The Architecture of Belfast

From small market town to the city's Edwardian heydey

None of the buildings from Belfast’s first century as a market town on the river Farset survive today. The only significant structures in those early years from 1613 would have been a castle established by Sir Arthur Chichester, and the parish church at the foot of High Street, where a ‘chapel of the ford’ had been erected by 1306, and where St George’s church now stands.

 

The earliest settlers are said to have ‘buylt good tymber houses with chimneys after the fashion of the English palle’, and some locally made brick was available. Chichester’s Jacobean castle – in truth a fortified mansion – burned down in 1708.

 

For the majority of the eighteenth century population, domestic urban architecture meant little more than small thatched cabins. In 1752, Lord Massareene noted Belfast was ‘in a ruinous condition’. The arrangements by which the town’s landlords, the Donegall family, issued leases gave no incentive to improvement.

 

The prominent citizens of 1754 who petitioned to rebuild the town noted, ‘the Houses have been suffered to go out of repair’ and that they were ‘very old, ruinous, and unfit for habitation’. It was a cycle of neglect and belated urgency that would be repeated in the coming centuries.

 

Georgian town: public buildings and domestic squalor

 

Architecture, as opposed to building, appears in Belfast alongside the rise of the liberal Presbyterian merchant class, whose prominence was in turn founded upon linen. With a new system of leases, Arthur, the 5th Earl of Belfast set new building standards in place.

 

Besides houses ‘well built with brick and slated’, the Exchange and Assembly Rooms, by English architect Robert Taylor, were completed at the ‘Four Corners’ in 1777. Derry born architect and property developer Roger Mulholland designed important buildings, including the First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street in 1783, and probably the White Linen Hall in 1785.

Nevertheless, the modest elegance of the new buildings on their wide new streets was accompanied by the squalor of the alleyways or ‘entries’ that ran between and behind them.

 

Building Victorian Belfast

 

Though little survives of the Georgian town, it seems to have laid down what would remain ‘the basic characteristics of Ulster architecture’. According to Hugh Dixon, Belfast ‘was modestly scaled, undemonstrative, somewhat solid in aspect, [and] usually restrained (sometimes even austere) in its use of external decoration’.

 

Some important public buildings from the early nineteenth century survive as landmarks in the development of the character of Belfast. The 'enlightenment' liberalism of the town's merchants can still be witnessed in the incomplete realisation of Sir John Soane’s design for the Belfast Academical Institution, the Greek Revival museum Thomas Jackson and Thomas Duff designed for the Belfast Natural and Philosophical Society in College Square, and the Clifton Street Poorhouse of 1774.

 

Commercial and industrial developments are also indicated by Charles Lanyon's conversion of the old Assembly Rooms into an Italianate headquarters for the Belfast Banking Company. The most comprehensive statement of new financial self-esteem is the Waring Street head office of the Ulster Bank, with its sober classicism counterpointed by opulent stonecarving and ironwork.

Edwardian heyday

 

Belfast’s industrial prosperity informs not only the grand public and commercial buildings of the city centre, such as the Scottish Provident building, the Cleaver building, and City Hall, but also the characteristic domestic architecture of the working class terraces of kitchen and parlour houses. What remains of the industrial architecture of the mills and factories in the north and east of the city are also worth attention.

 

The city’s architectural character is to a large degree still formed by the buildings of this Edwardian and preceding high Victorian period. Features include varieties of classicism in red sandstone and Portland limestone, offices and warehouses mimicking Venetian palazzi in coloured brick, and church or commercial buildings in Scottish baronial and Gothic revival styles.

 

Less imposing or self-important buildings also play their part: Frank Matcham’s Grand Opera House and its near neighbour, the Crown Bar, are two of the most distinctive, if over-exposed, buildings in the city.

 

Decline and regeneration

 

Both the Grand Opera House and the Crown bar required extensive renovation in the latter stages of the twentieth century. Many other architecturally distinguished or characteristic buildings did not survive the Blitz of 1941, the ‘redevelopment’ blight of the 1960s and 1970s, the bombing campaigns of the Troubles, or the generalised neglect of owners and tenants that only began to be addressed at the end of the 1970s. Multistorey office buildings replaced some

good buildings and impaired the setting of others.

 

Regeneration schemes since the late 1980s have attempted to restore some co-ordination and aesthetic quality to the centre of Belfast. Interesting new buildings like the Belfast Waterfront Hall share civic space with renovations and adaptations, including the delightfully ornamented MacCausland Hotel, a former grain warehouse. Moreover, a rolling programme of restoration work has helped to preserve and draw attention to public landmarks such as the Albert Memorial on Victoria Street. New domestic architecture, however, while an undoubted improvement on the neglected terraces and ill-considered flats of latter years, is rarely notable for its aesthetic impact.

 

Further Reading

 

Increasing numbers of books and articles on the architecture of Belfast have appeared in recent years. The following is not an exhaustive list, and relies heavily, as do most of the publications mentioned therein, upon CEB Brett’s Buildings of Belfast 1700-1900 (1985).

 

Central Belfast: An Historical Gazetteer (1993) by Marcus Patton; Belfast: An Illustrated Architectural Guide (1987) by Paul Larmour; B Boyd, A heritage from stone: a review of architecture in Ulster from prehistory to the present day (1986); The Changing Face of Belfast (1982) by N Nesbitt; An Introduction to Modern Ulster Architecture (1977) by D Evans; Roger Mulholland, Architect of Belfast 1740-1818 (1976) by CEB Brett; An Introduction to Ulster Architecture (1975) by Hugh Dixon; The function of the architect (1965) by A Potter; D Dunlop, A Memoir of the Professional Life of William J Barre Esq (1868) by D Dunlop.

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