A timber temple in Northern Ireland offers visitors a space to shed painful memories before it is consumed by a healing conflagration
‘Still under siege. No Surrender.’ The slogan is painted in sharp white letters each a foot high on the jet black wall of a pre-school. The kerbs outside are painted red, white and blue to match the Union Jack as are nearby lamp-posts, lashed to one of which is a faded Loyalist flag. It is a stark reminder that for many in Derry, the Troubles which plagued Northern Ireland with violence, terrorism and police brutality between 1969 and 1998 have left deep wounds that are far from healed.
Yet there is another sight on the horizon. Above the flag and mural, across the valley and looking back at the city, is a small timber structure; its spire poking out between rows of low-rise rendered terraces. This temporary pavilion is a collaboration between hundreds of volunteers led by arts trust Artichoke and artist David Best which tonight will be engulfed in an inferno as it is burned to the ground in a ceremony watched by thousands. It is a temple, not to any faith or denomination, but to human perseverance in the face of life’s cruellest twists.
Best has been creating temples since 2000 principally at the Burning Man festival in Nevada. There, in the Black Rock Desert, his first was built from timber offcuts - sheets of plywood out of which parts for large toy dinosaur kits had been CNC cut. The project began like many other whimsical Burning Man sculptures, but three weeks before the festival, Michael Hefflin - one of Best’s crew - was tragically killed in a motorcycle crash. Devastated, the young team, many of whom had not encountered death before, chose to continue the project in memory of Hefflin and found the methodical construction process to be cathartic in their grieving. When the structure was complete, Best invited other festival-goers to place messages to lost friends within the temple and, on the penultimate night, it was set on fire by a young widower. The strange beauty of the building, coupled with its overt agenda of emotional outpouring and climactic incineration, were a powerful combination and the next year the first ‘official’ temple was constructed at the heart of Burning Man, its central shrine dedicated to victims of suicide.
Is this remotely possible? Can a piece of architecture soothe the pain of losing someone to depression, cancer or murder? In the pages of the AR my colleagues and I regularly pontificate about the transformative power of architecture, but the temples’ mission is so much more ambitious that it makes the mealy-mouthed stories we tell seem banal by comparison. My former editor spoke of being moved to tears by Nbelele vernacular architecture, but that kind of electrifying and visceral encounter with the built environment is rare indeed. Furthermore, in the Black Rock Desert temple pilgrims seek absolution from personal troubles, but in Derry the building is addressing three decades of sectarian and religious tensions that claimed the lives of more than 3,500 people and saw the longest military campaign in the history of the British Army. How can architecture possibly contend with that?
For Best the key is in beauty. He says, ‘the temple has to be so beautiful, so strong, that a person who has been violated will come up to it and go past into a place of forgiveness’. Beauty is a word that appears very rarely in the pages of the AR and is seemingly used as infrequently in the wider profession, yet here it is charged with immense power not to inculcate more pleasing urban realm but to tackle head-on the great injustices of society. This is no New-Age hippy posturing - the late writer and prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens argued in a debate with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he would not trust anyone who denied numinous or transcendental moments of the human experience which manifest through certain works of art, music, landscape and (crucially) architecture. For centuries, Christians have used architectural splendour to subdue their congregations into awe-filled obedience, while today ISIS detonates Muslim shrines in Mosul to obfuscate theological access to ideas which might contradict their propaganda machine. Best’s intention, however, is not to control others but to liberate them which he achieves through an approach to architectural decoration that is as rare as it is beguiling.
The temple has a simple structure that references both the city of Derry and numerous other sources. Its tall spire - which echoes Derry’s Catholic and Protestant cathedrals, by far the most prominent buildings for miles - was created as a post and beam pyramid. A ring of 20 slim columns wraps around the building supporting an arcade with projecting eaves. At the centre of the square plan, an obelisk-like shrine rises up to meet a matching piece hung from the spire like a chandelier. Encrusting every surface of the pavilion is layer upon layer of plywood ornamentation. I have never seen so much decoration in a contemporary building. It is overwhelming.
The initial design was drawn up by Best and his team. They developed the structural frame and patterned cladding panels that were CNC cut and attached to the spruce frame. However the by-product of every panel was a vast quantity of offcuts - often multiple copies of the same shape. These leftover pieces were meticulously sorted and then arranged in repeating sequences or combined into new configurations which were then used to add new detail to every available surface - each improvisation moving the design away from an single auteur towards collective authorship. Artichoke reached out to schools and NGOs, turning the temple’s design and construction process into a multi-faceted training programme offering qualifications in digital design to out-of-work young people. As part of that project, a ribbon of circular panels was created carrying positive slogans which run around the arcade, each created by members of the community.
By the time I visit, writing covers every inch of the reachable structure. The building had opened to the public just a week earlier but now many thousands of intimate confessions of regret, hope, love and longing saturate it. Many visitors have left objects, which for them carry painful significance; the oxygen mask of a terminally ill relative, a favourite toy, a pair of shoes. At last year’s Burning Man temple someone brought a dress stained with blood from a rape. When the temple is burned the items and the negative feelings they carry also go, never to return.
Best’s work challenges Western architecture’s frigid relationship with decoration. The Derry temple embodies everything that mainstream architectural culture, particularly architectural education, rejects. In architecture schools we’re conditioned to believe that ornament is crime, that less is more, that we must be true to materials while making form follow function. In fact this so-called wisdom stems not from deep human insights nor profound spiritual truths, but from age-old holier-than-thou snobbery. It’s about the imposition of values by one group over another. Middle-class purveyors of ‘good’ taste simultaneously lust over the cut of the latest Burberry coat but ridicule those who dare wear the company’s infamous check pattern (which became synonymous with working-class taste in the ’90s). In architecture as in fashion, this kind of fickle doublethink enables class divides to grow while diminishing the richness and variety of design’s aesthetic and experiential potential. Best rejects all of this. For him form is function. Decoration is not crime but salvation and more is more - serenity can be found not within pared-back minimalism but mind-boggling complexity. ‘It has changed the way I think about decoration’ says Ursin Niderberger, a Zurich-based architect who worked on the Temple. ‘In Switzerland it’s all about expressing materiality but never about decoration. Here it is the opposite. I wish more architects could see this.’
What is profound speaking to Best is his utter commitment to process over product. He is the polar opposite of a Randian hero, instead seeing his buildings as a means, not an end. ‘The building can go to hell’ he says ‘it’s more important who goes inside it. A building itself should never be more important than the people.’ At 71, he is the most energetic person on site, hugging and backslapping the volunteers, engineers and security staff (and architecture critics) alike as he steers the construction. Architects talk a lot about their work helping people in need, but I have rarely met anyone with the intense sincerity of Best. He seems to combine the warm charisma of Daniel Libeskind with the participatory practice of Peter Hübner and the ethical clarity of Rodney Harber.
Though the temple is remarkable, in a way this project is not about a building at all but about public space. The park it sits in, Kelly’s Field, is up one side of the valley, a short walk across the river and overlooking the entire city. Placing the temple here means it can be seen from across Derry including key landmarks such as Wilkinson Eyre’s Peace Bridge and the 17th-century city walls, but this is politically loaded soil and proved a deeply controversial site. The park and adjacent housing estate are widely considered Republican territory and, despite the panoramic views they enjoy, many life-long locals have never visited. Nearby community centres chose to withdraw support for the project, uncomfortable with the location, however for Artichoke director Helen Marriage this site was critical. ‘Spaces that are never considered to be shared never become shared,’ she says. In choosing Kelly’s Field for the project she hoped to change people’s perceptions. It was a gamble - some feared that few would be able to see beyond the turf wars of the past and visitor numbers would be modest, but on Friday alone, 28,000 people climbed the hill, experiencing their city from a new perspective, snapping selfies and trying to spot their houses far below. This used to be a popular spot for family picnics but since the Troubles has become exclusive and unexplored - if the temple’s sole legacy is to reclaim this space for all, it will nonetheless be a significant triumph.
As the night of the burn arrives, tensions rise a little. The BBC reports that a reverend has called on members of the public to stay away, describing it as ‘occult’, however, ecclesiastical moral panic aside, large bonfires have a fraught history across Northern Ireland. Every July, Loyalists build structures from old pallets that they burn to mark the Protestant King William of Orange’s victory over the Catholic forces of King James II at the Battle of the Boyne. For some, these bonfires are an expression of civic pride and an opportunity for neighbourhoods to pool resources in a collective endeavour. For others, they are inflammatory triumphalism meant to bully the Catholic minority (AR Oct 2011). Last August some Republicans responded in kind, building their own bonfires to commemorate the incarceration of hundreds of Nationalists without trial at the height of the Troubles. Marriage says part of her intention is ‘about taking the bonfire tradition and subverting it’. Like reclaiming Kelly’s Field, if the temple can change the narrative around public bonfires from being something that drives communities apart to something that brings people together, it will have a lasting positive value in Derry and beyond.
‘As flames jump through the rafters engulfing the spire, the swelling roar of the blaze drowns out the crowd’s cheers.’
By the time the temple is finally set alight, around 20,000 have assembled to watch. It is oriented such that the lights of Derry become a glittering panoramic backdrop. As flames jump through the rafters and engulf the spire, the swelling roar of the blaze drowns out the crowd’s cheers. The fierce heat can be felt from far across the park. The layers of plywood decoration, messages and poems burn fastest, revealing the spruce skeleton still standing, before it too topples into smouldering heap. We have become numb to the sight of heroic social housing being demolished at the hands of gentrifiers, but it is perturbing to see architecture of this richness destroyed so violently and comprehensively.
In around 15 minutes, months of work by hundreds of people carrying thousands of messages has seemingly been destroyed in the space of a few minutes, but Best does not see it this way. Some of his early art has been purchased by museums or private collectors and for him it is these pieces that have been destroyed. Locked away in some basement or away from public eyes, his artworks serve no social purpose. Though physically intact they have been stripped of their power and value, whereas the temple lives on in the experience of everyone who contributed to it and witnessed it going up in smoke. He says, ‘You don’t destroy the temple when you burn it. You burn it to protect it.’
Artichoke and David Best would be the first to argue that the project is just part of a much larger story of Northern Ireland’s future. It’s a celebration of a peace hard won, but while the Troubles are over, the struggles are not, and the project raises pertinent issues for political and architectural practice alike. It questions access to public spaces, the motivation of civic rituals and the opportunities for the disadvantaged. It challenges our conception of architectural beauty, of participation and of permanence. The sincerity of its intent and richness of its design make it a remarkable building that has much to teach us. Best’s architecture is powerful because his process is powerful. Its finished detail is stunning but what makes the layers of decoration and their eventual incineration so affecting are the human stories carried in each piece. Daniel Libeskind once claimed that great architecture should, ‘yearn for timelessness’, but while every one of Best’s temples has disintegrated into ash and smoke, the light of their presence, atmosphere and power is still blazing brightly.