OGU’s interventions in Belfast are often small and temporary, but the practice hopes that their disproportionate impact can change the conversation about the city
Rachel O’Grady and Chris Upson made their move to Belfast before their competition win for a temporary timber pavilion in the city, Built:East. Upson grew up in County Tyrone; Rachel arrived with new eyes. Married, they are the two founding directors of three-person practice OGU.
In the short time since, they have transformed streets, given Belfast city centre a new indoor public space and improved their adopted city with strategic temporary projects. As projects extend into Derry/Londonderry, OGU has been chosen for the Republic of Ireland’s Tallinn Architecture Biennale pavilion, its pieced-together greenhouse of reclaimed mahogany-framed windows setting off echoes of the reuse fundamental to decades of gardeners before it was reified by architects.
As Paddy, their border/bearded collie cross, enthusiastically makes himself heard O’Grady introduces him as ‘smarter than me’. Which is some claim given her PhD on roots-up heritage projects in north India at London Metropolitan University and her continuing research and teaching at Queen’s University Belfast. As O’Grady was studying Upson had gone from the intense detailing of a theatre and Ironmonger Row Baths, while at Tim Ronalds Architects, to strategic projects with Karakusevic Carson. He had started making his way independently with a group of like-minded architects in Tower Hamlets. OGU operates in a similar way in Belfast, working closely with councils and local stakeholders on low budget interventions and often in collaboration with other practices, in particular MMAS.
This area of work has thrown up questions of what we mean by public space, what we want from it, and what architects might bring to it. This is particularly interesting when highways departments hold sway over much of the public domain, as they do in Belfast.
OGU was onto ‘parklets’ early. Concerned about the impact of Covid and traffic on cafés near the couple’s home it expanded the pavement with greenery and street ‘furniture’. On its self-initiated project the practice brought in Queen’s University, Belfast City Council and the Department for Infrastructure. It used its experience of making and knowledge of Northern Ireland manufacturers, which it had explored with the Built:East Pavilion; cheap repurposed cattle feeders and screens from metal worker contacts gave pedestrians a sense of space. There wasn’t a template for this sort of development, just a lot of joining up, pushing ideas and design. ‘We have a Jack Russell approach; small and ferocious,’ says Upson. ‘And there’s a need for people to implement structures on the ground in Belfast.’
For Upson and O’Grady, demountability seems to be the key to getting change through. Ideas can be tested, their impacts understood and when a change works it can be made permanent – and the kit reused elsewhere. ‘We need to invest in these dynamic, moveable improvements in the city,’ says Upson. ‘If they were perceived as permanent they might never happen,’ adds O’Grady. On its MacEwen-shortlisted Adelaide Street project, OGU tried to bring light and move away from the car on the long, dark, warehouse-lined road – with barriers and tall ‘lanterns’. Because the sun mostly hits the centre of the road – previously the preserve of the car – early sketches showed mirrored surfaces to make the most of the light. Cut-outs draw attention to historic features like gargoyles or patterns referring to local looms. The pair pause here to lament the missed opportunities of shopping from the catalogue of urbanism, without reference to place and history.
For Belfast this includes not just its industrial past and the Troubles, but also the way traffic and urban planning carved up the city. OGU has worked to ameliorate the scars of division with community groups and businesses in west Belfast, eking out small grants on 60 small difficult sites with ideas from landscape mounds for outdoor cinema to events and housing feasibility studies.
Chris clearly loves this sort of strategic work; the pair talk less about how they split this and more about what each brings to it: ‘Chris is very good at making,’ says O’Grady, while Upson draws attention to her research, ‘It gives the clout behind our thinking.’ The fruit of O’Grady’s PhD work talking to locals at the Taj Mahal in Agra might be seen in OGU’s engagement. But it is also tempting to see it in the transformation of the constrained spaces of 2 Royal Avenue, a closed-down Tesco in an old bank building. She talks of heritage beyond the fixed, beyond historic architecture, of wedding structures, and dressing spaces with flowers and lights. The old bank, with its low long ceiling that once extended over supermarket aisles, is broken up with gentle wafts of coloured fabric.
There is a new life to this mixed up old building: a small bar and many seats (drinks purchase not required) that have been taken over by teenagers, a refugee group, mums and students since it opened last year. And critically, in the energy crisis that hit over winter, it is warm and free. The £90,000 design is able to be softer and looser than street interventions, and although the meanwhile use to reanimate the council-owned building has some way to go, OGU would love to see it opening out to the space behind.
O’Grady’s and Upson’s move from London to Belfast was done with open eyes. They are winning open tenders but often competing with big city practices and even multi-nationals and they see a race to the bottom on fees. They look at practices in the generations above and wonder quite how they got bigger projects, but OGU’s work with Belfast Harbour on the regeneration of Barrow Square by the docks might be a start. Upson says, ‘Northern Ireland is a tough place to practise… There may be less opportunity in Belfast, but there are lower costs and risks are easier to take.’