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Cultures, Communities and Design

Façade as Façade: Northern Ireland’s parallel reality
I. Montgomery & R. Brolly


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In The Truman Show, Truman Burbank lives in a constructed false reality movie set populated by actors. In the real world, false facades exist as permanent, semi-permanent, or temporary solutions. Sometimes historic facades within streetscapes front new buildings or exist as decades-old facades designed to solve infrastructure/transport problems in cities, operate as art installations, or use decals/graphics to veneer economic blight. While often located in areas of severe urban deprivation, graphic false facades have now become a common sight in picturesque rural towns and villages often frequented by tourists. Beyond the purpose of technical problem solving, art installation, commercial permanence, or the building/interior relationships, attempts to use temporary false facades to halt the decline of retail outlets in towns and cities across the UK have now become semi-permanent fixtures. In particular, much of Belfast’s post-conflict central commercial district is surrounded by firebreaks or ‘borders’ (Jacobs), either intentionally designed or have come about as the result of civil conflict or underinvestment and significant urban deprivation. One approach by government has been to create false shopfronts using a variety of crude graphic solutions which at a glance give the illusion of an active working commercial entity. This veneer for passing vehicular traffic serves to create ‘a deadened place’ (Jacobs) which exists as a barrier or border forming a vacuum to adjoining areas and creating an ‘otherness’ where the city is ‘physically, culturally, and mentally….in pieces’ (Bevan). The degradation and decay in these areas inculcates fear and misunderstanding (Davis; Harvey) and Cuthbert argues that ‘vacant land’ is merely fixed capital waiting for an opportunity. This paper looks at historical contexts of facadism, the impact on society, and the emerging sustainability culture.


Professor Ian Montgomery is Director of Sustainability and Professor of Design at Ulster University. Previously he was Pro Vice Chancellor: Global Engagement and before that Dean of the Faculty of Art, Design and the Built Environment, Head of Belfast School of Art, and Director of the Research Institute for Art and Design all at the University of Ulster. His main research interests are in the areas of sustainability, design theory, knowledge transfer, and typography. Ian has been a member of the Board of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the British Council NI Advisory Board and was a member of the Executive Committee of the Council for Higher Education in Art and Design (CHEAD) UK. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of the International Society of Typographic Designers and the Design Research Society. Ian has examined and chaired validation panels in the UK, Ireland, Europe and the Far East and has set up academic partnerships in the US, the Middle East, China, Hong Kong, and Europe. He is on the Editorial Boards of ITERATIONS Design Journal (Ireland) and City Street Conference (Lebanon). He is an Honorary of Hubei Normal University, China.

Dr Ruth Brolly is a Researcher and Lecturer in Graphic Design and Illustration at Ulster University. Previously having worked in the design and publication industry for 20 years, for publications throughout the UK, her academic research for the past decade has centred around studies of signage, graffiti, murals, tags, flags and flagging on the built environment of Belfast. Ruth has published a PhD and number of research papers nationally and internationally on the visual graphic themes of Belfast. Her research is informed by multi-ethnographic field trips undertaken within the city centre and arterial routes of Belfast; these have resulted in a vast photographic archive of the built environment of this city, with photographs taken by the author from 2010 to present day. The research and associated images demonstrate the ever-evolving visual narrative of the city and intervention of people, ideologies and expression, on the city’s walls, streets and surfaces, to evidence how the city’s inhabitants play a key role in creating the ‘genius loci’ or ‘sense of place’ underpinning the semiotic landscape and unique visual character of Belfast.