City Visions: this must be the PLACE

In the beating heart of Belfast’s rapidly developing city centre is a charitable organisation committed to connecting people to place. Standing for Planning Landscape Architecture Community Environment, PLACE have spent the last 14 years carving out an important niche via the research, design, and delivery of creative projects in tandem with a public programme of tours, talks, exhibitions and festivals that help people learn about their built environment.


Brian Coney


Joe Laverty

Based in the pedestrianised Lower Garfield Street in the city centre, PLACE – officially known as PLACE Built Environment Centre – was established in 2004. Founded by the Royal Society of Ulster Architects and Belfast City Council, it consists of a multi-disciplinary team that combines both expertise and extensive experience in architecture, town planning, visual art, curation, design, social science, education, research, community engagement, and event management.

Amberlea Neely is the acting director of PLACE, and has been at the forefront of the organisation since 2006. She’s a dynamic and driven individual whose infectious conviction about what the organisation represents and can achieve speaks volumes. We met with her in their space to talk about how environmental responsibility is crucial to their work, and how our environment has a huge impact on personal well-being, economic prosperity, and social cohesion.

In times gone by, PLACE’s headquarters in Belfast would have been a retail space. Visible on a busy street in the heart of the city, it stood vacant for a number of years before PLACE took it over four years ago. It has floor-to-ceiling windows, and when you’re in the space, it almost feels like you’re part of the street itself, with curious passersby gazing or popping in. ‘We were really interested in putting our money where our mouth was and taking over a shopfront’, explains Amberlea. ‘The idea was to take over the space and make it really visible, and make the organisation more visible as well.’

This sense of visibility, and the welcoming nature of PLACE, ties in with its primary focus: education about the built environment. Public participation isn’t merely paramount, it’s pivotal. ‘The education runs from our charitable objectives, on which the organisation is built, right through to our strategic objectives to our annual programme’, says Amberlea. ‘Education is underlying all elements of our programme. Firstly, there’s focus work with communities, where we not only try to educate people, we do a lot of listening with them as well, and try to bring them on a journey so that they have the knowledge that they can take with them. And secondly, we have various creative programmes, which include urban walks, exhibitions, talks, kids’ workshops and more. All those are fundamentally about educating people.’

'We’ve tried to take it to the next level where we can influence decision-making and try to get people thinking about spaces in different ways.’

With a small core staff team bolstered by freelance staff and volunteers, PLACE excel at finding spaces that aren’t used often, or aren’t used at all, and getting people to think about the space in new ways. ‘We’ve done a lot of work since 2010 based around vacancy’, Amberlea tells us. ‘We have programmed a lot of vacant spaces, and we’ve tried to take it to the next level where we can influence decision-making and try to get people thinking about spaces in different ways.’

One such example is Craigavon Picnic, a PLACE-curated event in an outdoor space that was designed for community use but had never been used. ‘We programmed it and got people to come to the space and to get them thinking, “Ok, so this could actually be a good use of the space”’, adds Amberlea. ‘We did the same thing in St. Gemma’s, a derelict school in North Belfast. We programme in these derelict spaces to engage in communities, and as an opportunity to get a really wide and diverse mix of people to come together – lots of younger people and older people, not just community representatives. We like using unusual spaces and approach everything we do in really creative ways, to try to think beyond the norm.’

As well as community research projects, Open House Belfast – their flagship annual festival of architecture – and a regular programme of exhibitions, workshops, tours, talks, and a series of creative projects put the public centre-stage. One such project is So What?, a new monthly forum that serves as a platform for research students, academic staff and recent graduates that bridges the gap between academia and the public. The aim is to encourage deeper connections and greater transparency in what research is being done, how it happens, and who it benefits.

‘So What? is about making research public’, says Amberlea. ‘We’ve invited people who are in the research stages, predominantly at universities in Northern Ireland, to present their research to a public audience. It’s a very informal setting: the person who is doing the research has 15 minutes to present their work and there is an open discussion around that afterwards. For the academic who’s presenting their work, they won’t have had this type of discussion before, because their discussions will mostly be within the academic realm. We’re finding that they’re learning lots as well and it’s giving people an idea of what’s happening behind closed doors in universities.’

Another creative project that looks to younger people is PLACE’s Urban Design Academy. Aimed at 14–18 year olds, it’s an annual initiative that introduces a small group of participants to all of the aspects involved in making space, from design, landscape architecture and public art to engineering, town planning and architecture. ‘We introduce them to people in those professions and give them a chance to learn from them’, Amberlea elaborates. ‘It’s more about site visits and meeting communities. For that week, it’s hands down and they come up with a solution, which is then presented to decision makers in Northern Ireland. We also have a team of mentors who are volunteers for the week. They would perhaps be studying architecture and they come and volunteer for the week to mentor the younger people. So we find there’s quite a legacy in the project, as well. People who go through the Urban Design Academy then go on to study those particular subjects, and go on to university to learn about their built environment.’

Much like the spaces that they work with, evolution and adaptation informs the PLACE ethos. Their lease at the space on Lower Garfield is temporary, so Amberlea suggests that they might move on after five years and repeat the process in another space: ‘We’re interested in the idea of evolving as well, so whenever we were fitting the space out it was done minimally.’ This minimalism is evident on first look. A listed building, PLACE stripped everything back and uncovered the original ceiling when they moved in. They decided to keep the interior simple, with painted concrete and white walls. Nothing is fitted, apart from the heating, and they can move things around, make the workshop space smaller or bigger, alter the gallery space, rearrange the office, and create zones for different things.

Just like their home in Belfast, and Northern Ireland as a whole, the original vision for PLACE has moved naturally with the times. ‘Originally, when PLACE was set up, it was by a group of architects who were interested in bridging the gap between architecture as a profession and the people who use architecture’, Amberlea recalls. ‘PLACE was really the conduit for bringing both of those places together. It has changed lots since those early days. I think in the beginning, our projects and the work that we produced was a lot to do with the space that we occupied, and we didn’t do an awful lot of outreach. It was more about programming that space. But over the years, we’ve taken on more work and as the team has evolved, we have been more about the community. So we have got out of this space. In fact, the space here is less important to us than the work that we do in communities. That’s part of the organisation that people don’t often see.’

PLACE’s latest creative project is a new podcast, The Infinity City. Through it, they tell stories of people and place, design and belonging, survival and celebration in Belfast and beyond. ‘There is a definite theme there’, Amberlea says. ‘It’s about building up layers of narrative around Belfast. The podcast could potentially happen in other cities, but the first series is all layers of Belfast, told by different types of citizen. People who you don’t normally hear from most interest us.’ In the first series, they feature a deaf Northern Irish architect who works with and designs for deaf space, and an artist and academic who moved to Belfast to work as a director at the nearby Catalyst Arts Gallery.

‘It’s about building up layers of narrative around Belfast.'

Above all else, PLACE play a pivotal role in Belfast and the whole of Northern Ireland, lessening the distance between its citizens and their surroundings. Considering Belfast’s recent past – not least the economic and political spectre caused by the thirty-year civil war known as the Troubles – there has, of course, been some fallout. ‘I think in terms of the way the city has been shaped as a result of our past, for a while, people here were expecting that any investment is good investment’, Amberlea reflects. ‘That was detrimental in the city, but hopefully we’re at the stage now where people are more critical of investment and what their expectations are, rather than settling for something that is less than brilliant. I think working with communities and educating people, that’s really important, so that people know that a new shop isn’t necessarily a good thing, or investment is a good thing, and that it can have a detrimental effect.’

With a proposed £400m redevelopment of its historic Cathedral Quarter proving a particularly divisive issue in the city, Amberlea believes that the public should be given more opportunity to not only have their say, but to be heard. For her, and many others, the proposed redevelopment doesn’t necessarily look at the city as a whole. Instead, it’s highly focused on retail and office space in a city where there’s already a lot of vacancy. ‘I think for any development in Belfast we’d like people to be consulted with, or engaged with, in a really meaningful way’, says Amberlea. ‘That’s not done here at all. People aren’t being listened to, and I think maybe developers and local authorities are a bit frightened about listening to people when, in fact, if they listened to people, they would discover that what people want is maybe quite simple and easy to do.’

Despite the unique economic and political backdrop, Amberlea doesn’t believe PLACE’s work is necessarily defined by its location. ‘I don’t think we would be very different if we were based elsewhere’, she says. ‘There are different architecture centres, which is how we used to define ourselves, across the UK, Europe and the United States, and we do keep an eye on what those other centres are doing. But I think we’re quite cutting-edge already, and I think that people could learn a lot about what we do here on a very limited budget.’ Part of this has been the inventive way PLACE blurs the boundaries between disciplines in their work, constantly reinventing and re-imagining: ‘We’re interested in being innovative and approaching things in a really frank new way. Our work with communities, historically that’s been done by PR firms and consultants. We think we can bring something really new to that process.’

While the ethos of PLACE is simple, that simplicity is far-reaching in Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland. Perhaps more than anything, it’s a credit to their vision that they are making a modest amount go an extremely long way. ‘We don’t necessarily have the resource to make a change physically in an environment’, Amberlea muses. ‘But we can help people understand their environment a bit better, increase civic pride, and help people think about the good things that are in their community, as well as what small changes can be made to make things even better, with what they already have.’

Keep up to date with all the current PLACE activities and explore their archive material at

都会视野: 肯定是这里了



Brian Coney


Joe Laverty

PLACE位于市中心行人专区的Lower Garfield 街上,成立于2004年,官方名为PLACE建筑环境中心,阿尔斯特皇家建筑师学会和贝法法斯特市议会共同创立,由一个多学科团队组成,其涵盖了建筑、城市规划、视觉艺术、策展、设计、社会科学、教育、研究、小区参与和活动规画的专业知识与丰富经验。


位在贝尔法斯特PLACE总部的大楼,过去原本将成为一个购物空间,它在市中心一条繁忙街道上明显可见,四年前在PLACE 接手之前,已闲置了许多年。它有落地窗,当你人站在空间里头,几乎让人觉得你也成为街道的一份子,会有好奇的路人注视着或者走过来看。 安柏莉解释:“我们用行动证明并对接手一间店面很感兴趣,这个想法是接管空间并增加其能见度,同时让组织更广为人知。”

PLACE明显的态度与好客的本质,与主要关注在所建筑环境的教育有紧密关联。公众参与不仅重要,更是关键。安柏莉说: “教育从我们公益目标里开始,到建立组织至年度策略目标企划。首先,我们与小区开始重点工作,我们不只是教育大众,同时也倾听大家的意见,并试着带领他们进入到可学习新知的一个旅程。然后,我们有各种创意企划案,包含都市徒步导览、展览、讲座、儿童研讨会还有更多,基本上这些都是关于教育人们。


PLACE小型核心团队由自由工作者和志愿者组成, PLACE擅长寻找较少被使用或闲置的空间,并让人们用新方式去思考空间。安柏莉告诉我们: “自2010年起我们已完成许多关于空置空间的工作。我们为许多闲置空间制定计划,希望能进入到影响决策及让人们用不同方式去思考空间的下一个层次。”

当中的例子就是PLACE策展的克里加文野餐活动,一个本为小区设计的户外空间却从未被使用过。安柏莉说:“我们为它制定计划并让大家来这个空间思考该如何利用它。” “好,所以这是个可好好来利用的空间。” “我们在北贝尔法斯特的一间废弃学校St. Gemma’也如法炮制,我们在这些荒废的空间中规画,参与小区并制造出广泛与多样的人群聚集在一起的机会,参与的不只是一般小区代表,还有许多年轻人和老年人。我们喜欢利用不寻常的空间并用创意的方式去探讨所做的每件事,尝试跳出既定的思考模式。”

还有社群研究计划-贝尔法斯特Open House,它们的旗舰年度建筑节并经常在公共中心舞台举办展览、研讨会、游览、讲座及一连串的创意企划。其中有项企划叫做 “那又如何?”这是一个新的月度论坛,旨为研究生、学术人员和近期毕业生,缩小学术界和公众之间差距的平台。目的在鼓励进行中的研究有更深层连结、更大透明化、如何发生及谁能获益。

安柏莉说: “那又如何? 是公开研究的一项企画。我们主要邀请在北爱尔兰学术界研究阶段的人,向大众展示其研究成果。这算一种非正规形式,研究者有15分钟的时间报告,之后会根据报告内容进行公开讨论,对那些介绍自己研究内容的学者来说,他们过去绝没有过这样的讨论形式,因为他们讨论的内容主要在学术领域,我们发现他们也从中学到许多并让人们对大学内部做些甚么有了基础认识。”

另一项创意企划是针对PLACE都市设计学院里14-18岁的年轻学员,这是年度创新计划,引进了各行各业中一小群投身于空间制作、设计、景观建筑、公共艺术到工程、城市规划和建筑的参与者。安柏莉说明: “我们将他们介绍给从事相关产业的人认识,进而让大家有机会学习。”“这其实是实地考察与社群见面。在那一周,他们已做决定并有解决方案,然后提交给北爱尔兰的决策者。我们也有一个志愿者组成的顾问团队,他们是建筑系在学生,志愿前来一周指导年轻人。此企画让我们发现了这个资产,在都市设计学院出来的学员会继续学习特定科目,并到大学里去深入学习他们的建筑环境。”

如同他们一起工作的空间一样,PLACE的组织精神是不断的进化与适应。至少位于Lower Garfield的空间租约是暂时的,安柏莉说他们可能每隔5年就搬迁到另一个空间。 “我们对不断进化的想法很感兴趣,不论在何时何地我们都以最简单的方式去适应环境。”对他们初次印象即可感受到极简主义,一座被列为历史性的建筑,PLACE接手时拆除了所有内饰,露出原有的天花板,他们决定室内风格简单化,在混泥土墙面涂上白漆。除了装上暖气,内部范围没有其他东西,他们可以自由移动对象,工作室的空间可变大或变小、改变展示空间、或重新安排办公室、并为不同事物创建新区域。

如同他们在贝尔法斯特的家和整个北爱尔兰一样,PLACE最初的愿景也随着时间而改变着。安柏莉回想: “PLACE当初由一群建筑师成立的,主要想要缩短建筑师与使用建筑物人们的距离。”“PLACE的确是将两者连接在一起的渠道,早期至今也改变了许多。我想当初我们的工作方向与空间的所在有很大的关联,当时也没有做额外的扩展,只着重在空间计划,但多年来随着团队的发展,我们也接到更多工作,我们跨出了这个空间并更关注社群。事实上对我们而言,这里的空间不如我们在社群里所做的工作还来的重要。这是大家无法时常看到组织里的部分。”

PLACE最近的创意企划是一个名为无限都市的新播客。通过它的内容诉说了在贝尔法斯特和其他地方的人们、地域、设计和归属、生存和庆祝的故事。安柏莉说: “主题很明确,这关于围绕在贝法法斯特建立层层堆栈的故事。播客也会在其他城市播出,第一个系列来自不同类型的公民讲述关于贝尔法斯特的各种面貌,通常是平时不太接触到的人所说的内容最能引起我们的兴趣。”第一部故事,他们找了一位北爱尔兰聋人建筑师,他专为聋人空间做设计,并身兼艺术家、学者的角色,他搬到贝尔法斯特并担任附近艺廊Catalyst Arts Gallery的总监。


最重要的是,PLACE在贝尔法斯特和整个北爱尔兰扮演了关键角色,缩短人民与环境间的距离。考虑在贝尔法斯特不远的过去,为人所知的北爱尔兰问题,30年内战引起的经济和政治幽灵,这当然带来一些后果。安柏莉回想着: “就这座城市由它的过去所形成而来,好长一段时间大家在这都期待任何投资都会是好投资”“这样对城市是有害的,但希望我们处于大家对


提出4亿英镑的经费去重建历史上著名的天主教教堂区,在当地引发了相当分歧的意见。安柏莉认为应该要给予民众更多说与听的权利。对她和许多人而言,申请重新开发企划案并非只放眼在整个都市。实际上,高度专注在都市中那些已经空旷的零售和办公空间。安柏莉说: “贝尔法斯特的任何开发案,我们都希望大家可被征询意见或用有意义的方式一起投入。但目前在这并没有做到,大家的声音并没有被倾听,我觉得开发商和当地机关对倾听人们感到害怕,事实上,假如他们听取民众的意见,将发现大家要的其实很简单、并很容易去完成。”

除了独特的经济政治背景,安柏莉并不认同PLACE的工作被其自身地理位置所受限。她说: “即使我们在它处成立,我也不认为会有很大的差异。在英国、欧洲和美国有许多不同的建筑中心,过去我们也曾如此界定自己,我们也持续注意其他建筑中心的动态,但我认为我们已算挺前卫了,他人在我们这可学到用小预算也能完成许多事”。其中一部分创造性的方式是PLACE模糊工作学科的界线并不断重塑与重新想象。“我们对用创新与坦率的新方式接近事物很感兴趣,我们和社群合作,过去来说这是由公关公司和顾问去完成的,我们认为可在这个过程注入新的活力。

PLACE的组织伦理很简单,这种简单在贝尔法斯特和整个北爱尔兰是意义深远的。甚至大于任何事物,他们为了实现小部分远景的信念而走了很长远的路。 安柏莉沉思说: “实际上我们并没拥有任何能改变环境的资源,但我们能帮助大家更了解自身的环境,提升市民自豪感、帮助大家思考小区中美好的事物、用已有物做出一些小改变将如何让事情变得更完好”。


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