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Remembering to Forget: The Europa Hotel as a Landmark to Northern Ireland's Troubles

Part 2 Dissertation 2010
Aisling Shannon
Cardiff University, UK
This is a dissertation about an iconic building: not so much iconic in an architectural sense, but rather one that has in its lifetime become symbolic of a city's recent history.
This study derives from an interest in the way the built environment influences peoples' feelings and behaviour. This is not always something that the architect can design or control. A building, once completed, takes on a life of its own, in the way that occupiers inhabit it, but also due to events with which the building can come to be associated. Buildings exist both in their present condition, and in what Huyssen describes as memories of what was there, imagined alternatives to what there is.
The Europa Hotel’s opening in 1971 - a symbol of modernism in Belfast - coincided with the early Troubles. Repeatedly bombed but never destroyed - it became by turns IRA target, press refuge, conflict ‘weathervane’, neutral ground, peace facilitator and landmark. The hotel’s story reflects the phases of the conflict, and this dissertation interweaves the two in a series of chapters from different timeframes and perspectives.
Today just another hotel in a peaceful, thriving city, the Europa is less important, no longer the city's tallest building, the most bombed hotel in the world or the most lavish in Belfast. Nonetheless it holds an important place in the cultural memory of Belfast. Its relevance persists in the stories and memories it triggers.
In today’s obsessive memorial culture, some people desire a memorial to the Troubles, while others deem it too early. Memorials are highly contentious in a land where one man's freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.
This dissertation posits that a uniquely inoffensive memorial can already be found in the memory-laden Europa. The sum of its experiences makes it a pluralist counter-monument to the Troubles at a time when something more explicit could be damaging.
The study reveals the architect's creation as a blank canvas, upon which users paint their lives. It demonstrates the way that memories of these lived experiences can sometimes become more significant than the physical building.

Aisling Shannon

The Europa Hotel in Belfast held, for some time, the dubious honour of being the most bombed building in Europe. Aisling Shannon in her insightful and poetic study shows how the hotel stood as a weathervane to the Troubles. Opened in the year in which most commentators agree the Troubles began, it was home to journalists through the darkest days of unrest. As the only high-rise in the city, the amount of hardboard substituting for glass was a conspicuous measure of the violence. Aisling intersperses the history of the building with a history of the troubles, both carefully told from her own perspective as someone whose personal background straddles the competing factions. Aisling concludes that the hotel, its capacity to reflect the times undimmed, is now both architecture and memorial. She concludes with the question of memorials: what they are, how they are created, who determines what a memorial represents, and, in the case of Europa, how a memorial forms itself over time and circumstance. In portraying multiple, and often contradictory, viewpoints of the same architectural object, Aisling’s dissertation is both an elegant demonstration and a powerful evocation of the role of myth and storytelling in contemporary architectural culture.

Dr Andy Roberts
Dr Adam Sharr
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