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The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion spacer The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion
Bonfire of Urbanities
by Dougal Sheridan and Jurgen Patzak-Poor
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Contrary to the seasonal exodus from Belfast in the lead-up to the12th of July, we had just arrived in the city. Being both new to Belfast and to Northern Ireland, we are relatively illiterate of the symbolism of events of the 12th. This affords us a naïve curiosity when observing the phenomenon of Belfast's large urban fires.
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Fascination with fire could be described as a primal urge, an urge that we have become distanced from as our relationship with fire has become progressively more controlled. Historically fire has been one of the major forces threatening the city, whether accidental - as in the1666 Great Fire of London, or deliberately harnessed - as in the 1945 incendiary bombing of Dresden, or a pseudo-natural phenomena - as in the bush fires that periodically threaten the peripheries of cities in Australia and North America. The need to control fire has had a significant impact on the form and organisation of our cities.
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In contrast to the perception of fire as a threat to the city, the controlled fire has a central role in ideas of domesticity and community. The hearth, as the source of heating and cooking was the symbolic heart of the home, around which the household members gathered. Romantic notions of dwelling are centred on the open fire, which has gradually been diminished to the coal oven, the range, and the gas flame. Both these contradictory elements of threat and community can be found in the urban fires of Belfast.
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The physical location of these fires reveals something about their position in the hegemonic structure of the city. The term terrain vague was coined in the architecture media to label these apparently abandoned, disused, indeterminate areas of cities. Closer inspection reveals that this vague status within the city allows the appropriation of these spaces in a way that is not defined or determined by the state apparatus. The bonfires are the ultimate expression of the unmediated and defiant occupation of these spaces. In this sense they have a claimto being a very real community space.
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Through our observation of a particular bonfire site, at Tate's Avenue, we became aware of the involved process in making these fires. This process further illustrates the organisational and community aspects of bonfire construction. It was evident that materials had been collected over a long period of time. These materials are the detritus of the modern city- including tyres, mattresses, furniture and timber palettes (the perfect standardised combustible building block). These materials are sorted into piles of varying constructional, inflammable and toxic properties before construction commences. The construction itself appeared to be carefully planned and organised; Firstly, a large rectangular timber cage containing tyres is constructed. This is the incendiary core. Around this a ziggurat base is constructed with a tier of mattresses, then a tier of timber shipping boxes backfilled with less modular materials, and finally a tier of irregularly placed palettes. The core or cage rises out of this base, and is topped with a long slender tower of stacked palettes. This takes the form of two piers connected with cross bracing struts, which also act as a ladder to the top. The tower is capped with a further mini-tower of stacked single palettes. The structure, rising to a height of approximately 20 metres, displays an accumulated experience both of the structural possibilities of the materials, and of the choreography of how they burn. Both aspects are crucial to the stage management of the event.
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The monumental form of the tower has obvious aspirations of power and dominance, competing with the chimneystacks, church spires and office blocks of the Belfast Skyline. This ambition was evident in the extra effort invested in bonfires located in more prominent locations. Bonfires constructed at the edge of communities and therefore more likely to be encountered by the general public, where finished days before those deep inside community 'territories'.
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Unlike the other built forms of the city, the bonfires are designed both as structure and event. This idea displays potential, and parallels avant-garde architectural agendas such as the Coop Himmelblau proclamation that 'Architecture Must Burn!' The production of a built form within the city (normally the exclusive domain of state and fiscal power), and the climax of a pyrotechnic event is an uncanny combination of Architecture and Theatre. The flags defining the territory around the bonfire site would suggest however that it is not an inclusive event for the wider public. Despite this the possibility of wider appeal was evident, in the number of passers-by and tourists who stopped to observe and photograph the structure at Tates Avenue.
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We understand that the scale and ambition of these bonfires has increased in recent years as other activities such as parades have become more restricted. While this would suggest that they are becoming a greater outlet for loyalist expression and frustration, it is interesting that this increased ambition has resulted in the bonfires taking a wider variety of built forms. We saw for example a campanile, a Khmer temple, and an interpretation of Sir Norman Fosters Gherkin. This implies the possibility of further evolution.
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This is not to say that the provocative image of the urban bonfire would necessarily be lost or incorporated into the benign cultural programme of the city. They already seem to be suggesting another agenda, apart from the sectarian divisions of the city. In the shadow of the bonfire tower on Tate's Avenue is a billboard, which reads: 'The Tate Courtyard, An Exclusive Development of Superior Quality- Contemporary Living in the Heart of the City.' A powerful juxtaposition is created by corporate billboard and tribal community fire, both laying claim to the site.
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The billboard is dwarfed by the scale of the bonfires structure and appears absurd in its context, another piece of urban debris to be burnt. However the newly built 5-storey luxury apartment complex bordering the site makes the threat of large-scale development apparent. The bonfire tower just manages to poke its head above the roof of this large block. Could these bonfires be a community protest against the encroaching development and do they highlight the poverty of public space in these areas? These sites, with their surreal collection of urban debris, resemble apocalyptic landscapes, while the commercial city as backdrop appears artificial and absurd in this juxtaposition. The city appears flawed in its inability to engage with this reality.
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On the evening of the 11th we returned through the deserted streets of the central city to the Tates Avenue bonfire site. Despite being completely empty and drained of life a tension permeated the streets. This eerie atmosphere was created by the acrid smell of burning, the clouds of black smoke darkening the sky and the occasional flash of flames rising above the buildings on the horizon.
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The inhabitants of the Tates area had gathered at the bonfire site where a kiosk selling food, a DJ playing music, and mixture of age groups gave the impression of a festive community event. However the bonfire had changed in appearance from the preceding days of its celebrity. It now had an Irish flag on its summit and was embellished with election posters of Sinn Féin politicians, and boards scrawled with various messages including one unrealistic ambition to 'Burn All Taigs Alive!'
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These messages removed any room for interpretation by even the most naive or optimistic outside observer. At the moment that Belfast had ceased to be a complete city the bonfire had been transformed from an abstract expressive structure to a symbol of aggression. The bonfire now appeared to proclaim the disintegration of the city. Similar to the degradation of objects of art by branding, these add-ons looked like afterthoughts, un-integrated in the design and construction of the Bonfire. The aggression of this superficial surface was incoherent with the general atmosphere, which was more festive than threatening. When ablaze the bonfire seemed to shed its attached meaning becoming pure mesmerising spectacle.
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