Though fading, scars of the Troubles still mark Belfast
Each morning at the ex-flax mill that now houses our office, people arrive for their business meetings in suits, negotiating their way into the building alongside fork-lifts loaded with pallets of pet food and post for the sorting office. Art and photography studios, internet retailers, printers and welders, pet food wholesalers, ‘International Lasers’, gyms, music practice rooms, a social enterprise that employs adults with learning difficulties, engineers, graphic designers, film makers and dance classes are all easily accommodated within the 4.5m high, brick-vaulted spaces of the old mill. Tracks set into the quarry tiles speak of their previous use. The building was not made by design, but in response to the functional requirements of an efficiently run flax mill: clear spaces with tall windows for good light. Although barely changed since the 1870’s, the spaces retain a robust adaptability that make them useful for almost anything.
Down the street, tourists come to photograph political murals adjacent to the bronze statue of the Harland and Wolff ‘Yardmen’ and a road which a night ago was the scene of a riot
However, in the context of Belfast the survival of this building is a result not of its inherent value, but under-development and lack of investment. The mill remains because the property is of comparatively little financial value. These neighbourhoods exist all around the city, disconnected from the centre by major roads. Even worse, at this eastern edge, commercial development of the main route into the city has been blighted for 30 years by road protection lines retained for a soon-to-be-abandoned extension of the inner ring road.
Now, more than ever, Belfast is a city of contrasts. Down the street from our building, tourists come to photograph political murals adjacent to the bronze statue of the Harland and Wolff ‘Yardmen’ and a road which a night ago was the scene of a riot. Sadly riots still occur in waves, but in the new Belfast apparent order is restored for the tourists the next day; broken glass and rubble cleared in time for the city-sightseeing tour bus. Attempts have been made to change the murals; alongside men in black with guns, we now have paintings of the Titanic, Aslan from Narnia and its author CS Lewis, who spent his childhood nearby. In front of the local library, a bronze wardrobe, door ajar, stands as a strangely literal reminder of the same writer.
Through challenging decades, Belfast city centre existed as a destination for the accomplishment of essential retail tasks – a phenomenon reinforced by a no-man’s land of roads ‘protecting’ the city from being connected too easily to the communities of north, east and west Belfast. Is it a coincidence that no such barrier exists for the affluent southern suburbs? Until the relative peace the city now enjoys, people would visit, complete their tasks and leave: Belfast has had to re-learn how to use public space. Festivals, street theatre and concerts, which have always had a marginal presence, now occupy a growing number of interior and exterior public spaces.
However despite this burgeoning public life and the welcome relatively recent phenomenon of Belfast as a mass tourist destination, increasing density of development focuses on the ‘safe’ areas that don’t stray too close to the edge of the city centre; there is an invisible line that, especially now the boom is over, few developers want to cross. Between city centre and suburb is the space traversed by tour-buses that no-one wants. Development of it will signify a further stage of the transformation of the city. Ten years ago it would have been impossible to anticipate; now it seems a distinct possibility.
Ian McKnight is co-founder of Hall McKnight Architects, Belfast