Urban Alchemy: The Transforming Power of Art and Architecture
300 delegates meet at Belfast conference to examine the impact of arts and architecture on our cities and public spaces
Paris has its Pompidou, Bilbao its Guggenheim, Newcastle its ‘Angel of the North’, London its Gherkin and Dublin its Temple Bar. Inspirational architecture and public art have transformed the images of these cities across Europe, and it can do the same for Belfast, defining a positive new sense of itself as a European capital city and even transforming the city’s long-held community divisions.
This is the forward-looking view of Frank McDonald, Environmental Editor of the Irish Times and Chair of ‘Urban Alchemy: The Transforming Power of Art and Architecture’, a major conference which took place in Belfast yesterday (September 26 th). The conference brought together the leading lights of international architecture and pubic art to explore the positive impact of arts-led regeneration on our cities and public places.
Paul Sweeney, Permanent Secretary, Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure; the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Pat McCarthy; and Rosemary Kelly, Chairman of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, at the ‘Urban Alchemy’ conference.
McDonald sees arts-led renewal as being the catalyst to change Belfast from a place which has long been “a city that people only just dared to use”, to a city whose regeneration becomes part of the “healing process” and helps us to get the Troubles out of our system. However, despite the dawning of peace and the new confidence this has generated, McDonald sees Belfast as remaining “a shattered city.” What’s needed, he believes, “is a sense of collective ownership of the shared space of the city centre that many other cities have – even Dublin. If this is to be brought about, it will require a lot more public debate and engagement about plans for the city.”
Paul Sweeney, Permanent Secretary, Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, reinforced this message in his keynote address to delegates. He said, “Public space in Northern Ireland has been one of the casualties over the last 30 years. Now we have a chance for a new beginning, we have the challenge of finding shared rather than contested space. Our buildings and public spaces should enhance our lives and contribute to the public good. The Government’s new architecture policy for Northern Ireland, initiated by the Arts Council, has helped raise awareness of good design and the need for more creativity and more art in public spaces. The discussions today could have a ripple effect generated by the inspirational ideas we’ve shared today.”
Sunand Prasad, President Elect of the Royal Institute of British Architects; Trevor Leaker, President of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects; Frank McDonald, Irish Times Environmental Editor and conference Chair; and Paul Harron, architecture and public art specialist at the Arts Council, at the ‘Urban Alchemy’ conference.
Sunand Prasad, President Elect of the Royal Institute of British Architects and guest speaker, said in relation to his work on health and community centres in Belfast, “Buildings that make you feel better are important; a space that makes you feel better is inspirational. The Urban Alchemy conference helps us focus on our physical surroundings and the magic they exert. Artists and architects working together can induce a sense of belonging in a city, and that’s important.”
Conference speakers agreed that the scale of opportunity in Northern Ireland is enormous. But for Belfast to achieve its full potential, creative and innovative design must be at the heart of any such regeneration.
This made the ‘Urban Alchemy’ conference, organised by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Belfast City Council and the Royal Society of Ulster Architects, all the more timely and important to Belfast’s future development. It shared the latest ideas from across Britain, Ireland and Europe with the very artists, architects, planners, developers, community leaders and policy-makers who will influence the future shape of Northern Ireland and its capital city.