BEN WEIR OUTLINES HIS RECENT BOOK, PUBLISHED IN RESPONSE TO URBAN REDEVELOPMENT IN BELFAST CITY CENTRE.
“The Claw is the blind performer
It cannot speculate, judge
The Claw can’t read
Crimes in plain sight
An austere vandal.”
Architecture is a discipline. In this sense, verbal and written discourse, criticism, research and art production are all potential methods of practicing architecture, while contributing to the collective knowledge that shapes it as a discipline. Working both as a graduate architect and as a practicing artist, I use contemporary urban redevelopment as subject matter within my work, to cast light on the underlying conditions of the city – its constant struggles and reinventions. In my view, the city is a debate, a project, a living organism.
The death of Modernism as an international architectural experiment, coincided with the rise of neoliberalism as the prevailing economic model in the West. As such, this was effectively the end of radical social missions in architecture. This era gave rise to buildings that do not generally respond to their loci, to history, culture, theory or technology, to the individual human experience nor the needs of a community. Instead, they are only assigned value as capital. This method of redevelopment eradicates the vernacular and tends toward an architecture of bland uniformity – something architect and writer Paul Shepheard calls a “flat sameness”. One of the main culprits of this tragedy is a method called ‘land assembly’. Land assembly procures large swathes of building plots from many different businesses and land owners, and combines them into one homogenous zone with a single owner. This is often disastrous for the historic urban grain of a city and even more detrimental for local and independent businesses. As well-known architect Adam Caruso states, “these developments constitute a serious erosion of democracy and of the public realm.”1
Land assembly in Belfast has happened most significantly with the construction of Castlecourt in the late 80s and with Victoria Square in the mid-2000s. These projects strike me as having nothing to do with architecture. They are, in my view, anti-placemaking, anti-contextual, anti-sustainable and anti-architecture. Any ‘architecture’ here is simply a tool for cloaking a department store in a steel and black glass facade (as is the case for Castlecourt), or a fancy glazed roof and dome to cover pseudo-public streets (as is the case for Victoria Square). All too often, it seems that Belfast has no problem tearing down what is left of its historic fabric in favour of any kind of investment. The City Council seems to push tourism so hard, yet soon there may not be anything of worth left for tourists to visit. Architecture does not need to simply be a vessel for the profiteer, inclined towards private developers’ single-tracked minds. As a result, architecture either becomes complicit within this framework, or turns to something more introspective and self-critical.
I self-published my book EVERYTHINGGETSTREATEDTHESAME/ as a call to arms and as a reactionary protest against the current situation of urban redevelopment in Belfast. The fact that my actions manifested themselves in the format of a book was purely consequential of my methodology. I did not set out to make a book, per se, but it became clear that a book format would be the most fitting way to collate a series of photographs and subsequent writings that I had been making over several months. The physical landscape of Belfast (as well as my daily routines within the city) was changing rapidly. Streets were slowly being pulled open, allowing light to grace surfaces it had never previously touched, while others were closed up like caverns. Opportunistically, I spotted an excavator (later to be dubbed ‘The Claw’) pulling down the remnants of a concrete frame. I climbed into demolition sites to photograph the rubble before it was dutifully cleared away. Most of the photographs – which were captured on an Ilford HP5 black and white disposable camera – did not have much individual merit. However, as my collection grew, I began to notice themes and avenues worth expanding upon. It was at that stage that I started writing and taking more photographs, with the specific intention of making the book.
A large proportion of the demolition to date has been of noteworthy historic buildings, including three from the 1890s on North Street, and Commonwealth House on Castle Street. Meanwhile, Swanston’s Warehouse on Queen Street was being gutted for façade retention and extension. These demolition projects were happening alongside the construction of student housing and large hotels. With the resurfaced and reprehensible plans for a new retail centre in the cultural hub of the Cathedral Quarter, the historic fabric of Belfast is about to be irreversibly changed.2 As a result, the book does have polemic and political intention and hints at some conclusions, but moreover these urban development projects form a context for the book to become something much more experiential.
EVERYTHINGGETSTREATEDTHESAME/ imagines buildings as inhabitants of the city. It features buildings that have been destroyed, manipulated, exploited and left to rot, either intentionally or otherwise. The photographs presented in the book are not intended as documentation. They do not seek to aestheticise or fetishise construction sites, dereliction, ruin or ‘urban decay’. The book speculates – through personification – that if buildings had the capacity to dream or think self-reflexively, what sense would they make of their situation? It could be argued that the book centres thematically on the ‘death of buildings’, intended in both a metaphorical and literal sense, to address: what happens to the material of the city once deconstructed; and the politics and meaning of ‘reusing’ the urban artefact. I attempted to bring together these seemingly disparate narratives in order to find new meanings or understandings of the situation.
In terms of the book’s objecthood, I intended to maintain an aesthetic in keeping with the content, while paying attention to the pace of information and images. The book suggests a sketchbook-style approach, with varying image sizes, drawings seemingly pasted-on, text running over images and images running off the page. Rather than presenting the writing and images in a specific sequence, I produced a digital ‘sketch’ version that was subject to various stages of refinement, as I began to structure the content using chapters and headings. The final layout was informed by discussions with a graphic designer friend who works at Two Digs (an independent design studio in Belfast). At this point, we established a compositional grid and a set of formal rules to use – or consciously break – on each page. The use of perfect binding fulfilled my own ideas about how the finished book should look and feel. The decision to use digital print over lithograph was purely an economic one.
I see the book as an artwork in itself. It was launched at Framewerk in Belfast, alongside a corresponding exhibition that contained fragments from the book. A public talk offered the opportunity to discuss the book’s themes and aimed to increase awareness about the bureaucracy that defines our built environment, while so heavily impacting on our lives within the city. Overall, my aspirations for the book are that people will value our cities and buildings as cultural artefacts, rather than as passive backdrops or profitable assets.
Ben Weir is an artist and Architecture graduate (RIBA Part II). He is currently based in Belfast, having completed his studies at the Glasgow School of Art.
1Adam Caruso, Quaderns (Barcelona, Spain: January 2001) Issue 228, p. 9.
2Formerly known as the Royal Exchange development.
Ben Weir, The Claw, 2017; 35mm black and white photograph.
Ben Weir, Nothing is Sacred, Nothing is Safe from EVERYTHINGGETSTREATEDTHESAME/, 2017; p. 28 –31.