Belfast’s listed ‘Bank Buildings’, more recently familiar as ‘Primark’, were built between 1885-1900, to designs by W H Lynn, and, located at a pivotal point in the now Belfast City Centre Conservation Area. A fine example of High Victorian style, the Bank Buildings form part of an important cluster of heritage buildings centred on Castle Junction which are seen to be a lynch pin in the surviving architectural heritage and signature character of Belfast City Centre.
It is not unusual to see heightened public concern for an historic building when one is threatened, by whatever means. Public response to this blaze however, was particularly significant, and in UAH’s long experience, unprecedented. The people of Belfast reacted very strongly, not only with concern for Primark staff, traders and the impact on the City Centre but also expressing dismay at the potential loss of an important historic building. A clear demonstration of the fact that that the built environment, specifically our built heritage, is seen by the public to be the most striking, tangible, and continuous connection to our culture and identity, present and past.
In the immediate aftermath of the blaze, UAH was to the fore in support for retention, restoration and conservation of the building. This was based on our belief that sufficient structural integrity had been maintained to allow for its retention, subject to shoring. Together with suggesting that this approach would also be the fastest route to reopening access for the essential City Centre retail footfall to the in the lead up to Christmas.
UAH was pleased to see letters of support for the building’s conservation and restoration from the Royal Society of Ulster Architects, Belfast Chamber of Commerce, the Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings (Ireland), Belfast Civic Trust, Northern Ireland Environmental Link, and members of the public.
Subsequently applications have been approved for works to the building, to allow for the taking down, recording and assessment of the upper floors above 4th floor level. Currently, major plans are under consideration by Belfast City Council. This is for the conservation-led regeneration and restoration of Bank Buildings. Meanwhile the building remains supported by ballasted shipping containers reflecting on film industry practice for supporting large film set facades.
The absence of the promised report on the fire itself is of concern. UAH is of the opinion that there are a number of important lessons to be learned from this fire, relating to both fire prevention and fire-fighting, relating to historic buildings. Belfast simply cannot afford to lose any more of its built heritage character to fire, a fact emphasised by yet another serious fire at the Crumlin Road Courthouse.
Restoration of the Bank Buildings, will not only assure the conservation of a unique heritage asset, it will re-establish an important retail hub, and serve as an example of how Belfast’s unique historic character enhances Belfast’s economic sustainability, and tourism draw. The owners, Primark, and the various responsible authorities are to be commended for their ongoing commitment to restore the building. UAH looks forward to seeing the full restoration approved and continue to progress over the coming year.
Looking back, and more specifically, looking forward – What can Belfast learn from Bank Buildings? In summary: Belfast cares about its built heritage. Historic buildings bring value, and local distinctiveness to the ‘high street’. Historic buildings, even the most vulnerable, can, and should, be restored to ensure that cultural, and future economic value is protected.
While Bank Buildings look to a better future, other historic buildings across Belfast including Crumlin Road Courthouse, the Assembly Rooms, the former Bank of Ireland in Royal Avenue and many more, are included on the Heritage at Risk Register for Northern Ireland, urgently awaiting restoration and sustainable reuse. Important buildings continue to be demolished before designation that might secure their future, and, as a result of the perennial, and continuing, Northern Ireland problems of lack of joined up governance and political understanding and commitment.
The Belfast public asserted the value that they place on built heritage, and its importance to Belfast, in their unprecedented reaction to the Bank Buildings fire. But were Belfast City Council and others in authority really listening beyond the Bank Buildings case? Have the wider implications of this public concern for built heritage continued to fall on deaf ears at authority level?
The conservation and rebuilding of the Bank Buildings is a credit to its owners, and others involved. However, for Belfast, and indeed the whole of Northern Ireland, this exceptional case must not be seen as a happy norm. It must be viewed against a continuing ‘culture’ of approved, and often unapproved, demolitions, land-banking leading to further unenforced dereliction, and inconsistent interpretation of, and adherence to, planning and built heritage policy.
Ongoing losses of individual historic built assets must be viewed as catastrophic cumulative loss, destroying cultural distinctiveness and damaging the economic viability of our cities, towns and landscape and, erasing for future generations, the enjoyment and benefits derived from the historic built environment.
View the application for Bank Buildings: LA04/2019/1905/LBC, currently under consideration with Belfast City Council Planning, and support the proposals here.
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