arch-peace editorials

14 September 2009

Yellow Urban Alternatives for a Green and Orange Context—Belfast, Northern Ireland

Belfast, the home of the Titanic, is a city evolving out of a history of conflict and distress. It is witnessing continuous civil and urban transformations; a transition from a troubled urban entity to a lively vibrant city. When I went to the city about 7 years ago for a short visit, the city was starting to get out of its sleepy, scary, and dark image—from what I felt and was told. Since March 2008 however, I was attracted by Belfast’s new image as a tourist destination with historic depth, unparalleled in many cities. I was also ensnared by the idea that a city I have seen a few years ago has changed beyond recognition and keeps changing for the better.

The Urban Reality of Belfast
Despite the fact that Northern Ireland’s peace process began in the mid 1990’s, the city is still essentially divided between the two dominant communities, Catholic and Protestant. While the east and south of the city are diverse enough, these single-identity communities continue to exist in many parts of the north and west. They are partially separated by ‘peace walls’. Records indicate that the number of these walls has increased since the beginning of the peace process. At the last count there were 41walls or similar such constructions. Here I relate to my earlier editorial of February 2008(1) and insert Robert Frost’s famous Poem: Mending Wall. Frost reminds us of offensive building acts when he says: Before I built a wall I'd ask to know... What I was walling in or walling out... And to whom I was like to give offence. Introducing diversity is thus a critical challenge to Belfast’s urban designers and architects, which keeps posing itself on any urban discourse about the city’s future.

Looking at the urban reality of Belfast, one can argue that the city still suffers the impact of thirty years of civil conflict. Such an impact continues to be felt as much in the current urban growth of the city as it was during periods of contention. Notably, the structure of governance remains centralized—yet locally unaccountable to a great extent —while the development of civil society, especially in the center, north and west of the city, is typically hindered by importunate sectarianism. As well, the economic life of the region continues to be distracted and misrepresented by state financial backing and also by the very recent paramilitary intrusion(2). In parallel to these realities, corporate and business actors dominate the development process, yet security and protection mindsets keep producing urban fragments and in some cases intentional community segregation, admitting and fostering the presence of “single-identity communities.”

The Building Initiative and the Yellow Space Metaphor
In response to these urban and institutional realities, an advocacy group of committed architects and urban designers from the University of Ulster formed the Building Initiative (BI)(2). It is a project by Antje Buchholz, Miriam de Burca, Gregor Harbusch, Orla McKeever, Deirdre McMenamin, Conor Moloney, Jürgen Patzak-Poor and Dougal Sheridan. The BI is supported by the University of Ulster and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s Special Initiative for Architecture and the Built Environment.

The BI produced a traveling installation that was first shown in Belfast and was recently packaged in a publication titled “Yellow Space” to explore possibilities for city living as a neutral reality. The BI and its underlying Yellow Space event and activities suggest a critique of current urban design and development strategies by paving the road for introducing a series of ‘Civil Enterprise” sub-initiatives amenable to the creation of accessible, integrated places. The team proposes a balanced approach that integrates both top down instruments and bottom up strategies together with capacity building(3). Remarkably, the BI opposes practices characterized by heavy discourse on identity politics and attempts to introduce the politics of place.

Figure 1:
The Yellow metaphor as an active neutrality

Figure 2:
A traveling installation – a catalyst for yellow urban alternatives

Yellow is utilized as a metaphor for the types of desired spaces the BI calls for. The team argues that Yellow is often used as a sign for shared objects such as the yellow book, the city cabs, and the post-it notes. It represents an active neutrality – a common ground – a common language created through usefulness. It imbibes the qualities of diversity, access, utility, positive dialogue, and consensus—qualities that are under risk in most contemporary cities, not just Belfast.

Color is loaded with meaning…. So was the BI team successful in identifying Yellow for their responsive initiative? One would conceive more qualities of Yellow as a striking color based on research on color and color therapy. As infants, children have a natural preference for Yellow as a luminous color, they start liking it but they grow less fond of it as they mature. Also, Yellow comes as the sixth preferred color in international ranking(4). Yellow was described as a color that demands attention. For Van Gogh, Yellow was an obsession, and he often wrote about seeking the "high yellow note," a quest to paint life in scenes of both health and disease, which indicates ultimate neutrality by utilizing Yellow to express polar qualities.

While the BI team envisioned the multifaceted nature and impact of ‘Yellow,’ I should refer to the Yellow Arches of Belfast, which express another historical depth to the predilections of Yellow. While most cities worldwide have their landmarks in building forms, Belfast has its own and unique landmarks; Samson and Goliath cranes that were built for the construction of battleships and cruise liners. Samson and Goliath are monstrous Yellow arches that stand in the old Harland and Wolff shipyards on the banks of River Lagan. Each crane has a span of 140 meters (459 ft) and can lift loads to a height of 70 meters (230 ft), with a combined lifting capacity of over 1,600 tonnes, one of the largest in the world(5) .

The Yellow Space as one of the important outcomes of the Building Initiative asks two simple yet striking questions: How Yellow is Belfast and how can it become more Yellow? Simply, if cities had a color – would that color be Yellow! While my discussion with many Northern Irish friends tells me that there is no preference for stereotyping, there is a tremendous degree of success in selecting Yellow as an in-between color and a metaphor for urban neutrality, where Orange typically represents the Protestant community and the Green represents the Catholic community.

Initiatives within the BI
A series of events were conducted as part of the overall BI. The installation included a series of photographs that represent urban alternatives from cities such as Amsterdam, Berlin, Budapest, San Diego, and Zurich. Images from these cities were displayed to show how people are taking initiatives through socio-economic and socio-cultural activities that cross the boundaries of identity, income, social class, and ethnicity. The argument is that initiatives in those cities share the idea of creating yellow places. The intention of the BI team is thus to expand possibilities rather than impose ideals, and concomitantly, attempt to apply lessons learned from those cities. Two modes of actions were conceived as the backbone of the initiative; instrumental actions through yellow initiatives including thematic workshops, actions plans among other activities, and communicative actions through constructing yellow objects where the purpose is to demonstrate possible ways in which people can take initiatives. The object was a yellow news stand which distributes free copies of the yellow press, a newspaper that outlines the activities and reports on the projects, workshops, and other related events.

Figure 3:
Yellow is portrayed as urban neutrality that could promote dialogue and engagement, identity within diversity, access and usefulness.

The Yellow Space publication also outlines a number of thematic workshops addressing potential projects and critically analyzes them in terms of challenges, context, opportunities and objectives. Among these projects are a proposal for a new type of public space—a bonfire recycling center, a preservation proposal of the Castle-Court Shopping mall area in the city center, a proposal for the creation of a pathfinder scheme to develop a model for future mixed use developments, and investigating contested spaces without challenging territorial boundaries of different communities. An important outcome is also a website that outlines the thesis of the BI project and how it could be applied to other cities such as Manchester(6).

Figure 4:
Dialogical integration and initiatives across the boundaries of identity

Figure 5:
The Yellow Press: April and Sept 2008 issue covers

The Woodvale Hub—a Park for Everyone and a Community Shared Space
Woodvale Park is an important contribution of the BI. Located in the north west of the city, the park is over 120 years old. As a typical Victorian park, it has a bandstand, flowerbeds, and large trees. A road was proposed through the park involving destruction of many features and demolition of many trees. The ‘Friends of Woodvale Park’ was formed to resist the implementation of the proposal, which was rejected. The group then approached the BI team to engage in discussions on social issues and potentials the park could offer. A series of workshops and exploratory events were carried out in local schools and in the park. They involved gaming techniques, discussions with youth about the values and qualities of the park, then with architecture students at the University of Ulster for generating ideas. These resulted in a design brief and a proposal that accommodated needs and concerns of different parties.

As a citizen-led enterprise (7), the proposed project includes a HUB (Hybrid Use Building), which would be made up of indoor and outdoor spaces for a wide range of events and activities relating to both the park and the wider communities. These could include a new path and gate between the park and the adjacent shopping centre, community gardens, a sheltered outdoor seating space for events like cinema or concerts, an indoor multi-use space, a multi-purpose sports pitch and café or kiosk. Notably, a strategy has been developed so that different parts of the proposal can be added over time based on funding.

Figure 6:
Deirdre McMenamin and Dougal Sheridan of the BI leading a design workshop and a group discussion on the future of Woodvale park.

The “Plug-in Path” is a central design component introduced to provide a short cut and direct connection between the park and the nearby shopping centre. This is to increase the movement of people so that the feeling of safety is enhanced. The Plug-in Path is a programmed surface - i.e. it contains lighting, seating, play equipment, etc as well as an electricity and water supply which can be tapped into as required. It contains everything needed to allow different events to take place including a food market and outdoor concerts. The Plug-in Path connects all the HUB facilities; it is the shared surface that is used by everyone from all age-groups.

“Community Gardens” are an important component of the design concept; plots of land gardened essentially by the local community. They were introduced to imbibe the attitude of sharing, the sense of ownership and partnership. The intention is to grow them collectively, with everyone working together. The BI team, together with different parties involved, conceive these gardens as providing a leisure activity for families, children and adolescents, a place to communicate and to learn about nature and growing food. By offering a self-fulfilling, relaxing, and engaging environment, these community gardens have the capacity to address different types of people including the working class, the unemployed, minority groups, the disabled, children, seniors and the under-represented.

The Future Yellow Culture of Engagement in Belfast
Instilling the culture of collaboration and engagement seems to be one of the important drivers for the activities of the building initiative, the Yellow space events and activities, and other Yellow efforts. In this respect, I argue that techniques of participation and collaboration including gaming simulations, workshops, and public discussions are not new and have emerged since post World War II in many parts of Europe and since the civil rights era in the United States. What is new here is that such efforts are unique to the context of Belfast. Ranging from awareness and public responsiveness, to democratizing planning and design decisions, the BI and its underlying activities address all segments of Belfast society including lay people, school children, youth, architecture students, politicians, and decision makers, photographers, artists, architects-urban designers, and journalists. Through several sub-initiatives, specific events were tailored to these segments.

Figure 7:
Different stages of developing the proposed design scheme for the new Woodvale Park

Simply, the BI manifests the need for new roles that architects, urban designers, and planners can play. It clearly articulates the shift from the ‘Egoist-Architect’ and the ‘I-give-the-people-what-I-want’ syndrome to the enabler-facilitator-advocate-Architect/Planner whose role is not to clearly solve people’s problems, but to create a process that enables people to solve their own problems. I would end by saying that the BI is not about ‘design activism’; it is a conscious endeavor that needs to be celebrated for its mission, scope, and process. Currently, the Woodvale project has been taken over by the city council, which is moving forward with the project in consultation with a committee of community representatives. Still, the outcomes and the impact on the decision making process, and uniting the single identity communities remain a challenge. With these and other similar efforts, the culture of engagement, collaboration, and urban and housing diversity, that continued to be a taboo for three decades, could be rediscovered. Belfast could be more Yellow. Other towns and cities including Armagh, Derry, Portadown could also be Yellow when similar initiatives take place.

Images presented in this editorial are property of the Building Initiative team, and reproduced from the Yellow Space publication. Thanks are due to Deirdre McMenamin for providing the initial visual and textual material for this editorial.

(1) Salama, A. M. (2008). "What's War/Peace - Construction/Destruction got to do with Architecture?" Editorial: Architects for Peace, February 13, 2008, Melbourne, Australia
(2) Building Initiative, Yellow Space--Belfast: Negotiations for an Open City. School of Art and Design, University of Ulster, Belfast, United Kingdom.
(3) For more discussion on these approaches, please see: Salama, A. M. (2009). Sustainability / Trans-disciplinarity: A concern for people and environments between confusing terminology and outdated approaches
(4) Barett, J. (-------). The Color of Learning: accessed July 31, 2009.
(5) Bishop, E. (2008). Belfast: Troubles Seem So Far Away Telegraph, 19 Nov 2008
(6) The Building Initiative Website
(7) Jennifer Cornell is the main community leader who has driven the project and was a catalyst for attracting attention to the project.

Ashraf M Salama
Architects for Peace, September 2009

Dr. Ashraf M. Salama is member of the editorial board of Architects for Peace. He is an architect, scholar, and professor of architecture, currently holds a reader in architecture position at Queen’s University Belfast, United Kingdom, the chief editor of Archnet-IJAR: International Journal of Architectural Research, collaborating editor of Open House International-OHI, editorial board member of Time-Based Architecture International, and International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.


Tradesmen said...

A beautiful blend of interests - cracking article.

Anthoy McInneny said...

Dear Ashraf,

Thanks for an inspiring article about this project which has conceptual depth and many points of entry and participation. The idea of plug in paths sounds like it's applicable to most (re)generation projects to connect existing community with place at any stage of this improvement.


Beatriz Maturana said...

Yellow, what a beautiful metaphor for peace and understanding. Thank you for another great editorial.

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