In every town and city the world over architecture is linked to the history and the politics of that specific location. When you consider a city such as Belfast and the incredibly complex nature of the political history over the last century, you can certainly see how architecture has been formed within that context, and how it is of a dramatically different nature to other towns and cities in Britain. Architecture in towns and cities, as well as the development of masterplanning is a fundamental part of the structure of how we live. How does this manifest in a city where there has been incredible turmoil over many decades?
Northern Ireland was created in 1921, the date when the Republic of Ireland was first partitioned as an independent Irish Free State. The conflict in Northern Ireland that we now know as the ‘troubles’ was mostly fought from the 1960s through to the Good Friday Peace Agreement in the 1990s, and you can definitely see a development of architecture in the city from buildings and structures designed and built in a city that was constantly under attack and suffered skirmishes from within, to that of a future of hope in the 1990s. Defiance, hope, troubles, and many other feelings and emotions were bound to have an impact on the development of design and architecture in a city where there didn’t seem like there was a light at the end of the tunnel for many decades; that there would always be conflict and armed struggle between two opposing groups living literally side by side, in neighbouring streets and areas of the city.
As urban towns and cities in the rest of Britain could develop over time in a natural setting, with public buildings and funding allowing for a free flow and spread of ideas, Belfast became an urban sprawl that had become heavily militarised, broken and heavily compartmentalised as a population. Where you are discussing public buildings and commercial spaces being regularly bombed (such as the Europa Hotel becoming the most bombed hotel in Europe), there was a necessity for architecture and public design to reflect the inherent dangers of the city itself. This means that all public buildings had to be designed with security as the primary focus, and not a flourish of design and artistry as in so many other public buildings in mainland Britain. This involved twin walls, security barriers and building with either no windows or barricaded windows.
Peace Walls were constructed to ensure that communities were divided and to minimise the risks of clashes between Unionists and Nationalists, with many of the walls remaining to this day. As in Berlin the walls have become culturally iconic, with extravagant murals part of the cities tourism industry these days. As progress was made in the 1990s and peace was a valid option moving forward there was an increase in funding and architecture could display hope and artistry. There was the opening of the Waterfront Hall in 1996, later on the Lyric Theatre provides a bridge between old Belfast and New Belfast, and the opening of the Titanic Centre in 2012 was an impressive statement that the city was reopened for business.