How architects can’t solve every problem

Earlier this month I attended a symposium at Melbourne University about public buildings from the modern era (1945 onwards) and how they could be preserved. The University’s school of planning and architecture managed to assemble speakersfrom around the world to share their views on why it is important to conserve our modern heritage.

One thing that struck me during the morning session is how public building programmes in post war Europe were often used to try and foster a national identity, with mixed results. A speaker from Belgium talked about how in the Flanders region of the country, a series of cultural centres were built to reinforce local people’s Flemish identity.

This programme took place in the 1950s and 1960s when Flanders experienced inward migration of francophones from Wallonia. The idea of these centres, which in function were similar to the Royal Festival Hall, was to generate encounters, thus giving them more opportunities to speak the local language.

Oddly for the northern hemisphere a centre in one Flemish town faces north, away from the midday sun, but more significantly away from Wallonia. Even the building’s deliberately counterintuitive orientation makes a statement about its cultural identity.

The speech on Belgium was followed by one on Northern Ireland’s public buildings between the war and the start of direct rule. Dr Miles Glendinning of the Edinburgh College of Art told the audience how the now discredited regime in Stormont was fortunate to have some forward thinking, progressive civil servants who persuaded politicians that following the model of Britain’s welfare state was the best way of “bolstering the union”.

In the early 1960s Stormont enlisted one of Britain’s brightest brains in architecture, Robert Matthew, to prepare a vision for the province. In the years that followed, Northern Ireland got a new university and was set to get a new city, Craigavon. The vision for Craigavon was never fully realised, though it did succeed in uniting Unionists and Nationalists on one issue – they both despised the place.

By this time, the province had reached a low point. Even a public housing programme that produced good quality low rise homes did not succeed in preventing unrest that spiraled into sectarian conflict. Northern Ireland’s experiment with progressive policies had failed.

Forty years on and the fragile union between the Flanders and Wallonia is now under pressure. The lesson we can glean from these relics of Europe’s post war reconstruction is that while architecture can do a lot of things, its potential to unite disparate communities has its limits.

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