Context 156 - September 2018

32 C O N T E X T 1 5 6 : S E P T E M B E R 2 0 1 8 Red Brick Belfast: community and culture in place Speaker: Rita Harkin, project coordinator for Red Brick Belfast Rita Harkin began her session with that familiar Belfast greeting: ‘What about ye?’ The col- loquialism was highly appropriate in the context of community and culture in place, and the traditional working-class, red-brick terraces of south Belfast. These 19th- and early 20th-century terraces, known as the ‘wee palaces’ on account of their modest, two-up, two-down plan and neat yet quality detailing, once housed the city’s mostly Protestant, shipbuilding workforce of around 50,000. However, as the poor cousins of our built heritage, and in a contested landscape, they have not always been valued. They were much reduced as a result of the Troubles and the juggernaut of Housing Executive vestings, demolitions and improve- ments, which have been sweeping across the city since the 1970s. Although they are every bit as illustrative of Belfast’s shipbuilding herit- age as their landmark, and now scheduled, neighbours Samson and Goliath (Harland and Wolff ’s cranes). As Harkin explained, her project sought to reconnect the community of ‘The Village’ area with its red-brick heritage, in the face of planned redevelopment. In 2008 the Department for Social Development declared it an urban renew- al area, and provided £100 million of public money to demolish around 580 homes and rebuild 270 new ones. Despite being a proud loyalist community, the local population did not appear to value its historic streetscapes, and it supported this redevelopment. However, given the troubled and violent history of these places, it is perhaps not surprising that the locals should want to improve their area and even preside over its demolition when offered new investment. Following removal of a street mural, of the kind that adorn many of the gables within the Village, the community feared that its identity was being eroded. Enter Harkin’s ‘brick bandits’ – an unofficial band of local young ‘entrepreneurial’ lads whom she witnessed salvaging the red brick from some of the demolished ‘wee palaces’. The vision sparked off her idea for the Red Brick Project as a way of harnessing the energy of the proud local people to explore the humble red brick – the building block of Belfast and indeed the foundation on which these communities were built. The result was an imaginative, hands-on inter- generational project, involving 12 local people, exploring historic maps, photography, ceramic artists and traditional skills, and new uses for a recently listed 1920s garment factory. The aim was to reconnect the community with its red-brick heritage, and open its eyes to the value and potential of its historic places. It was heartening to hear how the commu- nity came together through the medium of the humble red brick. The project shines a light on the potential of local heritage to bring a positive focus to these deprived communities. Northern Ireland is a place where heritage and identity are hotly disputed, yet if you approach it with an open mind and take it back to its build- ing blocks, it remains as individualised a concept as ever. However, Harkin’s talk left me with one burning question: as new community planning powers take hold in Northern Ireland, who is going to champion the built heritage at the local level, to ensure that the shared story continues to be told in all of its colourful and authentic hews? Conor Sandford Street Society: alternative approaches to transforming place Ruth Morrow, professor of architecture, Queens  University, Belfast I instantly warmed to Ruth Morrow when she introduced herself as ‘an architect who doesn’t build’ and someone who ‘really knows what I’m not doing’. However, as professor of architecture at Queens University, Belfast, she also knows a great deal about what she is doing. With her Rita Harkin: enter the brick bandits