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Architecture in Northern Ireland


Urban planners on how looking beyond our borders has brought the sector closer to the global community

Of all the professional vocations, architects are, perhaps, especially misunderstood. The public may largely appreciate the workings of lawyers and doctors, engineers and accountants but, as far as architecture is concerned, its unique combination of artistic skill and scientific aptitude sets it apart as something of an anomaly. 

According to prominent architect, Arthur Acheson, creativity is at the heart of this sector, a sector which is about much more than bricks and mortar. ‘Architecture in the built environment is about almost everything,’ he says. ‘It is all about thinking beyond the confines of a discipline, beyond the confines of an area. Therefore, that question of trying to put it in a box is something that I would utterly resist. It is everywhere and it is widely pervasive.’ 

He offers praise of PLACE, Belfast’s built environment centre, along with Queen’s University and the University of Ulster, both of which maintain accomplished architectural schools. It is in these learning hubs that a different way of thinking about the industry, and its raison d’être, begins to form. That approach is echoed in turn by DCAL’s Ministerial Advisory Group, of which Acheson is Chair. This body’s remit is to assist the Department in lifting the level of local design. Its policy role, states Acheson, is to raise standards ‘above the ordinary and into the excellent.’ 

Skills crucial to making headway in this particular field allow for helpful diversification. In the face of a historic recession and the collapse of important public and private building works, adaptability became a vital tool. As Acheson points out: ‘In our practising side, more and more people are taking on specialisms. So you might find that somebody is not just an architect but is also a project manager… a conservation architect… some people have gone into renewable energy, some people have gone into passive solar.’ 

He also draws attention to the fact that practitioners have been able — out of necessity or otherwise — to take their talents abroad. Indeed, this is underlined by Paul Crowe, director at Todd Architects in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter. ‘We’re starting to see signs of improvement and increasing opportunities,’ he says. Professionals who have honed their skills abroad are returning slowly as the tide turns. They come armed with fresh perspectives. ‘That has a very positive impact on the approach to design here,’ suggests Crowe. ‘Their experiences are a good thing.’ 

The need to look beyond Northern Ireland’s border has had the effect of bringing the region’s architectural sector into contact with the global community. Ideas are shared; styles are used to inform current and future enterprises. ‘What we’ve actually done is look internationally and to larger markets within the UK,’ he says. 

Closer to home, notable developments on the horizon include an extension to the Belfast Waterfront and an impressive new Titanic Quarter office complex. In that respect, says Crowe, ‘the private sector is really starting to emerge,’ instilling confidence where previously there was little to go around. There exists, he contends, a worthy aspiration to bring Belfast up to speed with the rest of the continent, to transform the city into an ‘exciting European capital’. 

This sense of internationalism is the natural consequence of a widely travelled community. ‘People see things. They think that Belfast should be more cosmopolitan or European in its outlook,’ says Crowe. Such reinvention equates to ‘having better buildings, better public spaces, public art, all of the things that you find in industrial big cities’ seeking a rebirth. 

This tilt towards a different aesthetic has its merits, of course. In Crowe’s view ‘you want to learn and reinterpret.’ Acheson, too, accentuates the benefits. ’There are international design competitions so if you were skilled enough, fortunate enough, to win a competition, be it in Denmark, South Africa or Australia, those do tend to make some international connections,’ says Acheson. ‘Some of the practices here have been brilliant at that, in connecting up with other parts of the world, either through Invest NI or trade bodies. But also through these design contests where they would be competing on an equal level with internationally famous architects.’ In his opinion, such experiences burnish the capabilities of the regional profession. ‘It lifts the standard throughout because people want to work to an international best practice standard.’ 

If an upswing in quality is the inevitable product of a financially challenging period, then that should be considered a fillip. ‘Quality developments will rise to the top,’ says Crowe. ‘Hopefully we’ll see an improvement in housing design coming forward.’ He believes that, as it pertains to the spirit of the discipline at least, ‘a bit of a slowdown, a bit of a rain check has not been a bad thing in terms of how we actually build communities.’

By Matthew Coyle