A guided tour provided by PLACE Belfast tries to change your perspective of the urban design of the city.
PLACE Belfast (http://www.place.uk.net/) has organised guided tours “to promote and develop the wider publics understanding of the built environment”. One focuses on the contested space of our own city: “Belfast: A City Shaped by Conflict”, and the guide, a PhD student in ‘Planning for Spatial Reconciliation’: Aisling Shannon.
The guide, Aisling Shannon (who is a PhD student in Planning for Spatial Reconciliation at Queen’s University), started the tour at the Europa Hotel — formerly the most bombed hotel in the world — and runs along a route through two of the most known quarters in Belfast — Falls Road and Shankill Road — as well as through the city centre. The goal was to show how the urban design and architecture of the town has been shaped by conflict.
On our way to the Falls Road, we discovered both facts that Grosvenor PSNI barracks has a 10 meter tall barrier to protect it against bombing as well as that in Galway Street are found one of the last examples of traditional Victorian ‘two-up and two-down’ housing.
In the Falls Road area we found out that the Westlink, even if it was constructed before the Troubles started, has served as a de facto barrier that separates the city centre from Falls and Shankill. As Shannon points out, this has promoted — and still does — sectarianism. This barrier also makes young people feel very disconnected from the city centre.
The next stop was the famous peace wall that divides the Falls and Shankill areas. This “peace line” is a good example of how to artificially control the growth of a city: whereas Falls Road is overcrowded, people in Shankill Road — one of the oldest settlements in Belfast — are moving out to places such as Lisburn or Holywood.
But it’s not just about peace walls. In the Falls Road, a tall building draws our attention: the Divis Tower. Formerly part of a complex of buildings known as Divis Flats, nowadays it’s the last building remaining. The reason is its convenience for the British Army, who used the top of its roof as an observation post from 1975 to 2005. After army left it, it’s been refurbished, and now it’s a very popular building in the area.
At the Carrick Hill and Peters Hill’s intersection along the Shankill Road, another peace wall divides the Shankill from the upper Catholic-populated area. Some terrace houses were built here in Carrick Hill, as part of an experiment to bring both communities together. It didn’t work, and now there are mostly Catholics living in them. Another remarkable fact here is the high number of car parks in the place of buildings: one more consequence of bombs.
Shannon led us into the city centre, for the last part of the tour. When a foreigner comes for the first time to Belfast, he gets astounded by the lack of people during Belfast’s nightlife. That’s not so surprising if you take into account that during the Troubles most of attacks were in the city centre. Here the architecture is also shaped by conflict, as seen in some of the buildings like the big red one in 6 Castle Place. The special form of this building is to protect it against bombs. In fact, there’s no place where a bomb can be placed, as well as its colour makes it look like an indestructible fortress.
Our tour ended at the Lagan Bus Station, in Marlborough Street, where Shannon shows us one of the only memorials placed in the city centre, a traditionally neutral space. The memorial is devoted to the victims of bombs in buses during the Troubles, a time when the German managing director for buses in Northern Ireland, Werner Heubeck, used to personally remove the bombs out of them.
This tour was well worth the hour and a half that it took. It will shape your mind, as Belfast as a city was shaped by the conflict.