March 11 2014

The Uncertain Future of a Landmark Victorian Building in Belfast, Ireland

It’s historical preservation week at The Grid and in Belfast, a landmark Victorian building is facing an uncertain future. In the city centre, the former Swanston’s Linen Warehouse has recently been denied demolition after the third bid to tear the warehouse down. The future of the building had been the subject of a legal row since 2009. The plan was to replace the former warehouse with sixty-nine apartments.

Belfast Former Swanston’s Linen Warehouse

Former Swanston’s Linen Warehouse

Situated within a protected conservation area, the Swanston’s Linen Warehouse has had a vast history and Rita Harkin, spokeswoman for the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, considers it “to give the city a distinct sense of identity.” The UAHS promotes the appreciation, preservation and conservation of architecture in the nine counties of Ulster. Ulster counties are situated in both Northern Ireland, as well as the Republic of Ireland. The UAHS considers the planning application to replace the warehouse with apartments to be a short-term solution that does not consider the permanent loss of a historic building.

The costs of preserving the warehouse have been a major subject of discussion. The refurbishments would cost over £4 million ($6.9 million) and once completed the building will only be worth £1.75 million ($2.9 million). Commercial business currently occupies the warehouse and the plans were to replace it with a seven-story apartment complex, three stories taller than what already exists. Ruth Patterson of the Democratic Unionist Party recognized the building looked beautiful, although it was structurally unsound. The façade tilts over the footpath and the internal structure has recently experienced severe fire damage. Can the high cost of historic preservation prevent the protection of buildings?

As well as economics, the political context has affected its historical preservation. Mairtin O’Muilleoir, a Sinn Fein councillor, said that members form his party voted against the demolition of the warehouse. They believe that this building is a “jewel in the crown of Belfast,” providing a unique character to the city. This is following the example other European cities that have been respectful of its past whilst moving into the future.

Belfast City Hall

Belfast City Hall

The politicians also stated their disappointment at the failure of the enquiry to involve groups that are specialized in historic preservation, for example the Forum for Alternative Belfast, whom I have mentioned a number of times in previous blogs. Inclusive design, an up-and-coming method in the process of design and planning applications, would include such groups. Decisions were held and the plans were advertised to the public in Belfast’s City Hall. Should everyone concerned be included within the process, or could this delay the application?

The controversy over whether to demolish Swanston’s Linen Warehouse encapsulates the different opinions and influences into the future of historic preservation. Do you think current short-term situations can outweigh the future preservation of historic buildings? If so, then what are the main factors to consider?

Credits: Images by James Foskett. Data 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, March 11th, 2014 at 9:54 am and is filed under Architecture, Community/Economic Development, Government/Politics, 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.

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