Northern Visionary

Jason Walsh meets Anne Davey Orr: the Ulster Architect

The last thing anyone in Northern Ireland would have expected during the dark days of the troubles would have been a magazine expounding the virtues of the local architectural and artistic life, but in Ulster Architect, that is exactly what they got. 22 years later the magazine is still going strong.

In 1984 cultural life in Northern Ireland was something of an unknown quantity, to say the least. Any international press coverage of Northern Irish events was virtually guaranteed to be limited to reporting of the conflict, while locally art and architecture had slipped so far down the agenda that it was virtually a non-entity.

It was in this climate that Davey Orr launched Ulster Architect, a magazine which intended to document the design and building of Northern Ireland's urban environment, in essence setting out to explain and comment on what the mainstream media could not and would not cover: ‘Architecture is not high on any newspaper editor's list of priorities,’ she explains.

Despite focussing on architecture the magazine has always covered the broader cultural life of Northern Ireland, in fact, in the initial planning stages the magazine was to be a broad cultural journal entitled Northern Star. It also looked outwards to what was happening in architecture and design in other countries.

‘I produced visual material using a photocopier for the Festival of Architecture – the idea of the magazine grew out of that,’ she explains.

Today Ulster Architect remains Northern Ireland's only independent architectural journal, notwithstanding the subsequent appearance of many competing titles such as the Royal Ulster Architectural Society's Perspective and all-Ireland titles such as Architecture Ireland.

Despite a fierce and hard-fought independence, she admits that Ulster Architect is subject to the same commercial pressures as any other publication: ‘Magazines exist on advertising – unless they are subsidised by an organisation. Although magazines will tell you it doesn't affect them, it does. It is very difficult to be independently critical,’ says Davey Orr. ‘We soon found out that if you criticise a building, the reaction was out of proportion.’

Ulster Architect deals with this difficulty by having two discrete sections in the magazine: an editorial-led front of book section and a commercial-led back of book. Such a distinction may seem overly fine to many, but when readers need to be able to trust what they read, demonstrating journalistic integrity becomes vital.

‘In Northern Ireland the market is saturated with poor quality publications. The Northern Irish press is bland. Of course, most regional press is bland,’ she says.

Davey Orr is well-placed to criticise with extensive experience in the media. Apart from founding and editing Ulster Architect she has edited a range of other publications including Scottish Arts Monthly, Causeway magazine and Ireland’s Cities, was involved in the founding of the all-Ireland art magazine Circa and is a former contributor to the Irish Times and The Guardian. She continues to write regularly for the Belfast Telegraph business section and respected building design titles such as World Architecture.

As a journal aimed at professional architects, Ulster Architect maintains a high visual standard with clean, modern design and excellent photography. For Davey Orr, good design was an issue right from the start but the last decade of developments in design and print have really made it possible to produce a top-end design, something which many other publications have failed to take advantage of.

‘Generally speaking, even well-respected publications in Northern Ireland are quite poor visually,’ she says. To Davey Orr design is important: she trained as a designer with BBC TV in London and won Vogue magazine’s Young Designer of the Year Award shortly after she graduated from Edinburgh. A meeting with the film director Peter Watkins led to her working on the design of two of his early films: Culloden and The War Game. She returned to Ireland to look for locations for a film he proposed to make on the Easter Rising.

Urbanism for beginners
Quite aside from her thoughts on the media, Davey Orr has strong opinions on the direction taken by Belfast's recent urban regeneration – and the knowledge to back the opinions up.

‘Some of the city is very brutal,’ she says, ‘There needs to be a landscaping masterplan to deal with the blankness – carparks like mouths without teeth.’

Despite this, Davey Orr feels that Belfast not only has a lot of potential but is already home to some architecturally significant buildings: ‘Belfast is an interesting city,’ she says, ‘It has a very stable centre and it reflects the city's most successful times: the Victorian era. There is a wonderful exuberance in its Victorian architecture.’

Combining the Victorian with the contemporary was never going to be an easy task, but Davey Orr argues that the main difficulty facing Belfast is a lack of a coherent urban vision: ‘Belfast needs a city planner,’ she says, arguing that a strategy is needed to give the city an overall vision, pointing out that while the Laganside project has been a success it has taken a long time (the Waterfront Hall was first proposed in 1959) and there is still a need to tie it into the city as a whole.

‘I feel that we are slaves to the car in Belfast. It's an easy city to drive in, but as a consequence no real thought has been given to transgressing from one area to another. Linking the pockets together is an issue, mainly because so many roads are arterial vehicular routes,’ she says.

Davey Orr is also a critic of the proposal to locate a major stadium not in Belfast, but on the site of the Maze prison: ‘It's a big mistake. There is no infrastructure to support it – who will benefit from people visiting?

‘A stadium in Cardiff or London makes sense, but in the countryside it makes no sense. It seems to be being foisted on us for political reasons, so if we are to have it, why not in Belfast?’

For Davey Orr whose twenty-two years at the helm of Ulster Architect have seen her not only continually facing challenges, but also privy, if not party, to all of the major planning decisions in Northern Ireland such an inchoate strategy is no real surprise: ‘Northern Ireland is very 'closed' in some sense – there are so many layers to get through. I suppose I'm saying that we're over governed, despite being smaller than many regions of England. It's hard to come to terms with the fact that you may be a backwater.’