The Architecture of West Belfast
An architectural survey of west Belfast
Topography and Resources
Overlooked by the Black Mountain, west Belfast is delimited by the Shankill Road to the north and the M1 to the east.
It is also part of the Lagan plain, isolated from the sea by an eighteenth century impound of the Blackstaff River. Consequently, Jonathan Bardon states much of the area is ‘low lying, prone to flooding and composed of muddy sleech providing an uncertain base for buildings’. It remains an irony that the marl and till which hindered the site’s early development—Belfast was scarcely a town until its 1613 incorporation—would later supply clay to its 33 brickworks.
During the reign of Charles II, a corn mill operated on the current site of Divis Street. Still grassland, Millfield lay excluded from the town by the western limit of the old rampart. In modern west Belfast, the oldest of the 16 Millvale textile mills survives as a cultural facility and trade museum.
The Conway Mill, 5-7 Conway Street, was erected by James Kennedy and Sons, Flax-Spinners, as part of Belfast’s burgeoning linen industry. According to CEB Brett, if ‘the early Victorians were incapable … of separating function from appearance,’ then the Old Mill Block (1842) with its stone window sills, utilitarian brickwork and wet-dashed façade, truly ‘wears its heart on its sleeve’. To the front of the site, the New Block (c1900–10) is distinctly Edwardian, with moulded terracotta cornices and white glazed brick exterior.
According to Bardon, ‘by 1861 Belfast had 55 churches—20 Presbyterian, 20 other nonconformist, 10 Church of Ireland, and 5 Catholic’. St Peter’s Cathedral, Derby Street (1866) remains one of the best ecclesiastical structures in the city.
The church, designed by Belfast native Fr Jeremiah McCauley, was a welcome contrast to its precursor on Castle Street, a house so derelict that the congregation was ‘obliged to take pieces of wood or bricks to kneel on’ (quoted in Bardon). Notable features include a circular carving over the main entrance of the angels freeing St Peter from prison, the ship-like hammer beam ceiling, and a gothic baldachino, or alter canopy. The twin spires were added to plans by Mortimer Thompson in 1886.
Of equal merit, though less for its grandeur and more for structural innovation, is St Matthew’s Church on the Shankill Road (c1870-72). Designed by Welland and Gillespie, the building has a symbolic plan in the shape of what is reputed to be both a shamrock and a trefoil. Walls form semicircles, Corinthian columns mutate into moulded weight-bearing ribs and the external polychromatic brick contrasts a modest plaster interior.
Other important ecclesiastical buildings in west Belfast include JJ McDonnell’s Redemptorist Church and Monastery at Clonard Gardens (1908-11), John O’Neill’s St Mary’s Dominican Convent at the Falls Road (1868-70), and the neoclassical Townsend Street Presbytery (1876-8).
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Belfast had surpassed its early success in the production of cotton textiles to become a leader in the linen trade. Migrant workers filled the town and under the pressures of long shift hours and low pay, mill employees settled the dense accommodation now grouped around west Belfast industrial sites such as Chartres of Falls and the still operational Ross’s of Clonard. Erected by the mill owners at low cost, these kitchen houses were poorly constructed and substandard in size.
As working class housing pushed out from the old wards at Albert Street and Northumberland, city planners came under pressure to improve building standards. The majority of the redbrick terraces in west Belfast reflect these Victorian bylaws, which include paving and sewers (1865), back access of nine feet, height not exceeding width of the street, kerbed pavements (1878) and damp courses in new dwellings (1889).
Throughout the twentieth century, these parlour houses were being built across the west with traditional materials as seen in suburban developments like the Whiterock Road. Today, the marked failures of multi-storeys such as Divis Flats on the Lower Falls and Unity Flats on the Lower Shankhill have forced architects to revisit the highly functional Victorian terrace.
Adjacent to the Redemptorist Church, at the junction of Odessa and O’Neill Streets, lies Clonard House (c1896). First listed to linen merchants Victor and James Kennedy, the suburban villa was subsumed by the industrial sprawl that drew the city to its gate. Distinct from other middle class houses in area, including those built by Robert McConnell in St James’s Park, Clonard House is one of the few Regency houses in the city. Important features include distinctive Regency side bows and marble Ionic columns at the porch.
Public Buildings, Parks and Pubs
Although Brett notes many of the decorative elements of Victorian style were ‘slow in working their way down to residential architecture’, Edwardian Belfast’s public architecture matched function with luxury. Erected near the old site of the Belfast Lunatic Asylum, the Royal Victoria Hospital, Grosvenor Road (1900), was an innovation in medical design. As maintained by Jeremy Williams, ‘the one-storied wards, set above a basement used for air ducts and opening onto balconies articulated by ventilation towers, had an international impact.’
Further down the road, the 1905 Falls Road Carnegie Library (1905), designed by Watt and Tulloch, was one of three libraries donated to the city by the American steel industrialist. Distinctly Edwardian, the building combines Georgian revival with art nouveau, including the figurative depictions of literature and art by Rosamond Praeger. Unfortunately, like the absent picture palaces which once provided lavish relief from the red brick, the original bronze cast is lost from the neighbourhood. Of the many Victorian and Edwardian public houses, one partial facade still exists: that of the Beehive, 193 Falls Road (1890).
Straddling the Falls Road are two of Belfast’s largest cemeteries. The Belfast Cemetery (1869), planned by William Fay, contains two cast-iron fountains from Glasgow’s George Smith. Interestingly, many architects are buried here under neogothic memorials. Important tombs include the Inglis memorial (c1865) with its bas reliefs and colonettes attributed to Rosamond Praeger, an Egyptian revival Herdman memorial (c1870), and the art nouveau Carson memorial (1905). Further up the road, Timothy Hevey’s neoclassical gates preside over the entrance to the Milltown Cemetery (1869-70), perfectly aligned with its first memorial cross.
As Brett notes, ‘it is a remarkable fact that the barrier between the Falls and the Shankill Roads follows, to within a few inches, the dividing line recorded by the Commission of Inquiry into the Belfast riots of 1886.’ The common name for two subsequent riots, the Battles of the Brickfields, rings with the same kind of irony as the link between the earth, industrialism and brick that built the city.
And yet, unlike the library bestowed upon the mill worker for the enjoyment of literature and art after their 12 hour shift, the picture palace with its jam jar entrance fee or fountain viewed from a hospital by patients suffering from typhoid and tuberculosis, there is an honesty in the corrugated peace lines. Like the burnt out terraces and fortified police stations, their persistence reminds us that ‘there is no architecture without event, without action’ (quoted in Noever). They also signal, despite the expectation of traditional aesthetes, that west Belfast is packed with structures used beautifully by its inhabitants and their history.
‘An Introduction to Ulster Architecture’ by Hugh Dixon (2001); Architecture in Ireland 1837-1921 (1994) by Jeremy Williams; Modern Architecture: A Critical History (1992) by Kenneth Frampton; Architecture in Transition: Between Deconstruction and New Modernism (1991) edited by Peter Noever; Buildings of Belfast: 1700-1914 (revised edition 1985) by CEB Brett; Belfast: An Illustrated History (1982) by Jonathan Bardon; The Architecture of Ireland (1982) by Maurice Craig.
By Natasha Cuddington © 2004.