February 11 2014

The Death of Art Deco in Belfast, Ireland

Belfast is usually known as a Victorian city, although it is also home to a small selection of beautiful Art Deco buildings. These Art Deco features of the city are at risk as they fall into decay. The large supermarket chain, Tesco, has submitted plans to occupy one such building, except these plans would alter the existing façade and interior layout. Should alterations to such buildings be allowed?

The Art Deco style in Belfast emerged in the twentieth century’s inter-war years, the 1920s and 30s. Those were the years of depression in Belfast, hence limiting the extent of the avant-garde influence upon the city’s landscape. The Art Deco style embraced the new technologies, new discoveries, and new forms of architecture. The term Art Deco is a derivative of the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in 1925 in Paris.

In Belfast the Art Deco style is concentrated only within the city centre. This was because the economic state of Northern Ireland at the time restricted development of the city, meaning only major commercial businesses could afford to build within that period. Such businesses included Burton’s, Woolworths, Co-op and the Bank of Ireland.

Bank of Ireland

Bank of Ireland, North Street, Belfast

The Bank of Ireland was completed in 1930 by Joseph Downes, and James Scott built the Sinclair House as a department store in 1935. The two facing buildings compliment one other, by featuring a strong vertical design and distinctive decorations. Situated at the junction of Royal Avenue and North Street is the Bank of Ireland and Sinclair House, close to Belfast shopping district. Both were built in the Art Deco style and are sad spectre of their former selves. Both the Bank of Ireland and Sinclair House are listed and currently unoccupied. 

Sinclair House, Royal Avenue

Sinclair House, Royal Avenue

As mentioned earlier, the supermarket chain Tesco has submitted plans to occupy a part of the Sinclair House. Tesco wants to facilitate the future expansion of one of Belfast’s universities, since this would lead to a large influx of students to the area, which would provide business for their supermarket. [For more details about this University’s expansion and the effects on Belfast’s heritage please refer to my earlier blog entitled, ‘It’s History, But Not Preserved: The Demolition of the University of Ulster, Belfast’]. Nonetheless, some disagree with the design alterations and recent activities of the construction.

The planning proposal shows how the elevation will look (drawing shown below). The elevation of the Sinclair House that the proposal shows 90% of the facade to consist of steel security doors, grey ventilation louvers, a grey refrigerator unit condenser and grey fibre cement walls. The difference in what exists today and the proposal is vast, in terms of style, tone and aesthetics.

Elevation of Proposed Design

Elevation of Proposed Design to Sinclair House

Urban activitsts, Backstage Belfast, are against the plans of the supermarket within Sinclair House. They state “just one month after submitting a planning application, and with no planning permission or listed building consent, Tesco demolished an internal wall within the listed Sinclair House,” the bloggers said. The Northern Ireland’s Department of the Environment said that no approval had been given or implied for demolition work to proceed. However, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency had visited the building, and confirmed that there was nothing of historical interest inside the building. Also, the urban activists were critical of the proposed design of the façade. They state that “Sinclair House is a unique art deco building with significant frontages” and the design that the planning application shows alters the existing façades into “dead frontages.” Tesco has responded by stating that they take the responsibility to protect architectural heritage very seriously.

Do you think alterations, as severe as this case study, should be allowed in conservation projects? Or are there any examples of where alterations can be allowed for the greater good of the city?

Credits: Images by James Foskett. Data and other images linked to sources.

James Foskett

James Foskett is currently in his last year of Architecture undergraduate study at Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland. Born in Devon, England, he has always had a passion for the Built Environment and therefore is planning on finishing his Architectural education by doing an MArch and possibly a Phd. Inspired by travel, his main interests are contextual designs that contribute greatly to the people that use them. From an Environmental Science background, he is also interested in sustainability and the effects of the life cycle of a building upon it's surroundings.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 11th, 2014 at 9:39 am and is filed under Architecture, History/Preservation. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


One Response to “The Death of Art Deco in Belfast, Ireland”

  1. Olivia Gilmer Says:

    brilliant article, I adore these buildings, I think they tell many stories and make belfast a little brighter as the modern buildings make it a little duller, but I don’t believe they should be altered, unless it’s for the good of the original building, but the form of abandonment sort of adds to the culture and nostalgia and I thing if we were to disregard that with modern construction plans a lot would be lost

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