Design Story: Stuart Irwin, Global Shapers
Call off the wrecking ball! Rethinking Belfast’s built heritage and exploring new possibilities
The subject of Belfast’s built heritage has come to the fore in recent weeks following the devastating fire at the flagship Primark store located in the city centre. The five-storey Bank Buildings, as they are affectionately known, have occupied Castle Place for 118 years. They date back to the height of the Victorian golden age for Belfast, as the city had experienced extraordinary growth and transformation through the twin processes of urbanisation and industrialisation. In 1801, the population of Belfast stood at approximately 19,000; a century later the figure had risen to 350,000. In simple terms, the success of ‘Ireland’s Manchester’ can be explained through the production and sale of linen and, later, shipbuilding. Alongside this economic success, Belfast’s leaders sought to demonstrate civic pride through its built environment by designing a streetscape that was both functional and symbolic. The red sandstone Bank Buildings, which were designed by William Henry Lynn, are one such example of this civic pride.
And yet this sense of Victorian civic pride has come under challenge in recent times. The consequences of the blaze on 28 August reach far beyond Primark’s shop windows. Surrounding businesses have been forced to pull down their shutters due to safety concerns, with neither vehicular traffic nor pedestrians having been able to complete the journey from Royal Avenue through to Donegall Place. The supposed slow pace of decision-making by officials on what to do next have led to anger and frustration by many. Most notably, for example, one local business owner suggested drastic action to speed up the process of reopening the street: ‘I would have got a ball on the end of a chain and put it through the front of the building immediately and we could have got on with tidying up afterwards’. For the historian or heritage officer, it’s all too easy to dismiss such comments as an affront to the past and crude capitalism. After all, these business owners are vital to the health and vitality of the city’s economy; they have stock to shift, bills to pay and employees to protect. The number of shoppers in Belfast in September was more than 30% down on the same month in 2017. This dramatic loss in footfall must also be placed in the wider context of recent austerity and the challenge of internet shopping to the high street. The Primark episode, therefore, raises the question of how our built heritage in the city can be celebrated and protected, whilst ensuring that citizens don’t simply perceive them as burdensome artefacts.
The narrative is not all doom and gloom. Noteworthy efforts have been made in recent years to restore and reoccupy historically significant buildings, whilst ensuring they play a central role in modern Belfast. The Ormeau Baths – which were opened to the public in 1888 to provide affordable bathing facilities to citizens in the city – now serve as a co-working space for a thriving start-up and tech community. Another impressive example is the Duncairn Centre, located in the north city. Formerly a disused Presbyterian Church that fell foul to the decline in church attendance and demographic shifts, it has had a revival of fortunes as an arts and culture shared venue space. I’m particularly struck by this example because it is outside of the city centre and close to working-class communities. It opens its door to all sides of the community and offers a beautiful space in which people can meet, socialise and pursue various activities. As such, the ways in which our built heritage is put to use is critical to the value placed on it, and its long-term survival for future generations to enjoy.
In summary, the Bank Buildings will avoid the wrecking ball and Primark will no doubt return to their prized premises on the premier shopping street in Belfast. It could be suggested that one of the reasons for this particular piece of built heritage surviving is because it is used daily by thousands of people and, as such, embedded in the identity of citizens – albeit subconsciously. Therefore, whilst our built heritage is worth preserving for posterity’s sake, it is equally important that we all make an effort to ensure that the wider community feel a sense of ownership and identity to these buildings. I think the transformations of both the Ormeau Baths and the Duncairn Centre offer much to learn from, but how many co-working spaces and arts and cultures spaces do we need? What others way can these buildings and spaces be used? In truth, I’m not quite sure I have the answers as to how we achieve that, but I was struck by Tara Walsh’s blog post on design and education, where she stressed the importance of ‘collaboration, communication and collaboration’. Any solutions going forward require collective action, dialogue and imaginative design thinking.