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What did They Build That for? spacer Issue 3
What Did They Build That For? The Gasworks, Ormeau Road
by David Brett
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Belfast a few years back woke up to the fact that it had a lot of good land coming available close to the city centre, just when the money was coming on-stream. One of the largest blocks at the disposal of the City Council, was the site of the old gas works at the foot of Ormeau Road. So what is being done with it in our name? Answer.... The good, the bad and the ugly.
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The Good. The best of the old buildings have been preserved, repaired and spruced up in fine style. The huge Klondyke shed is due for the same treatment. These are old civic-industrial buildings of the best kind, and whoever decided to care for them deserves our thanks. So also does the Halifax. A call centre seems an unlikely occasion for a fine building, but I reckon this could be voted the best new commercial building in Belfast. It has an ingenious plan, and the overall image is of a grand piano trying to fight its way out of a crate - in ivory! I tried to get a peek inside, but was treated as if my name was Bin Laden.
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The bad and the ugly. There is also a group of office buildings. When these were under construction I had hopes for them - the slender concrete beams, the curving rooves etc... But then the couth and comely concrete was sheathed in brick, and not only plain brick, but red and yellow. The effect is lumpish, affected; the Obese Tendency. Something very similar has been happening in the Clarendon Dock area; perfectly respectable commercial blocks have been dressed in orange and custard yellow, and fitted out with rooflines that have no discernible relation to the mass.
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The aim, we can see it, is to make new buildings that fit in with, refer and allude to Belfast's industrial past, respect the context of the site, and make a post-industrial ironic commentary at the same time. (etc.) The effect is, frankly, appalling. Polychrome and ornamented brick requires real finesse, or in the absence of that, a very experienced contractor and a workforce who know how to do it, in the same way that eighteenth century musicians knew how to add the twiddly bits so well that the composer did not have to write them down. Belfast is full of good quality brickwork, from the plain to the fancy; but it was the product of the meeting of taste, technique, materials and training methods (particularly of apprenticeships) that no longer exist. To take on the old Gas-Works buildings, even the most humble, was (to use a boxing phrase) to lead with your chin. What makes the failure worse is that, directly opposite the site is the new Ormeau Road firestation which really does fit in with, refer and allude to its context, respectfully, without for one moment apologising for being up-to-date. And just across the road, Lucas House successfully amalgamates an old warehouse into the plainest of modern brick facades, giving a good ending to the Ormeau Road vista.
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Meanwhile they are putting in the footings for a new Radisson Hotel, in brick.....
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The Gasworks, Ormeau Road
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