The Contemporary Architecture of Northern Ireland

An introduction to contemporary architecture in Northern Ireland

Cultural isolation, economic pressures, and political instability have contrived to diminish the role of imaginative new architecture in the built environment of post-partition Northern Ireland.

While Belfast has been described as ‘the art deco capital of Ireland’ for pre-war buildings such as the Bank of Ireland and Sinclair’s department store on Royal Avenue, much twentieth century building has been unimaginative.

Other pre-war exceptions include a number of schools built for Belfast Corporation in the 1930s by RS Wilshere. Notables include the severe, sturdy, 1936 brick built Belfast School of Music on Donegall Pass and the Whitla Hall at Queen’s University, designed by John McGeagh.

Prominent Northern Irish architects include Wilshere and McGeogh, cinema architect James McBride Neil, and Dennis O’D Hanna, part of the Ulster Unit group of self-consciously modern artists and craftspeople, promoted by poet and curator John Hewitt.

Francis Pym’s 1971 extension to the Ulster Museum in Belfast was considered something of a modernist triumph. However, in that same year Robert McKinstry bemoaned the endemic lack of architectural inspiration in Northern Ireland: 'None of our architects has been inspired directly by the great masters ... it is not a heartening picture.' Thirty years of recession and the bombing of commercial targets served only to reinforce the timidity of planners and designers.

Modern buildings of architectural repute include Victor Robinson’s Belfast Waterfront Hall and the Laganside Law Courts, which serve to symbolise the post-ceasefire reconstruction of the riverside area of Belfast. National Lottery Millennium funding also allowed the construction of several interesting arts or heritage centres around Northern Ireland, such as Derry’s Millennium Forum and the Market Place Theatre in Armagh. Imaginative and energetic conservation work on important or distinctive older buildings has also been carried out across the region.

Further Reading

The Buildings of Armagh (1992) by Robert McKinistry; An Introduction to Ulster Architecture (1975) by Hugh Dixon.