Art Deco Belfast

The art deco style is prevalent, but many examples are falling into decay

Belfast is at home with the lush revivalism of high Victoriana. It isn’t an obvious home for the truly avant garde influence of the Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925, usually recognised as the starting point of the eclectic modernism of art deco.

Besides, the hey-day of the new style was in the 1920s and 30s. Those were years of depression in Belfast, limiting the amount of major city centre building. PLACE Architecture Centre's Art Deco Belfast walking tour is, nonetheless, a tour of surprises that rises to a crescendo.

We start with a relative disappointment at Imperial Building in Donegall Square East. Designed by Kendrick Edwards in 1935, this is later phase art deco with classical references and minimal ornamentation. It has a discrete rather than exciting impact, and is marred by the inappropriate modern ground floor premises.

On to Donegall Place and we look up on the left-hand side. There is Brookmount Buildings, built in 1930-32 and signified by the monogram ‘B’ below the capitals of the pilasters. We admire the decorated steel windows and stylised anvils reflecting the previous location of an ironmonger's on the site.

Then we dart into Castle Lane. There on the left, before you reach British Home Stores, is a vacant building which is bow-fronted above the ground floor. Built in c.1925 it features giant square columns with lions devouring Roman fasces below stylised Ionic capitals. The classical illusions are evident, as perhaps was an enthusiasm for the rise of Mussolini in Italy.

We cross into Ann Street and on the left find Café Nero. The building that houses the coffee shop was originally built for Dresswell in c.1935. As a later phase art deco building, we note the similarity with a car radiator!

Travelling back down Ann Street and at the junction with Telfair Street we find a one time Burton’s designed by Harry Wilson of Leeds in 1931-33. Slightly dilapidated though it is, the faience finish, the zig-zag panels between the windows, and stylised elephants’ heads combine effectively.

Hereby hangs a tale – we soon begin to realise that British chain stores made a considerable contribution to the art deco landscape. Nowhere is this more evident than around the corner at the junction between High Street and Cornmarket, where we find the largest art deco building of the tour. It still bears the names Burtons and Woolworths, though it is now occupied by Dunnes Stores.

Built in 1929-30 by Woolworth’s own construction department, it has faintly Egyptian capitals and limited decoration of stylised leaves and rosettes. The main impact is made by the huge range of - then - ultra-modern steel framed windows.

Onward into Donegall Street and an arena of despair. The blackened facade alone of North Street arcade survives. Once the only art deco shopping arcade in Belfast, it was destroyed in a systematic arson attack in 2004. There is talk now of a task force to investigate heritage bonfires. There is unfinished work here!

Even on the remaining facade we can detect the uncompromising modernism of later art deco as carried out by Cowser and Smyth in 1936, with the added interest of an inserted sculptural panel of eight female spinners, taken from the original 1860s linen warehouse by WH Lynn, which previously occupied the site.

Rescue is at hand at the junction of North Street and Royal Avenue. Here we find the splendid Sinclair Building in pristine condition. This is of particular interest in that the rear block built in 1926 is earlier art deco with its more ornate decoration, while the corner segment, built in 1935 and by the same architect, James Scott, is in the later and simpler style redolent of the machine age.

Thus the earlier block in custard cream faience with its Greek capitals features laurel drops, female head keystones, torches, St Andrew’s crosses and lions; while the equally effective later block is notable for its panels with the logo ‘S’ and a modernistic clock on a zig-zag pediment.

Facing the Sinclair Building and on the opposite corner the one time Bank of Ireland is a real tour de force designed by Dublin based architect JV Downes, a pioneer of Irish modernism. The building is notable for its very strong vertical lines, culminating in a copper dome. Better still all the original lettering of the signage and other detailing has survived. The building effectively closes the long straight stretch of Royal Avenue before it bears to the right.

The Bank closed in 2005, and is just one of a number of our art deco buildings which are either empty, or where those crucial upper floors have been allowed to fall into disrepair. Our little group feel that there is much to value here and much evidently at risk.

We also unanimously agree that the Bank of Ireland building is our art deco gem. Indeed, if your time is short go no further because you can admire it in conjunction with the almost equally impressive Sinclair Building on the opposite corner.

Visit the PLACE Architecture Centre's website for information on forthcoming architectural tours on Belfast.