Celebrating Conservation

PLACE showcase the rescue missions to save Northern Ireland’s crumbling town halls, castles and other impressive buildings

There is a very positive vibe running through PLACE thanks to the exhibition currently filling the small but sufficient gallery. Entitled Celebrating Conservation in Ulster, the exhibition may sound rather dry but it isn't.

PLACE – along with the Royal Society of Ulster Architects - invited architects from all over Northern Ireland to showcase projects where they salvaged old, dilapidated and often dysfunctional buildings, turning them into something usable and striking.  

Seventeen architecture firms – who have all saved buildings in danger of being knocked down - are represented in this exhibition. These include the Boyd Partnership, Consarc Design Group, 22over7, Architects Knox and Markwell.

The work is displayed on wall panels that are dotted around the gallery. Most show before and after pictures, some show detailed plans and all show – through photography - the major transformations the buildings have gone through.

They reflect thousands of years of human activity, where buildings have been passed down to form part of our unique cultural heritage. From modest terrace houses to the revival of grand country manors and public buildings, the architectural projects that are featured in the exhibition all vary on size and scale but it is easy to see the remarkable skill that is required to carry out such work.

Some of the projects are just an upgrade or refurbishment of former buildings, others started with nothing but empty shells. A few of the buildings didn't even have all four walls to begin with.

One of the most well-known and striking examples is the old Provincial Bank of Ireland Building in Belfast City Centre, which has been turned into a Tesco store. A massive £1.4 million was shelled out for the project but the detailed plans and photographs show exactly how much time and effort went into saving the building. They show details that you probably wouldn’t notice while whizzing around the grocery store with your trolley on a Saturday afternoon.

Other buildings have now been turned into regeneration and investment projects and spaces for the consolidation of communities.

The Banbridge Town Hall is an amazing Grand Designs-like example. Setting out with a low-ish budget, the architects began work on the building but soon discovered many other problems. The budget eventually escalated to £675,000. While it does seem like a lot of money, the photographs of the completed building show exactly how important conservation is. It is now an astounding building, with hundreds of years of history, that all of the community can use.

Smaller scale projects on show are also inspiring. They illustrate that a bit of work and TLC can sometimes be all that is needed to rescue a building. The Hearth Housing Association, for example, took on a house in Camden Street in South Belfast that was in bad condition. Instead of knocking it down, the architects carried out some work and it is now being used to accommodate people in need of social housing.

PLACE's exhibition definitely gets you thinking about the potential of the old and disused buildings that surround us. It is well worth a visit. The fact that Kevin McCloud is nowhere to be seen – or heard – is an added bonus.

The ‘Celebrating Conservation in Ulster exhibition runs until 29 October and is part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's. For more information visit PLACE.www.placeni.org