. Calvino's fables are evoked through Active rendering of myth and legend where the application of meaning is at the behest of the storyteller. The capacity for alternate (and perhaps equally valid) descriptions of architecture prompts an interesting consideration as to whether these tales were works of the imagination or, rather, adroit interpretations of Venice manifest in its bricks, stones, mortar, water and earth. In this sense, a conceptual connection can be drawn with the city of Belfast. Like Calvino's Invisible City, this paper theorises Belfast as a Hidden City enjoying competing-conflicting interpretations of its architecture that camouflage its full quintessence and ultimate importance. Viewed through the emotive lens of a city emerging from 'the Troubles' which raged between 1969 and 1994, these discussions pertain to the imaging (not imagining) of architecture as something other than what it first might appear to be, or perhaps, something different altogether.

The bricks and mortar of conflict

Belfast enjoys an extended literature in urban policy, environmental planning and human geography, (for example, Bollens, 1999, 2000; Calme and Charlesworth, 2008; Gaffikin and Morrissey, 2011; Graham, 2008; Shirlow, 2006) and in the more specialist fields of housing, sectarianism and segregation (see Boal, 1969; Hepburn, 1996; Jones, 1960; Monaghan and Shirlow, 2011; Shirlow and Murtagh, 2006). This paper presents original research that extends these literatures through a critical consideration of the tactical use of everyday residential architecture for the purposes of improving security and reducing terrorist threat (Weizman, 2006, 2007, 2012; Weizman and Segal, 2003). The passing of 'emergency provisions' legislation in 1969 as part of a wider counterinsurgency strategy (Edwards, 2010) allowed Northern Ireland's Security Forces (1) to bypass normal statutory processes when threat to public safety was deemed especially urgent. This ushered forth a plethora of highly conspicuous militarised architecture that did not require conventional approvals. Hilltop observation towers (Wylie, 2007), bunker-like checkpoint posts, fortified police station blast-walls, steel barricades around the commercial centre of Belfast (Brown, 1985), and of course, the 'peace-walls', are some particularly recognisable examples. The Hidden City is a less discernable form of conflict-architecture. It is the seemingly benign, everyday architecture of cul-de-sac housing, dead-end roads, footpaths and landscaping created between 1978 and 1985 during a programme of comprehensive social-housing redevelopment. Despite protestations of purely social and environmental goals for this redevelopment there remains much conjecture that the transformation of a permeable gridiron of Victorian terraces into a patchwork of dead-end streets deliberately limited pedestrian and vehicular movement in response to paramilitary networks operating within inner-city communities. The use of cul-de-sac and courtyard residential design was, however, widespread across the UK and has commonly been associated with crime-prevention and the social sequestration of inner-city communities (Brantingham and Brantingham, 1993; Katyal, 2002). The question of interest therefore guiding this research is what is the hidden role that this everyday architecture plays within Belfast in activating and perpetuating these Troubles-era assumptions within the post-Troubles era?

The imposition of a regime of architectural change upon those lacking the private property rights or political capital to contest it is, at its core, a study of how such architecture sits at the intersection between 'top-down' systems of thought and 'bottom-up' everyday societal interaction (Hacking, 2004). …

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