Belfast A City Shaped by Conflict

PLACE's new city tour is a fascinating look at how conflict has shaped Belfast's urban architecture

There is a man with a bicycle at the launch of PLACE NI’s new series of weekly walking tours in Belfast (and one in Derry). It is a fairly nifty bike – it’s yellow and folds up – but if he is setting the pace for the Belfast: A City Shaped by Conflict tour, then this arts journalist will stay back and have a coffee.

Luckily, it turns out that today at least, the tour guide is the strictly pedestrian Aisling Shannon, a Ph.D student at Queen’s University. Her sphere of interest is in the influence of violence on the built environment.

On the face of it, that seems like an easy question to answer – it turns it into rubble. However, Shannon’s tour reveals the odd and knock-on ways that conflict has shaped Belfast. Things that growing up here, you just accepted or never even noticed.

The tour starts at the Europa Hotel, which used to be the most bombed hotel in the world (apparently a Holiday Inn in Beirut has that dubious distinction now). Shannon drops a few interesting factoids about the hotel, such as that one reason the Europa was so frequently bombed was because the press stayed there, so it was convenient for them to get the story.

Then she points out that the Europa is one of the best known hotels in Belfast not because it is the tallest (although it was) or the swankiest but because of its connection to the violence. That is one way that conflict can shape a city, imbuing landmarks with meaning.

From the Europa the tour heads around to Grosvenor Police Barracks. Shannon, after a quick warning not to take pictures, fills us in on the history behind the walls and gun turrets. It turns out that the two-toned walls were designed by an architect in order to minimise the impact on the local community.

Next we head past Galway Street (with some of the few remaining examples of traditional Belfast two-up and two-down housing), out towards the Belfast Met campus and then over the West Link to the Peace Wall.

Walking along here it is hard to believe that the Good Friday agreement was nearly 15 years ago. At 7pm the gates are locked at either end and no-one is allowed through.

Shannon pauses here to explain that part of the natural growth of a city is the expansion and contraction of neighbourhoods. In Belfast, that growth has been artificially retarded by the Peace Walls, almost like a bonsai tree. The Shankill has shrunk, with people moving out and leaving space, while in the Falls space is at a premium.

Interesting tidbits like that sprinkle the tour. The odd-shaped, awkward car-parks that pop up in odd corners of Belfast are another legacy of the violence here. Buildings that were damaged by bombs were often just levelled and repurposed. I would assume the Blitz might be responsible for some of them though?

Or there is the fact that Belfast still happens mostly at ground level. Take a look up and around at the elegant, old Victorian floors above the glossy shop-fronts. In a lot of cities those spaces would be used as flats. Here, they are empty or used as store-rooms. People either didn’t want to live in the city centre, or couldn’t during the ‘Ring of Steel’ years when access to the city was restricted.

The tour isn’t all doom and gloom though. Shannon also points out the potential for peace-time architecture in Belfast. There are modern apartment buildings in the Shankill, the odd-shaped car-parks could become new buildings (although the parking situation would be even worse) and the walls around the police barracks will eventually come down.

After a brief stop at Castlecourt – which was originally meant to be faux-Victorian – the tour heads on down towards ‘Nuala with the Hula' (properly the ‘Beacon of Hope’).

Belfast: A City Shaped by Conflict is probably not the first tour a visitor to the city would think of taking. However, it is a fascinating, speculative look at a Belfast most of us never really think about. It is well worth an hour and a half's walk on a weekend.

Places on Belfast: A City Shaped by Conflict and other PLACE tours can found at http://www.placeni.org/whats_on.

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