The hunt/research: 2010-11
Exhibition: PS2, Befast, 26 May – 07 June, 2014
Belfast contains a large number of historic buildings with commercial uses on the ground floor and empty above. Former offices, warehouses and caretaker lodgings are now largely disused or advertised as storage. In 2010 we began a search for a city centre premises to convert into a live/work space.
We were renting a floor in one such building on Lombard Street in the city core as a studio, and subletting rooms to other artists and architects. Given the nature of our work at the time which had a large element of event programming, this became more of a social, yet domestic space for us; we hosted discussions, screenings, charrettes, critiques and dinners.
Clearing up after an event one night and with a walk home in front of us we realised that with very little fit out, that first floor could easily accommodate our live/work needs.
Our live/work proposal for Lombard Street was flatly refused by the landlords, however, convinced of the concept we began a new house hunt. With some degree of subterfuge (as proposing mixed resi-commercial use was proving difficult), we viewed commercial buildings with the hidden intention to also live in them. We invented and lied and improvised, while drafting designs for communal work spaces, and considering how much privacy we really required.
After looking at more than 20 premises, devising operational plans for each, negotiating with landlords, agents and potential partners, our search was unsuccessful due to legislative issues around mixed use. This failure forced us to consider the problem from a more academic position, and prompted questions about the nature of cities, as well as of this particular post-conflict, post-crash city.
Our search continued for 18 months before we shifted our focus towards the river and opened a bar on a barge, a similar performative action made in response to an underused area of the city centre.
As a resolution to what ultimately became a piece of research, and as a means to generate discussion about the underpopulation of the city core we presented an exhibition. The exhibition was a series of photographs of the buildings we had viewed presented as an unwieldy research document annotated with notes describing our undercover approach to letting them. We also constructed a sculpture in light, shadow and flat pack boxes, as a shrine to the failed hunt.
Since 2010 Belfast has produced various ambitious and aspirational policy and strategy documents focused on the diversification of the city centre, and present principles for addressing challenges like vacancy and underpopulation, in order to support economic, and more recently, societal growth. Documents such as the Belfast City Centre Regeneration and Investment Strategy (BCCRIS), The Belfast Agenda, The Belfast Connectivity Study - A Bolder Vision, The Cultural Strategy and various Open and Green Space strategies, as well as the Covid pandemic, have moved conversation and delivery on, as cities recognise the need to create urban centres refocused on civic needs.