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Thursday, 14 February 2013

Internal Public Spaces in Belfast | Emma Campbell

PLACE Volunteer Emma Campbell

Belfast has been marketed as a wholly commercial city, since its emergence from the troubles. Shopping seems to be the only activity independent of this unpredictable climate, leading to a lack of internalised spaces in Belfast for the public; owned by the inhabitants and welcome to all.

I can always remember the excitement of visiting Belfast for the day; but only ever to shop in Castlecourt. We would come up the M1, take a few swift turns and arrive safely in the Castlecourt car park.

Lock the car. Double check the car is locked. Find the lift. Start Shopping.

CastleCourt, Belfast. Image via wikimedia.org.

We never left Castlecourt. I don’t even think I knew where the City Hall was. And why would we. There seemed nothing else Belfast could offer but a warm meander through a bomb-proof top-lit shopping ‘quarter’. Now I suppose Victoria Square is hailed the new Backin’ Belfast destination.

Since moving to Belfast and reading an architecture degree I have now come to know some of Belfast’s nicest public places.

I like the Ulster Museum. I like the Linen Hall Library, the MAC and the Lyric Theatre.
The MAC, Belfast.

These are Belfast’s most cherished public buildings however not everyone feels confidant walking into a museum or a gallery. Not everyone is interested in arts buildings for that matter. So what can Architects and young designers do to provide and promote public spaces welcome to a larger majority. What architectural precedents can we learn from and apply to future efforts in Belfast’s regeneration?

St George’s Market is a notable established public space in Belfast. As an internal market and key meeting space, it brings back the notion of a traditional shopping experience. Finished in 1896 and designed by J.C. Bretland, the market is one of Belfast’s oldest tourist attractions and authentic shopping experiences, with elaborate ironwork gates, glazed roof and traditional Belfast brick structure. St George’s Market has established itself firmly as a public space welcoming locals and tourists alike. One is welcome to browse and haggle for goods or simply watch as the hustle and bustle takes place.

St George's Market, Belfast. Image via wikimedia.org.

Titanic Belfast was designed by Todd Architects and is one of Belfast’s newest attractions. Opened in March 2012, it commemorates the Titanic and the people who built it with interactive galleries, exhibits, banqueting suite and café. Clad with anodised aluminium shards, the nautical angular structure imposes on the Belfast skyline to gain recognition and importance in the city. Testament of this building’s success as a tourist destination is the ‘40% rise of cruise ship holidaymakers’ and taking in ‘650,000 visitors’ since its opening as stated recently in the Belfast Telegraph.
Titanic Belfast. Image via eastbelfastdiary.blogspot.co.uk.

On a smaller scale, the growing café culture in Belfast allows groups of people from different backgrounds to meet and engage over a warm cup of coffee. These cafes are warm and dry meeting places with a focus on social interchange rather than mass commercial gain.

And so, what can we learn from these examples. I think most places in Belfast open to the public are geared to a small number of art enthusiasts. Of course we need museums and art galleries for education and enlightenment. Buildings such as St George’s and Titanic Belfast open to a wider public foothold, but can only do this with commercial ties. This opens the argument that they are not public, but privately owned. While the café culture in Belfast invites social engagement on a smaller more intimate scale. They are just as important in creating a network of open public (yet privately owned) places in Belfast city centre. Either way, there are plenty of new and old exciting places waiting to be explored and loved by the Belfast public.

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