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What did They Build That for? spacer Issue 6
What Did They Build That For? - Great Northern House and Mall
by David Brett
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I can't help rising to the challenge of naming the ugliest building in Belfast. I thought at first it was the new B.I.F.H.E. building. But I want to offer up a rival. However it's no good picking on one particular excrescence because what hides behind each building is a system of planning bureaucracy, banking, and land ownership. Any large building is going to be an expression of that system, for good or ill. Ugly buildings - any more than fine ones too - are not an accident.
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So what system was responsible for Great Northern House and Mall?
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It is a major part of the development beside the Europa Hotel - the one that's all chrome and black glass. It appeared during the early 1990's as part of a general development along Gt. Victoria St., a harbinger of the peace process. Or perhaps the last child of direct rule?
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The total failure of the Unionist project and the imposition of direct rule from Westminster had more political consequences than one could mention; but one of them was to cut away a tier of local decision making. It would be useful to research this in real detail, but with that tier went the normal process of planning permission and consultancy that obtains in every half-run city. Important decisions were being made by passing ministers or by imported civil servants who - though no worse than any other - did not have live with the consequences of their mistakes and had no local pride. In some respects we all did very well out of this; the Housing Executive has produced some of the best public housing anywhere. But the commercial consequences were another matter. When money and investment started to flow toward Belfast in the late 1980's, Belfast was wide open to the speculator. To people who didn't know or care what they were doing to a city provided they got the rentable space. And there was no-one and nothing to stop them building big and nasty.
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And what is so nasty about this building? It is partly a matter of fashion, a passing fad for chrome and black glass, related to the imagery of American shopping malls and the pharmaceutical industry. It was cheap then and it's cheap now (the equivalent of the shell suit). Underneath that glitzy surface could be anything; in fact there is a perfectly decent concrete frame that could take any other facade just as well and which you can see round the side. And there is nothing in principle wrong with black glass and shiny metal. Nor with the stage-scenery aspect of this kind of commercial building, since like anything else it can be done well or badly. But there is an art to it, which requires a sense of the streetscape and the scale and the structure. It is this sense that is lacking.
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Streetscape. Great Victoria Street is a mess, but the cluster of buildings around the Europa Hotel is a large chunk of the city centre. It contains one stylish curiousity, the Playhouse, and one excellent old commercial heap - Lincoln Buildings, now cleverly modernised. The Europa has become a kind of icon that survived innumerable `alterations'. These buildings relate to one another by historic association if nothing else. But there is nothing in the street to which Gt. Northern House has any relation at all. It's materials are alien and its bulk unlightened by any sense of detail.
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Scale: this is not a matter of size only, but of relations of size. It is not on the same scale as the rest. It aims at being huge, but it is not huge. Maybe the scale of the building would have worked if it had been twice the size. But it is an impostor, a sort of Toad Hall that pretends to an amplitude and height it hasn't got. Now that its neighbour, Millennium House, has filled in the gap beside it, the original octagonal tower is revealed to be no more than a pretentious attachment to the main mass of the block.
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Structure - I mean by this the real or apparent way it is made. What are those long shiny tubes doing? They claim to be holding up the corners and the edges; but of course they are doing nothing of the kind. There isprobably a lot of old-fashioned steel and concrete inside them, but someone, somewhere, wanted an image of what he or they thought was modernity. This is architecture as pretension and structure as fraud.
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And what about the Mall? In a town that can boast a trio of really attractive arcades, is there anything than can be said in favour of this one ? No. This is a nasty hole through a nasty building.
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So, in closing down this column for the time being I award the prize for the ugliest building in Belfast to - Great Northern House and Mall. May it fall down soon.
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Any other candidates?
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What Did They Build That For? - Great Northern House and Mall
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