The Urban Environment

New exhibition at PLACE explores connections between the built environment and social divisions

Do walls and shrubs have the power to influence human behaviour? Can footbridges unwittingly abet violence? And could the colour scheme of a shopping centre parking lot contribute to a more inclusive public space?

These are among the questions considered in The Urban Environment: Mirror and Mediator of Radicalisation?, a new exhibition at PLACE, the Architecture and Built Environment Centre in downtown Belfast.

Based on a two-year research project headed by Dr Ralf Brand, lecturer at the University of Manchester, the show explores the ways our politics are literally written onto the urban landscape and considers how the built environment might  contribute to social division.

Berlin stickerThe idea for the exhibition came to Brand in 2005-06 when he lived in Belfast and worked as a lecturer at Queen’s University. The four cities ultimately selected for his study - Belfast, Beirut, Amsterdam and Berlin - each provide a unique lens through which to view 'different types of polarisation, division and conflict'.

'I added Beirut because I wanted a counterpart to Belfast as ‘poster children’, or clichés of urban conflict,' Brand explains. 'Lebanon has an Islam-versus-Christianity dimension, and I wanted to have a case to compare this to. Therefore, I decided on a neighbourhood of Amsterdam with a high percentage of Turkish/Moroccan immigrants. But I did not want to contribute to some sort of Islamophobia. Hence I chose a completely different form of radicalisation: Neo-Nazis in Berlin.'

Entering the exhibit is physically akin to wandering through the articles on your mother’s clothesline, with large paper panels bearing text and images slung across red, crisscrossed slack lines, then secured with paper clips. Each panel is imprinted with 'a pattern of possible foldings and cutouts', says co-curator Wolfgang Obermair, which can be read 'as kind of a façade' with intermittent, rectangular cutouts representing windows.

Sprinkled throughout the panel are quotes from local 'informants' about their own urban environment. (If that strikes you as an interesting word choice, particularly in Belfast, Brand is adamant that he selected the term because of its equivalence to 'interviewee' in certain research settings. But he admits he will change it for future shows.)

In a clever touch, a laser printer is located just above the interior canopied entrance so comments sent to the project website – www.urbanpolarisation.org – appear to fall from the ceiling into the gallery. The less techie among us can opt to leave our reactions in a comments book. As one anonymous visitor remarked, 'the imperfections of our infrastructure illustrate our inadequacies'.

When it came to Belfast what impressed Brand 'were the processes behind some buildings or other urban projects'. The exhibit shines a spotlight on the Stewartstown Road Regeneration Project in outer west Belfast, for instance, which constructed a jointly owned and managed two-storey building at an interface area once the scene of violent clashes. Among its more notable elements are separate doors for each community and identically sized office space.

That said, the show also focuses on the ways 'defensive structures' (often a result of attempts to prevent crime through environmental design) such as heavily fortified police stations, imposing peace walls and barred windows may mirror existing tensions in society. 'What I found most depressing were some rather mundane objects that contribute to the ‘socialisation’ of children into a world view of us versus them,’ remarks Brand, referring to 'unspectacular things like fences'.

After the show closes in Belfast, it will travel to the other three featured North Howard Street, Caring For The Peacewallcities plus Manchester, where Brand is based. A slightly different show will be produced for each city and will include bilingual texts in Amsterdam, Beirut and Berlin. PLACE will keep the panels produced for the Belfast stop and will likely archive them, according to the gallery.

Though the project resulted in a draft Charter for Spaces of Positive Encounters, Brand is weary of prescribing any specific lessons. He hopes his work contributes to an 'awareness of and attention to the linkages between the material and the social', and is careful to add that 'this does not mean that architecture and design can quickly solve such intricate problems but that its humble contributions should not be overlooked'.

After all, even the best-laid plans of urban designers can go awry.

It’s a point not lost on Richard, an attendee on the show’s opening night who declines to give his surname because he doesn't 'want to be divided into one side or the other'. The Belfast resident and graphic designer gestures to a photo of a newly constructed footbridge linking protestant and catholic communities. The caption notes that the bridge has become the ideal perch 'from which to throw stones etc. onto ‘enemy’ territory.’

'I think they are doing their best to create places like that bridge to bring people together,' comments Richard. 'If those extremists weren’t there, that bridge would probably be pretty useful.'

The Urban Environment: Mirror and Mediator of Radicalisation? runs until November 28 at PLACE Architecture and Built Environment Centre, 40 Fountain Street, Belfast.

Bree Hocking