19.1.11

Best British Buildings Century of the 21st Century

Northern Ireland:
If decisions by the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Government to commission new parliament buildings was a sign of national confidence in the future then the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and decision to re-use the 1922 Stormont buildings was a sign of Ulster coming to terms with its past.

However, a lot of issues remain unaddressed and there are visible reminders of the Troubles. More than 30 so-called ‘Peace Line’ walls still divide districts in Belfast and Derry. Urban motorways separate the largely uninhabited city centre of Belfast from surrounding, segregated neighbourhoods and provide the backbone of the transport strategy. Meanwhile, underresourced railways pass all three Northern Ireland airports without stopping.

The built heritage is remarkably preserved despite bombing campaigns, slum clearance and roads projects. Restore, re-use and recycle approaches to historic buildings in the last decade is a manifestation of the growing appreciation and understanding of a conflicted past.

The flagship restorations of Belfast City Hall and Ulster Hall are less interesting than the city’s St. Malachy’s Church, one of the oldest Catholic churches in Belfast. Sir John Betjeman described the interior plasterwork (originally inspired by the Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey) as a ‘many coloured cavern’. The church layout varied from Victorian norms by having an aisle on the short axis – akin to the style favoured by the Catholic Church in the 1960s – which explains its survival during zealous 1970s re-ordering elsewhere. The building has now been restored by Consarc.

Perhaps the first building to encapsulate growing confidence for the future was the Falls Leisure Centre in Belfast by Kennedy Fitzgerald (2003-04) where the priority is vitality of space and interaction with surroundings rather than the established norm of bomb-proofing and low maintenance. Those norms set low quality expectations for more than 30 years when contemporary architecture was the exception rather than the rule. Now, the building visually connects the active interiors of swimming pools and gyms to passers-by. It also serves to mark the threshold between the locality and the city centre.

Derry has a compact centre enclosed by 400-year-old city walls that act as a promenade linking a series of separate museums telling the story of each community in their own terms. It will be the first UK City of Culture in 2013 and host events located in such venues as the Playhouse, which reopened in 2009 after featuring in BBC2’s Restoration programme.

The recent Irish-language arts centre Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin by O’Donnell & Tuomey in Derry is an object lesson in creating unique architecture that is specific to the locality and purpose of the space. There are clear inspirational references to local townscape textures of the city walls, Georgian buildings and the Troubles’ security infrastructure.

Looking forward, the 400-seat O’Donnell & Tuomey Lyric Theatre and Hackett Hall McKnight Metropolitan Arts Centre (both in Belfast) are currently being completed. There’s also a RIBA international design competition – with a jury headed by Daniel Libeskind – to take the contentious Anderson town Barracks and change them into a community-led regeneration project.

The past decade has seen a coming-to terms with non-Troubles history as institutional buildings are restored, brought back into use and made more open to the public. The watchtowers and other architectural components of the more recent past, though, are being removed.

Although the private sector will have a recession-reduced role for the next few years, disused shipyards, former military sites and prisons will be redeveloped. The Department of Culture NI now defines architecture as a leader of the creative industry sector and achieving design excellence is embedded as an ambition in Northern Ireland. This is good news – but it doesn’t mean uncomfortable recent history can be ignored. It does, though, provide a platform upon which Northern Ireland can create excellent shared space.