The Titanic Visitor Centre in Belfast is a very popular tourist attraction. Between 2012 - 2015 it attracted 1.9 million visitors — that's more than the population of Northern Ireland. As a piece of architecture it raises all sorts of question; I'll maybe write a separate piece on those. But, I do find the whole concept a little strange. One the one hand, a kind of expensive shiny Disneyland for disaster. On the other, it tells an important story from Belfast's history.
Back in the 1800's the same site was used for something very different — a victorian holiday destination. For 1p, about £2 in todays money, you could get a boat to Queens Island and spend a day at, what was called, the Pleasure Park. In the centre of the park was a botanic garden (a kind of mini Crystal palace) which contained a Zoo, tropical plants and an ornamental fountain. Along the waterfront there were a number of bathing huts where people could change before going swimming in the harbour. The park became very popular with locals with one historian describing it as a"pleasure park for ordinary people". At some point the 'palace' burnt down and the park was taken over by the ship builders Harland and Wolff.
When the Odyssey complex (now SSE arena) was being built, the developers, bizarrely, used the 'peoples park' as a justification for the new entertainment complex. A privately owned building that has now become kind of 'peoples palace' without really any people in it. Where in the safety of empty shop units and fast food restaurants void of windows we can forget that outside there’s actually a beautiful harbour area and city — albeit a waterfront area that, in my opinion, could be so much more generously designed.
Last night I spoke at a great event in Belfast called the Urban Youth Almanac. The purpose of the event was to give under 18's in the city a say in the East Bank Development strategy. A large masterplan scheme along the east bank of the river Lagan. It was really encouraging to see so many young people engaging in what is supposed to be a democratic planing process.
As part of my talk I tried to encourage them to think about exciting ways to use the waterfront. I told them a story from last year, when on a winters morning in Copenhagen, I walked though a little ‘peoples park’, designed in collaboration with the local residents of Island Brygge. Snow was being to fall, the temperature well below freezing, and out of a small hut on the banks of the canal came two elderly men dressed in orange swimming trunks, swimming hats and goggles. Walking down a ramp towards the canal they dived in and began to swim.
I watched them for about fifteen minutes, doing lengths of what is called the Harbour Baths, a small enclosed swimming area of the canal. They got out, walked back up the ramp and into the changing rooms. I hung around and about ten minutes later they came out, dressed in suits, got on their bikes and headed off to work.
I imagined the conversation that might have taken place back in 2011 when the baths were opened in the winter for the first time. That conversation when someone, at that bit at the end of meeting when the chairperson asks if there is ‘any other business’, and most people wanting to go home just avoid eye contact, — that bit when someone puts up their hand and says,
“uhh yeh I’ve got an idea, you see I’ve been thinking, those harbour baths are so successful in the summer, between all four baths there are usually up to 600 people swimming … and I know this sounds crazy, especially given that during the winter it is often below freezing ……but, what if we opened the baths in the winter too?”
I think that when we are thinking about the future of our city those words: “What if ….” are powerful words. They are words that open up the imagination.