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The Missing City

Declan Hill - one of the FAB founders describing it's Missing City project. Photo Vicky Richardson

Declan Hill - one of the FAB founders describing it's Missing City project. Photo Vicky Richardson
PLACE architecture centre. Photo Vicky Richardson

PLACE architecture centre. Photo Vicky Richardson
Tesco on Royal Avenue - housed in a Grade A listed former bank. Photo Vicky Richardson

Tesco on Royal Avenue - housed in a Grade A listed former bank. Photo Vicky Richardson

2 March 2011
by Vicky Richardson

I'm in Belfast for a couple of days. The first time I visited the city was as a student in 1991, when I drove a student union minibus from London with a delegation to join a Hunger Strike commemoration rally. In 2001 I came back as a journalist writing about architecture, and now here I am, another decade on, getting ready to speak at a Creative Industries conference about my work at the British Council.

Walking round the city centre earlier today, it was noticeable how lively the streets are compared to the days when the 'ring of steel' meant that the area was closed off after dark. There are some remnants of the city's sectarian divide: a blank brick wall closes off Berry Street and marks a barrier between West Belfast and the city's main shopping street. This was pointed out to me by Declan Hill of the excellent organization Forum for an Alternative Belfast, which has done some really interesting mapping of the city. FAB, as it's called for short, organised an exhibition about Belfast at the Venice Architecture Biennale last year. Each year they hold a summer school where the participants actually have to do useful work in researching and studying the city...apparently some of the students complain that it's bit too much like hard work, but it seems an excellent idea to hold a summer school that has a real purpose and will make an impact on the future.

I am being hosted by Colette Norwood, the British Council's arts manager for Northern Ireland. We pay a visit to PLACE, Northern Ireland's architecture centre, which is located in a striking brutalist building on Fountain Street. I haven't managed to find out yet who designed it. Nearby is a branch of Tesco that has to be the grandest in the country. It's housed in the Grade A listed former Provincial Bank of Ireland on Royal Avenue.

We also pop into the Golden Thread Gallery and Belfast Exposed, the excellent photography venue that has pioneered documentary work about the city. It's current show is a film about DeLorean by Duncan Campbell.

Colette is busy organizing a project where local designers and artists have been asked to design contemporary souvenirs for Belfast. The prototypes will be on show from 31 March at the PS2 space in the Cathedral Quarter, and other examples of the designers' work will be sold at a pop-up store nearby. Colette promises she will write a blog about this for Back of the Envelope, so expect that soon!