Fracturing the Urban: symbolic visual representations of underlying societal themes in Belfast

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Belfast, Northern Ireland is a city permeated by structural divisions, echoing underlying and deeply rooted societal divisions, which no amount of architectural intervention, even Tabula Rasa, can completely eradicate. In a city where, from the late 1960s, civil unrest prescribed a solution of walls, these once temporary structures are now permanent, having increased in size and number since the signing of the Belfast Agreement of 1998. The duality of the walls ensures that on one side communities are isolated in social housing developments where the British Army historically approved planning measures dictated by security issues. On the other, a culturally neutral postmodern city centre, re-imagined as a global tourist destination, a free and inviting environment of consumption. This city’s built environment is further fractured by major roads initiatives. Without sufficient, organized or effective opposition, such as was seen in Manhattan, Belfast’s motorway planning has ensured destruction and redistribution of architecture, carving the city into ill-divided socio-economic portions. On the city’s arterial routes cultural identities are bound up in built environments divested with meaning through signs and symbols, where collective memory, hegemonies, group ideologies, history and myth ensure a narrative of continuity despite changes to the landscape. Even with a ‘genius loci’ constantly under threat the socially produced symbolic landscape of the city’s arterial routes remains imbued with meaning through tangible and visible expressions of culture. This paper undertakes an analysis of the built environment and signage of these arterial routes, supported by a photographic archive, to demonstrate how such visual inquiry can prove a reliable barometer of socio-economic and societal undercurrents, mirroring census findings, in these long-established urban places.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)60-82
JournalInternational Journal of Architecture and Urban Studies
Issue number2
Early online date1 Apr 2017
Publication statusPublished online - 1 Apr 2017


  • Belfast
  • arterial routes
  • interfaces
  • peace walls
  • Troubles
  • signage
  • semiotics
  • built environment
  • urban
  • city
  • architecture
  • lettering
  • typography
  • graffiti
  • murals
  • tags
  • socio-economics
  • place
  • hegemony
  • defensible space
  • transport
  • culture


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