Occasionally I’m given the chance to visit universities and get the opportunity to talk to students, something which I always find an eye-opener in a positive way. Since I always come away learning something new for myself and getting a glimpse of the world through young, unjaded eyes.
Last week , I was in the fortunate position of visiting Queen’s University in Belfast. Opened in 1849, this august university was established by Queen Victoria with the enlightened aims to encourage non-denominational higher education in Ireland. In my frequent visits to Belfast I have admired the splendour of the main Victorian building, designed and named after English architect, Sir Charles Lanyon and modelled on Magdalen College, Oxford. Together with William Barre, Lanyon is considered one of Belfast’s most important and prolific architects of the Victorian era. Although Lanyon didn’t confine himself to just designing buildings, he served as Mayor of Belfast and as its MP, he also laid the groundwork for the Universal Education Act of 1871.
What an apt and gloriously inspiring setting for anyone studying architecture or urban planning, but my meeting was in the more modern Ashby building, whose blandness paled into insignificance against the magnificence of Lanyon’s Gothic Revival façade. Ironically, the modernist Ashby building was used as a location for the film version of J.G Ballard dystopian novel High-Rise – a nightmarish ‘dog eat dog’ scenario set in a modern apartment block – not exactly the best example of successful placemaking!
Despite the disappointment in the unremarkable exterior, inside it was a hive of activity and oozed with a sense of vibrancy and vitality. Indeed the Comparative Urban Design class I was visiting, were not only the epitome of modern-day Belfast, but were also hungry to learn and asked searching and pertinent questions. I was struck by the huge diversity of opinions and views, no doubt underpinned by the wide range of nationalities represented in the class, in addition to the local students– Chinese, Dutch, French and Jordanian, to name but a few.
It was fascinating to hear what they regarded as important: primarily understanding the changing nature of cities, how to activate space and making use of waterfronts. We also considered the role of people in place making and the importance of authentic engagement with local communities, impacted by regeneration projects. We all agreed that it is essential to put time and effort into comprehending how people interact with the spaces and places they use.
Much of this resonated given my interest in place making and mycurrent project the Waterside on the shores of Belfast’s River Lagan. This concerns putting a large piece of the city back to work as the land has been derelict for over 20 years. Historically, this area near the city centre was once a busy, boisterous hive of local industry, which together with the river contributed to the wealth and success of the city in the 19th century. The wealth that saw Lanyon and Barre’s architectural and urban regeneration of Belfast in Victorian times.
Now in the 21st century this 16-acre wasteland is full of potential to relive its thriving past and flourish once again, giving new life and renewed energy to this forgotten area. Having shared a video made by local Belfast teenagers about the project with the Urban Design students; it will be interesting to see how we might form a learning partnership with like-minded groups to ensure how our project can take the views of future urban planners and the younger members of the community into account.
Reflecting on this visit to Queen’s University, reinforced a long-held personal view that all of us who are involved in construction, design, estates, facilities, investment, planning and real estate in general, are but mere stewards of the built environment. Also that we owe the generations which follow us some form of legacy, hopefully equalling the inspiring and resplendent buildings of our more visionary predecessors, such as Charles Lanyon.