Wylie draws a chilling portrait of Northern Ireland that makes one reflect deeply on the gravity of their surroundings.
With a dust jacket that suggests an official blueprint and its photos of dreary public housing, Donovan Wylie’s Housing Plans for the Future seems at first glance a successor to Martin Parr’s dryly funny collections of Boring Postcards. Those modest volumes celebrated the banality of modern architecture in images sold to promote the most nondescript of structures from cookie-cutter motels to the most comically uninviting highway scenes. But you don’t have to dig deep to reveal the quietly scathing commentary underneath the surface of Wylie’s work. His photos of Belfast public housing demonstrate a stark form of social control that emerged from the Northern Ireland conflict.
Wylie shoots brick structures, from high walls to apartment buildings, at angles that make for subtly dynamic compositions. Red brick is among the most comforting of architectural material, and if the housing projects seem anonymous, they don’t have the stigma of the dysfunctional modern high-rises that came in vogue mid-century.
Aesthetically, these red fortresses take on the form of modern abstractions, like a somewhat more palatable version of the Brutalist architecture that rose in American urban centers. But while those concrete behemoths came out of a perhaps misguided Utopian ambitions that operated on a superhuman scale (in its most hideous forms), these Belfast projects constructed of uniform red brick were imagined on a more modest imprint. Yet as Wylie presents image after image of brick walls and gated courtyards, the institutional banality soon becomes unsettling, even suffocating—by design.
That design was in part a counter-terrorism measure. The violence of the Troubles was such that “peace walls” were built to separate Roman Catholic and Protestant communities. Between 1976 and 1985, a euphemistically titled building program of “Comprehensive Redevelopment” resulted in a series of cul-de-sacs, concrete courtyards and dead-end streets that may have seemed harmless enough. But this religious segregation continued a centuries-old practice that favored Protestant citizens of Ireland over Roman Catholics, excluding the latter from certain communities and resulting in housing shortages for Catholics and a surplus for Protestants.
In a long essay, Wylie provides a fascinating history of a conflict that may be little understood outside Northern Ireland. This history puts these bland appointments, however quaint their brick construction may seem, into a fraught paramilitary context that gives one pause about American programs of Urban Renewal. The Comprehensive Redevelopment took urban decay as an opportunity to reengineer society by means of architecture. Those suspicious of technology may shudder that, as easily as the state resorted to architecture to control the populace, how much easier it may be to achieve such ends by technological means. That would be the subject of a perhaps less photo-friendly book, although who knows? The proliferation of selfies may one day be seen in an unsettlingly different context.
“Housing policy itself is not political, but the prosecution and promulgation of it is,” Wylie writes, and he could say the same of his photos. The photographer’s commentary begins with an epigraph: “Our status is backed by the solid buildings of the world, while our sense of personal identity often resides in the cracks.” The quote, identified only at the end of the monograph, comes from sociologist Erving Goffman’s 1961 book Asylums: Essays on the Condition of the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. As an artist and an essayist, Wylie draws a chilling portrait of Northern Ireland that makes one reflect deeply on the gravity of their surroundings.