Signs of a city: semiotic markers at odds with constructed narratives in Belfast

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Belfast, perhaps despite, perhaps because of its ‘troubled’ past, is a city with culture, memory, history and myth at its core. Now architecturally and geographically permeated the city has, since the ‘Troubles’ of the 1960s, seen a prescribed solution of walls concentrated in the city’s most socio-economically deprived areas. The duality of the walls continues to ensure isolation of communities in social housing estates located on the city’s arterial routes, while major roads initiatives further redefine its boundaries. Currently the city centre is seeing unprecedented redevelopment to create a culturally neutral commercial and tourist hub, underpinned by a narrative of carefully selected stories, reinforced by appropriate ‘visual and architectural representation’. With construction at its highest level since 2008 and 30 development schemes underway or recently completed ‪#BelfastCraneCount‪, currently trending on twitter, reports 27 cranes in the Belfast skyline. The city is has become an architectural composite as postmodern structures fracture the traditional Victorian red brick and sandstone landscape, eradicating ‘memories, history and identity attached to the architecture and place’. Indeed ‘facadism, it seems, may often be the best architectural heritage bodies can hope for in preserving something of Belfast’s historic built environment. Yet on the city’s arterial routes cultural identities remain bound up in built environments still divested with meaning through signs and symbols, where collective memory, hegemonies and group ideologies ensure a narrative of continuity. 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, a result of interdisciplinary inquiry, examines how Belfast’s greater built environment is divested with meaning, as buildings and signage combine to create a sense of place. Supported by a photographic archive, the paper demonstrates how such an inquiry can provide a reliable barometer of socio-economic and societal undercurrents, despite any ‘smoke and mirrors’ reimaging concentrated on the city’s core, redefining how the city is ‘viewed by others’, if not by the inhabitants themselves.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)283-296
Number of pages14
JournalAMPS Proceedings Series
VolumeSeries 10
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 2017


  • Belfast
  • interface
  • signage
  • graffiti
  • murals
  • flags
  • semiotics
  • space
  • place
  • city
  • urban environment
  • housing estates


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