How Craigavon has come full circle

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As part of this year’s Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s, an exhibition is examining Northern Ireland’s “most ambitious planning project”.

The exhibition, Craigavon New Town: 50 Years of Modernity, runs at the Golden Thread Gallery from today (Friday) and will feature new and archival photography by Victor Sloan alongside selected historical materials documenting the founding of Craigavon.

It aims to tell the often-strange story of the modernist city that rose out of the Northern Irish countryside.

Craigavon was Northern Ireland’s most ambitious experiments in central planning and never was able to quite reach its full potential.

Curator Rebekah McCabe from PLACE, said: “In terms of vision, Craigavon in its development during the 1960s embodied every value of British modernism. Its innovative and risky housing design drew inspiration from around the world, rejecting indigenous housing styles and embracing modern European aesthetics.

“This exhibition reveals the bright ambitions of the project and how its origins were part of Prime Minister Terence O’Neill’s vision of a modern Northern Ireland in the 1960s, where town-planning concepts included recreation zones, mixed housing, cycle paths and roundabouts.”

Craigavon was intended to be the heart of a new linear city incorporating Lurgan and Portadown, with the estates, Brownlow and Mandeville, right at its epicentre.

Unfortunately, the story of Craigavon is an idiosyncratically Northern Irish one. It was marred by sectarianism and suspicion early on but is now is enjoying a tentative resurgence.

Rebekah explained, “When Craigavon was initially designed it caused a lot of upset. Many people believed Craigavon was created out of controversy – even in terms of its choice of name - that of Northern Ireland’s first Unionist Prime Minister, Lord Craigavon, leading some to believe this was to ensure that the new town was predominantly Protestant. Critics argued that Derry~Londonderry in the northwest would have been a more appropriate choice, but was excluded by the Stormont-based government.”

So instead, as the exhibition documents, the new city was built on a bog in County Armagh, leaving many families, especially farmers, displaced with some of the original plans incomplete.

Rebekah said, “The aim was to attract skilled workers to the area and make Craigavon a desirable place to live. Unfortunately the town’s biggest plant, Goodyear tyres, failed to make money on a consistent basis, and had to close. Consequently around half of what was planned including Mandeville, was never built, and of what was built, some of that had to be demolished after becoming empty and derelict.”

While some claim Craigavon as lacking any soul or sense of community, Rebekah disagrees.

She said, “Today it feels like Craigavon has come full circle, with new developments springing up everywhere and people not just from Northern Ireland but from all over the world moving there. It’s a very progressive place to live and is home to one of the first integrated schools in Northern Ireland – Brownlow Integrated College.

“There’s also now a much stronger sense of community, with a number of community groups forming in the 90s, and now with the 2nd and the 3rd generation of settlers, we’re starting to see a town with its own individual heartbeat.

“As we approach its semi-centenary it’s a very exciting and unique place to be. I hope through this exhibition people can see the good as well as the bad, and understand that Craigavon is taking positive steps to move forward as a modern, integrated city.”

Michael Corr, Director of PLACE said, “At PLACE we are excited about the exhibition, events and talks that we are organising together with the British Council, as part of this year’s Belfast Festival at Queens.

Over the last year, we have been working closely with Craigavon Council and the local community, to produce a document, examining Craigavon from a range of perspectives.

“Over the next year, we will be working collaboratively with Craigavon Council and Queen’s Masters students in architecture, testing ideas and proposals, as Craigavon looks forward to the next 50 years.”

Craigavon New Town: 50 Years of Modernity runs at the Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast until Saturday, November 1.

Alongside the exhibit, the Ulster Museum will screen the film, The Lost City of Craigavon tomorrow (Saturday).

There will also a bus tour of Craigavon on Saturday, November 1, where curator Rebekah McCabe will take a journey through the city’s history.

This departs from The Golden Thread Gallery at 12 noon, booking essential.