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What did They Build That for? spacer Issue 5
What Did They Build That For? - The Streets
by David Brett
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This is about the humblest kind of architecture possible, on which everyone depends, that we use every day and that we only notice when it goes wrong. I mean architecture for the feet - pavements and their surfaces. City life is almost impossible without good pavements, and it is pavements that remain long after the houses have gone. The walls of Pompeii are dust, but the cobblestones remain, as good as ever they were ( and they were very good indeed, because the Romans knew a thing or two about roads). The techniques of paving are indescribably old, well understood and basically very easy. They need most of all, patience and application. Their foundations ( the parts you don't see) have to be perfectly levelled and graded. The material used has to be both strong and attractive. This takes time and some expense. You can't have cheap paving that is also good and permanent. There are no short cuts.
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What Did They Build That For? - The Streets
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Some years back, Belfast City Council made the decision to use brick pavings. There are some real advantages to this material; it is attractive, can be varied in colour and pattern, and because it is not cemented into place, the paving can be taken up and replaced for alterations and services without major trouble; no patching and stitching is required. At least that is the idea.
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Then why is Royal Avenue such a mess? Cracking, subsidence, patching, mismatching of new work with old and the failure of drainage. Whenever it rains, large puddles appear (the one at the end of North Street is notorious!) Wherever else this work has been done, as for example in Botanic Avenue, it is rapidly deteriorating. And pavements should last for decades, if not centuries.
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What Did They Build That For? - The Streets
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There are some obvious technical failures - the foundations of the bricks - the aggregate and fine sand on which they rest - are clearly inadequate: no attempt has been made to align manholes and draincovers with the lie of the bricks, so all kinds of awkward cuts and angles have been constructed and the holes filled in with concrete. The craftsmanship is non-existent. Repairs have been done without regard for matching of materials. The result is frankly dreadful. The appearance and comfort of Royal Avenue and other locations has become shamefull.
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Shamefull is the right word. Shame on the civic authorities, shame on the contractors, and shame on us all for putting up with it.
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What Did They Build That For? - The Streets
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The failure can't be laid at any one person's door, I think, because it is systemic; and it goes back, ultimately, to the values we bring to our collective life, which find expression in how we treat our everyday built environment. And this is in turn a matter of politics in the original sense, of the life of the polis and how we are neighbourly, one with another. The foundations of legitimacy in Belfast, as in Northern Ireland as a whole, are as shallow as the foundations of our pavements. We have become accustomed to the trashy, to the ill-founded, and to the practice of walking around with our eyes shut to the physical and moral dilapidation of the most simple and necessary parts of life.
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