Interface Architecture
: Towards the Transformation of Belfast's 'Peace Walls' through Situated Practice

  • James O'Leary

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    Focusing on the ‘Interface Areas’ that separate Nationalist and Unionist communities in Belfast, Northern Ireland, this research project aims to establish new modes of architectural production conducive to working in politically contested architectural sites. This is a ‘practice-based’ PhD, developing both practical and theoretical investigations into the possibilities of the architect’s role in the transformation of urban areas that have been neglected through the course of political conflict. Underlying this project is a desire to accelerate, in whatever small way, the transformation of the so-called ‘peace walls’ that act as separation barriers in multiple areas across Belfast (known locally as ‘Interface Areas’) over the past fifty years. These areas are highly politically sensitive and particularly resistant to change, which suggests that normative modes of architectural production cannot be applied.

    This thesis makes several original contributions to knowledge. In tracing the historical development of the ‘peace walls’ in relation to the political context, this research fills a gap in academic study about one of the key legacies of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland i.e: the spatial, social and urban implications for the city divided by numerous wall and barriers. Through the development of the ‘Peacewall Archive’ website, much new documentary and policy information about the ‘peace walls’ is archived, and many fields of disparate information brought together for the first time, including policy documents and academic studies, curated images, maps, video, audio, and policy documents. Regarding the theoretical underpinning of this work, over the course of this research project tools and tactics appropriate for long-term architectural interventions in these areas are devised, actively developing new forms of transformational spatial practice, which is termed ‘Situated Practice’.
    This form of practice asserts that all interventionist practice is uniquely situated in a particular location, and therefore needs to be guided and framed by the nuances and conditions of that particular place.

    A key argument of the thesis is that the ‘peace walls’ should not be considered merely as a set of objects and spaces but instead an ongoing holistic situation in a continual state of evolution in time, space and material. The researcher posits that this situation is a field that is open to design and strategic interference in order to manage and contour the changes in state of the wider system. A major question of this design is to critically assess whether a complete removal of all ‘peace walls’ in Belfast is desirable. A number of strategic interventions into this arena are proposed that act as provocations and activators for site re-programming and platforms for spatial transformation. The researcher mobilizes the term ‘Interface Architecture’ as a propositional spatial and technological apparatus capable of probing the limits of architectural possibility on such sites over extended periods of time.
    Date of AwardNov 2020
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Brighton
    SupervisorLouise Purbrick (Supervisor) & Peter Lloyd (Supervisor)

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