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Book of the Week: Selected by Emmet Penney

Book Of The Week Housing Plans for the Future Photographs by Donovan Wylie Reviewed by Emmet Penny Wylie took these photos during walks through a number of social-housing neighborhoods in inner-city Belfast, which look eerily similar. While the built environments at first appear benign, even mundane, sustained looking reveals how they purposely control vision and movement.
Housing Plans for the Future
Photographs by Donovan Wylie.

Steidl, Göttingen, Germany, 2018.
80 pp., 33 illustrations, 9¼x12x½"

In 1971, Richard Maudling, then British Home Secretary, remarked that the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland, The Troubles, amounted to little more than “an acceptable level of violence.” Protestant leadership (Unionists) read this as a tacit permission to continue their paramilitary depredations on the Catholic (Irish Republican) population, provided that it remain within certain parameters. In other words: the Crown was willing to turn a blind eye, so long as nothing made international headlines. This was an informal security policy. The Irish be damned.

This security policy also had profound implications for Belfast, beleaguered on the one hand by deindustrialization, and on the other by sectarian conflict. In his collection of photos, Housing Plans
for the Future, Donovan Wylie turns an unsentimental eye to the public housing initiatives embarked upon during The Troubles.

Wylie’s photos have a flatness, an austerity. What the viewer first notices is that although these are neighborhoods, nobody’s around. Since the housing was created to value pedestrians over vehicles, there is a labyrinthine quality to it: cul-de-sacs, passageways, and sharp turns abound. The urban planning’s intent becomes clear:
some people are meant to be kept out, others in. Silently, the housing, though defanged since the 1990s, speaks of sectarian divide.

Wylie’s photos conjure the ghost of The Troubles. The eerie thing is that you can’t tell whose neighborhood is whose—they all look the same. It reminds me of an old joke: two men in balaclavas with armalite rifles stop a car on the road. One of the masked men says, “Are you Protestant or Catholic?” The driver says he’s an atheist. “Oh, sure,” the masked man replies. “Are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?”

In his accompanying essay, David Coyles cites Erving Goffman’s work on institutionalization. The opening quote from Goffman reads, “Our sense of being a person can come from being drawn into a wider social unit; our sense of selfhood can arise through the little ways in which we resist the pull. Our status is backed by the solid buildings of the world, while our sense of personal identity often resides in the cracks.”

Coyles correctly hints that we might not venture to be so cavalier as to refer to this moment as the post-Troubles era when, looking at Wylie’s photography, Goffman’s quote still resounds. With Brexit looming, and thus the threat of reinstating a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (in contradiction with the Good Friday Peace Agreement—the building block of peace in Northern Ireland), I wonder if tensions will flare again, as they have in small ways this pass summer. Legacies persist, provided their founding motivations survive. The Six Counties “belong” to England, the neighborhoods to their sects, and everyday life, molded by housing, remains born of division.

Emmet Martin Penney is a poet and essayist. His writing has previously appeared in Paste Magazine, Hollow, Madcap Review and The Bad Version. He also runs the blog Museum of the Half-Forgotten, and you can find him on Twitter.