Central Belfast: An Historical Gazetteer
Marcus Patton on the task of revising his architectural directory to reflect the city's modern rebirth and the history lying beneath
Twenty two years ago Marcus Patton published a book entitled Central Belfast: An Historical Gazetteer, describing the buildings of the city centre in architectural and historical detail.
Two decades later, when asked about the possibility of updating it, he barely hesitated. ‘I thought that I would only need to revise a few key entries and do additional research on others,’ he says. ‘In the event about 75% of the text has been revised to reflect alterations to the city.’
Those alterations have been considerable, and the pace of change has accelerated since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and a return to relative normality for society across the province.
‘When I was researching the original edition in the early 1990s the Troubles were still going on and investors were steering clear of the city,’ Patton remembers. Post-2000, with the gradual resurgence of economic confidence, a building boom began, transforming the commercial heart of the city.
Image credit: Discover NI
Patton noticed another transformation as he took to the streets again, scoping out the urban landscape for his new book. ‘When I was looking at buildings on Sunday mornings in 1990 the streets were empty apart from me and occasional army patrols. Now they are hotching with tourists from all over the world.’
In his day-job Patton directs Hearth, a Belfast-based charity involved in housing and conservation, and his interest in the built environment and heritage issues stretches back through a professional lifetime.
Patton’s many years of experience have in no way dulled a passionate commitment to the protection of historic buildings. ‘Just as it is important to protect bio-diversity,’ he argues, ‘so it is important for a city to have a diverse architectural heritage.
‘As well as being historically interesting and aesthetically attractive, older buildings provide the character of a town or city. New office blocks are much the same the world over, but Belfast's Victorian buildings are quite distinct from other cities. Also, the regeneration of historic buildings can spearhead wider economic revival by restoring morale and pride of place.’
Image credit: Discover NI
Belfast does not, Patton adds, have a particularly good record of looking after its architecturally valuable structures. ‘The Georgians wiped out 17th century Belfast, the Victorians decimated Georgian Belfast, and the 20th century wiped out a lot of what was left from all those periods.
‘Ironically the life of more recent buildings is even shorter, with many buildings coming down in less than fifty years, having replaced buildings that had stood for two or three times as long.’
Why this cavalier attitude to the past? Why has so much of architectural value in Belfast been crudely flattened? It isn’t, Patton argues, for want of decent guidelines and a sympathetic legal framework. ‘The legislation to protect our historic buildings and conservation areas is generally fine,’ he says.
‘Sadly the planners haven't always seen fit to apply the legislation, often accepting changes they could usefully have resisted. There isn't a sufficient recognition that these buildings are unique and irreplaceable.’
Image credit: W. Lawrence / PRONI
On the political front, though, a glimmer of hope is visible. ‘With planning moving to the new super-councils,’ explains Patton, ‘I am optimistic that we will see a stronger stand to protect the buildings that give their areas character. These are the buildings that will attract tourists and make the place pleasant to live in.
'And ironically they will also be ones that attract businesses, which often want to come to places with character and identity.’
And although Patton bemoans the loss of historic buildings that have been levelled over the decades to provide commercial space and new car parks, he also strikes a note of positivity.
‘Our listed buildings are now generally in better shape than they were, and key buildings are better appreciated. It’s hard to imagine that the Grand Opera House in Belfast was boarded up and threatened with demolition in the 1970s - it is now one of our best-loved historic buildings.’
Patton’s new Gazetteer provides an absorbing snapshot of all the buildings that existed in Belfast city centre at the beginning of 2015, with one major addition from last time - thumbnail photographs of virtually every building listed.
In addition, Patton has been busy in the archives. ‘I went through much of the photographic collection of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency’s Monuments and Buildings Record, and have been able to include many of their photographs that have not previously been published, expanding the record of lost buildings.’
All of which makes for a splendidly informative, handsomely produced publication, endlessly browsable for those with even a smidgeon of interest in why Belfast city centre looks as it does, and how its present buildings came to be there.
Fascinating snippets of historical information from Patton’s verbal descriptions of each property pepper the text, beaming shafts of light into the murky history of buildings the current generation of Belfastians see and in many cases use daily.
Image credit: W. Lawrence / PRONI
And, even in the age of Google Street View and the internet, Patton is adamant that a printed gazetteer still has a crucial role to play in the documenting and curation of the buildings Belfast has created, in many cases over centuries.
‘The internet is an invaluable index to the world, and provides instant information about what is out there today,’ he says. ‘But it is a lot less effective at telling us about historic situations, or allowing us to tell at a glance how a building or site developed.
‘This book is a look at both the present-day surface of the city and at the history that lies beneath many of the buildings we know today.
‘I may be old fashioned, but actually I find a book quicker to refer to than most internet sites, and it is much easier to grasp the context of entries in a book. There is a place for both, but the convenience of a book is hard to beat.’
Central Belfast: An Historical Gazetteer launches on October 23 in the Green Room of the Ulster Hall with Suzanne Wylie. Purchase the book now through the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society.