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The predominant architectural spirit of the city of Belfast is firmly grounded in the Victorian era. Belfast became a city only in 1888 after phenomenal growth spurred on by the Linen and Ship building industries and its architecture reflects this industrial past as well as a quite obviously contrived attempt by the City fathers to portray the city as the epitome of prosperous Victorian civic pride.
The outskirts and suburbs of the city are swamped with hundreds of red brick Victorian and Edwardian terraces and also contain many fine churches. However, the City Centre, despite 30 years of sustained terrorist attack still retains some of the finest Victorian civic and commercial buildings in the United Kingdom though many splendid interiors have been lost merely as a sacrifice to taste.
The core of Belfast 's best architecture is found around Sir Arthur Brumwell Thomas' masterpiece, the City Hall. The City Hall itself is well worth a visit, with free guided tours during the week. This vast pile of Portland stone in "Renaissance" style was begun in 1896 on the site of the former White Linen Hall (where bleached linens were sold) and marked the beginning of a great regeneration of Donegall Square and the former Hercules Street (now Royal Avenue). It was completed and opened by Edward VII in 1906. The building encloses a large courtyard and its interiors are the finest surviving Victorian interiors in the City. Under the central dome can be found a vast galleried hall lined with Italian marbles and lit by fine Edwardian and Art Deco stained glass windows. Under the dome itself is found a marble whispering gallery. The overall effect of this space is quite stunning. The Council chamber and suite of banqueting rooms on the piano nobile are also splendid spaces, most lined with finely carved paneling and again lit with stained glass. In the grounds of the Hall can be found some fine (and some not so fine) memorials. To the East can be found Sir Thomas Brock's hauntingly beautiful Titanic Memorial whilst his splendid (if rather overbearing) statue of Queen Victoria dominates the entrance front. To the West can be found a spectacular memorial to the 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava (Governor of Canada 1872 and Viceroy of India 1884-96) which has been moved towards the railings in order to accommodate the City of Belfast War Memorial.
The remainder of Donegall Square is characterised in the main by the architecture of the firm of Young and Mackenzie. Most spectacular is their Royal Irish Linen Warehouse built for the firm of Robinson & Cleaver in 1884. Its profusely carved exterior (on Donegall Square North) is topped with ogee domes and towers and includes bust portraits of the illustrious clientele of what was once Belfast's most prestigious department store including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; The Dowager Empress of Germany (decapitated by a public demonstration during World War 1); and the Maharaja of Cooch Behar (who invented the game of snooker). The interior was disgracefully dismantled when the store closed in 1984 and the spectacular marble main staircase (with its statues of Hibernia and Britannia) which was once famous was removed and sold to a local businessman. The other most notable building by Young and Mackenzie around Donegall Square is the gargantuan former head office of the Scottish Provident Institution on Donegall Square West built between 1897 and 1899. Its exterior is again profusely carved with allegories of the Continents and sadly again its interior has been lost.
Remaining buildings of note in this area are WH Lynn's former Richardson Sons & Owden Linen Warehouse (now Marks and Spencer’s)(1869) and his other fine buildings on Royal Avenue - the Central Library (1883-88) and the former Bank Buildings Department Store (now Primark) built in 1900 as Ireland's first steel framed building. Other buildings worth a visit are Lanyon's Linen Hall Library (1864); William Barre's former Provincial Bank of Ireland (now Tesco) (1864) with its zany polychrome domed interior (sadly altered to accommodate cashiers); and McDonnell & Dixon's Art Deco former Bank of Ireland (now derelict) (1928) and commercial buildings all situate at the end of Royal Avenue.
Outside the City Centre, other extremely fine buildings may be found if one takes the trouble to walk. Best known is Charles Lanyon's Queen's University (University Road) built between 1845 and 1849 and disastrously extended thereafter. The main front of this splendid building is based loosely on Magdalene College Cambridge with a central tower and is constructed of red brick. It was opened by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1849 during their visit to the city and was the only building they were able to enter in Belfast due to an outbreak of cholera. Inside, the lofty entrance hall is dominated by a stained glass memorial to students who died in the First World War. Up a spectacular Gothic staircase can be found the Great Hall with a splendid hammer beam roof and fine collection of College portraits. The Quadrangle, which should have been a green oasis, is now dominated by the unutterably hideous 1960's Library Tower Block and Administration Block. The original library is a splendid study of late Gothic revival taste though the interior has been ruined by the insertion of a mezzanine level. Lanyon's utterly spectacular Tudor revival Deaf and Dumb Institution which once stood opposite the University has now been replaced with the recently remodelled Student's Union Building.
Slightly further up the road can be found the bulbous beauty of the Palm House in the Botanical Gardens. This is the oldest curvilinear cast iron glass house in the British Isles, being designed by Richard Turner in 1830 (extended 1840), many years before the construction of its rivals at Kew and Dublin. Here also can be found the Tropical Ravine House (1889) in which a perfect slice of Rainforest flourishes in the middle of the City and collections of bromeliads and orchids, as well as bananas, sugar cane, papyrus, avocado and cinnamon grow in abundance. The cast iron and glass roof of the structure has been much neglected and the future of the Ravine is in doubt if funding for its restoration is not found in the near future. Beside the Ravine can be seen James Cumming Wynne's neo-classical Portland-stone Ulster Museum designed in 1912. Construction work on this fine structure was begun just before the outbreak of the Great War but was not completed until 1929 by which stage lack of funding had led to the halving in size of the project. Whilst it was always intended that the remainder of Wynne's design would eventually be constructed, by 1964 it was clear that this would no longer be possible due to increased costs and thus the building was completed by the construction an unspeakably ghastly and totally incongruous extension designed by the London architect Francis Pim in 1964. Recently the museum was completed renovated and is now - internally at least - an inspiring place to visit. Walking from here to Great Victoria Street , one will find Frank Matcham's exotic Grand Opera House. The exterior is topped with two Indian cupolas whilst the splendid theatre interior is awash with carved elephants and painted Nubian slaves. The spectacular ceiling was sadly lost prior to the building's rescue from demolition in 1981. From here one can also view the ghastly bulk of the Europa Hotel, now infamous for being the most blown up hotel in Europe. Opposite can be seen the opulent Crown Liquor Saloon designed by church architect Edward Byrne in 1885. The opulence of the interior of this gem is impossible to describe. On first entry one is almost overcome with the riot of carved mahogany, Venetian mirrors and Minton tiles. This is perhaps the finest and best preserved Victorian public house interior in the UK and well worth a visit.
The remaining best buildings of Belfast are scattered to the North. St Anne's Cathedral was begun to the designs of Sir Thomas Drew in 1899, though work continued sporadically on the building until 1981 and it remains incomplete. The stately West Front was completed to Drew's designs in 1927 as a First World War memorial. The apse and ambulatory (unique in a Church of Ireland building of this period) were completed in 1959 and following the addition of another chapel in 1973, the North transept was completed in 1981 to a ghastly design incorporating a massive Celtic cross. A more recent addition is the Spire of Hope in April 2007 the steel spire was installed on top of the cathedral. The structure is illuminated at night. The base section of the spire protrudes through a glass platform in the Cathedral's roof directly above the choir stalls, allowing visitors to view it from the nave.
The interior is quite spartan and contains only one burial - that of Sir Edward Carson. Volunteer staff will answer any questions and can provide interesting information on the construction of the church. A much prettier church is Thomas Jackson's St. Malachy's Roman Catholic Church. Built at the cusp of the Puginesque Gothic Revival, this perpendicular Gothic church with its spindle turrets and lace-like plaster fan vaulting is unique in Northern Ireland. Between the two buildings lies the imposing but splendid mass of James Hamilton's former Ulster Bank Headquarters on Waring Street (1857). The exquisite sandstone exterior is finely carved with figures of Commerce, Justice and Britannia benignly watching passers by from the parapet. In apparent embarrassment at exhibiting its own riches, the Bank ceased to use this building in 2004 and it is now run as the deliciously decadent Merchant Hotel. The fantastic former Banking Hall survives for the most part intact as the Great Room Restaurant and despite a rather dull paint scheme, it still manages to arouse and delight with its host of playful allegorical putti dancing forth from every inch of the frieze and every column capital, representing Industry, Commerce, Agriculture, Navigation, Sculpture, Music, Literature and Science. Two of the original three armorial stained glass windows to the rear of the room survive and the space is still lit by the spectacular glass dome to the centre of the room. This is without doubt the finest surviving Banking Hall in the City.
Further down High Street can be found the stately St George's Church of Ireland Church designed by the Dublin architect John Bowden and completed in 1816. The most notable feature of this church is the splendid portico which was reclaimed from the demolished home of Frederick Augustus Hervey, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol at Ballyscullion in Co. Londonderry. The incomplete house at Ballyscullion would have been (had it been completed) the most splendid Georgian country house in Ireland. Based largely on the plans of Ickworth in Suffolk, it was to have a central rotunda based on the Pantheon in Rome flanked by arcades based on those at St Peter's in the Vatican and was to be lit by 365 windows. Having to a greater extent completed the building work, the Earl Bishop realised he could not afford to pay William Pitt's Window tax on his 365 windows and the structure was dismantled and sold off. The Portico was the first cargo shipped on the Lagan Canal.
Just to the East of the Church can be seen WJ Barre's Albert Memorial Clock Tower. This glorious, pinnacled Gothic wonder was constructed between 1865 and 1870 in memory of the Prince Consort, whose stately statue wearing the Robes of the Order of the Garter can be seen under an elaborate canopy on the High Street front. It is affectionately known as the "leaning tower of Belfast" and lists approximately 4.5 feet off the vertical. This was a result of settlement following its construction on reclaimed land above the River Farsett which once flowed along the line of High Street but which was tunnelled in prior to construction of the clock on wooden piles. Due to the stresses of the continued settlement of the structure and increased traffic in the area, the clock was in peril of collapse by the 1990's by which stage most of the elaborate carvings and pinnacles had been removed mainly as a protection against terrorist attack. In 2002, the structure was entirely restored and cleaned, the foundations strengthened and the carvings replaced. Today, the Clock Tower is one of the best surviving examples of the Gothic Revival in the City and forms the centrepiece of the regeneration of Queen's Square, the former Docks area of the city. The Square is completed by Lanyon's majestic Customs House, constructed in 1856 in a high Italian Renaissance style. In the pediment on the seaward facade can be found fine carvings by Thomas Fitzpatrick of Britannia flanked by a lion and unicorn and attended by Neptune and Mercury. As part of the recent regeneration of the area, the once traffic-clogged space in front of the Customs House has been pedestrianised and several (mostly unremarkable) memorials have been re-sited here in what is hoped to become an outdoor performance space. One draws breath however to see that Belfast's tallest building is to be built on a site directly behind this fine building and the result of this rather strange choice of site remains to be seen.
From here one can also view the pair of gargantuan yellow cranes which, until recent years, formed the heart of the now largely defunct Harland and Wolff Shipyard. These can be seen from almost all parts of the city and are now as much a landmark as any of the spectacular Victorian buildings in the City Centre. They were constructed by the German firm of Krupp in 1969 and 1974 and are locally known as Sampson and Goliath. Once the employer of over 35,000 people and the creator of such famous liners as the Oceanic, Olympic, Titanic and Canberra, the firm of Harland and Wolff has, since the construction of the Cranes, gone into an almost terminal decline. Canberra, built for the P&O Line (and scrapped in 1998) was the last great liner to be constructed by the firm and the last ship to leave the yard was a rather sad roll-on-roll-off ferry in 2003. Since then, the firm has sold the vast majority of its once huge Queen's Island site as development land in the new "Titanic Quarter" apartment, office and leisure development. This has been done at the sorry expense of many of its fine (if rather dour) Victorian office blocks which have been ruthlessly cleared with an alarming lack of concern and great haste since the demise of the shipbuilding part of the business in 2003. Only the cathedral-like Drawing Offices in which the designs for RMS Titanic were brought into being survive, though they currently lie empty and swiftly deteriorating. Behind them (for those brave enough to climb through a hole in the security fence) can be found the remains of the Great Gantry where RMS Titanic, Olympic and the forgotten Britannic were built. It is planned that this area will be regenerated as a museum to the Titanic tragedy though at present it remains as treacherous industrial wasteland. The area is overlooked by the utterly uninspiring though much lauded Odyssey Centre built to house a cinema, ice rink and interpretive centre in 2003. In more recent years there has been much innovation in what is now the Titanic Quarter, with a hotel, the opening of the Titanic Dock and Pump House to visitors and new in 2012 Titanic Belfast, the 9 gallery interpretive centre charting the building and demise of the ship. This building may mean a new era for architecture in Belfast as the external façade is clad in several thousand three-dimensional aluminium plates, creating an awe-inspiring visual appearance, which is further enhanced by reflective pools of water surrounding the base of the structure.The facades lean out at angles of up to 25 degrees, with complicated geometries that rely heavily on advanced computer aided analysis.The façade has been designed to have a crystalline or shard like appearance which has been created from three thousand different shaped panels each folded from silver anodized aluminium sheets into complicated asymmetrical geometries.Of the three thousand panels, two thousand are completely unique in form while none of the ‘typical’ panels repeat more than twenty times – creating a startlingly random effect, which always manages to catch the light, a bit like a cut diamond.
Belfast's finest surviving Georgian Building is Clifton House on the Cliftonville Road. Built to designs of Sir John Soane and completed in 1774 it was originally a home for the destitute. Today, the fully restored building contains an interpretation centre and conference facilities. Behind can be seen the bulk of the once gloriously Gothic Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church, the lofty, overblown and almost Transylvanian spire of which can be seen from most parts of the city. It was built in 1875 to the designs of WH Lynn. This spectacular structure now disgracefully lies in peril of collapse having closed its doors in 1980 and having been left largely derelict ever since. Other interesting buildings in this area are Lanyon's County Court and Goal on Crumlin Road. The former is a fine Italianate building with a huge Corinthian portico surmounted by a figure of justice. It has been disused since 1999 and is to be converted to offices. The Gaol opposite is connected by means of an underground tunnel and is a well preserved example of a Victorian prison. It closed in 1996 and there are plans for its restoration though it currently lies derelict.
On the outskirts of town the most striking building is John Lanyon's Belfast Castle built in a muscular Scottish Baronial style in 1870 for the Marquess of Donegall. The Marquess never lived there as he could not afford to complete the house and instead it became the home of the Earls of Shaftsbury until the Second World War. Its most striking feature is the bizarre serpentine stone staircase to the rear of the building. It was purchased by Belfast City Council in 1978 and is today run as a conference centre and restaurant. John Lanyon's once stunningly beautiful private chapel which stands a few hundred yards from the Castle was abandoned in a sea of development during the 1970's and today stands in ruins crying out for restoration as a sorry indicator of the City Council's former attitude to architectural heritage.
Perhaps the most majestic and best sited building in Belfast however is to be found at Parliament Buildings at Stormont. Set at the top of a steep rise at the end of a majesterial mile long driveway, the imposing structure is the very epitome of Civic pride and national self confidence and follows a long line of fine structures built across the British Empire for this purpose, the pinnacle of which must surely be Lutyen's fabulous Imperial Parade leading to the Viceroy's House in New Delhi. In this vein, it had been planned that an enormous ministerial palace would be built here based on Lutyen's New Delhi designs with a domed parliament building flanked by colonnades containing the various ministries of state. These titanic plans were ruthlessly scrapped following the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and thus Sir Arthur Thornley's far less palatial though nonetheless still majestic portland stone Greek-revival pile was constructed and completed in 1932 when it was opened by Edward, Prince of Wales. The glowing white exterior can be seen for miles around but was still even more white when completed, the pure colour of the portland stone having been severely damaged during the Second World War when the building was painted black with paint which proved almost impossible to remove. The interior is dominated by the tripartite spaces of the House of Commons, Senate and Great Hall. The Commons was gutted by fire in 1996 and has recently been lovingly restored along with the remainder of the building where the original 1920's decorative scheme has been restored with spectacular results. The main feature of the Great Hall alongside the fabulous marble staircase is the huge gilt chandelier which was originally a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm II to Queen Victoria and hung at Windsor Castle until George V had it removed during the Great War. In the Park surrounding Parliament Buildings can be found Thomas Turner's rather bland Scotch Baronial Stormont Castle built in 1858 and used as the official residence of the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland until that role ceased to exist.
It is noteworthy that Belfast's modern architecture is distinctly lacking in both quality and longevity. This was perhaps somewhat understandable during the turbulent years of the Troubles (1969-1996) when buildings could not often look forward to very long lives, but it is clear that the confidence and civic pride exhibited so abundantly by the Victorians has not returned to the City. Recent developments have been lack-lustre to say the least and landmark buildings such as the new Hilton Hotel and BT Headquarters on Lanyon Place have done little to enhance the cityscape and in fact have done much to detract from it. One waits with baited breath for the completion of Belfast's largest development since the beginning of the 20th Century - Victoria Square which promises at least to be groundbreaking. The single, though dim, ray of hope came in 1997 with Robinson McIlwaine's Waterfront Hall - an elegant circular concert hall built from the City's traditional staples of Portland Stone and copper. Its curving lines reflect the architecture of the City Hall and the building perfectly complements the fine Classical Supreme Court Buildings (designed by James West in a style akin to that of Aston-Webb and completed in 1933) across the road.
It can only hoped that the confidence and pride in the city expressed so abundantly by their Victorian ancestors can once again be re-ignited in the people of Belfast, a city crying out for good modern architecture and a cohesive approach to the preservation of the beautiful and spectacular Victorian buildings bequeathed to its citizens by their forefathers. With the benefits of peace to be seen everywhere in evidence, this will surely happen.