Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Critical Writing Part 1 of 2 - Belfast of Old

The following was written by PLACE Volunteer and University of Ulster PhD Student Andrew Molloy as part of a critical writing workshop held at PLACE in January 2013.

This is a critical article on the listed St Georges Church, meant as a companion piece to a critique of the MAC by Andrew, found here.

Sometimes I get a peculiar feeling when I walk down High Street. I imagine the Farset bubbling away beneath my feet from it’s source high up in the Black Mountain, now demeaned to flowing through a sewer pipe to join the Lagan. I imagine the broad avenue as it would have been; a dirt track running along the south bank of the stream connecting the motte and bailey of Belfast’s original castle and the ‘Chapel of the Ford’ situated at the sandbank formed by the confluence of the Farset, the Blackstaff and the Lagan, giving Belfast it’s name.

Map of Belfast in 1300 (showing Castle and Chapel)
compared with 2008 map

The peculiar feeling intensifies standing in front of St Georges Church at the top of High Street, at what would have been the site of the original Chapel. The city of Belfast is around four hundred years old; there has been a place of worship on this site for over seven hundred.

St George's Church, High Street, Belfast.

The original building was demolished in the late 18th century after a checkered and colourful history, from becoming the choice of church for town officials to being used as a Cromwellian stockade, and the current building’s foundation stone was laid in the early 19th century when the newly constructed St Anne’s church was deemed too small. Despite this lively past, the church itself is a tranquil oasis from the traffic-heavy junction of High Street and Victoria Street. Set back from the road, I would assume the building goes largely unnoticed most pedestrians (and certainly motorists). The church is designed in the classical style popular in the early 19th century and was originally intended to be a simple rectangular plan with a slightly curved facade at the entrance, perhaps looking similar to the First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street. However, the entrance was further enhanced by the introduction of the portico, acquired from the house of the Bishop of Derry, in Ballyscullion, after the Bishop’s death. This lends the building a much more grandiose air, an imposing and proud presence on Belfast’s oldest thoroughfare.

Stepping through the front door, the visitor finds themselves in an octagonal porch full of the periphery of worship, stacks of hymnals, prayer cushions, boxes of candles, etc; reminding the architectural tourist that this is still an operating Anglican church. Flanked on either side by winding staircases leading to the gallery the porch also acts as a final threshold between the city and the sanctuary of the nave. Stepping through the double doors into the space of worship beyond is a significant act. ‘The silence is deafening,’ goes the cliche. The total absence of the incessant sounds of urbanity is at first disconcerting.

As I walked up the centre of the nave my footsteps felt incredibly conspicuous. I settled into one of the timber pews and allowed myself to relax. Only then could I begin to observe the interior without that feeling unease. The nave itself a simple rectangular plan surrounded by squat, round-headed stained glass windows. A U-shaped gallery, supported on columns with ornate composite corinthian heads painted gold. Tall upper windows left unstained allowing bright natural light to flood the space, also allowing glimpses of sky (and the occasion modern apartment block). The room is lined with timber pews, all pointing toward a grand, and rather fussy, chancel.

The Victorian chancel almost stands in direct opposition to the clean, classical Georgian nave, almost demanding your attention. Adorned with paintings dating from the early 19th and 20th centuries and paying host to a grand pipe organ, the space is dominated by a full height stained glass window, enhancing the exuberant decoration and giving everything a slightly ethereal glow. This makes the space seem like an add-on to the simplicity of the nave and the styles seem to clash nosily, once the urban visitor's ears have got use to the silence.

Inside St George's Church, Belfast.

Walking around the nave, the engaged visitor will once again be put in direct contact with the very roots of Belfast as a city. A number of memorial plaques flank the chancel, the newest dating from 1938, the oldest being 1856. This oldest plaque is a memorial to Sir Henry Pottinger, who’s family played a prominent role in the establishment and development of the city of Belfast. Again, walking in the churchyard and examining the scattering of headstones, one gets an acute sense of the church’s embedded nature in the history of Belfast. While all relatively new when compared with the church building itself, the earliest one I could see was dated 1968. This year will resonate with a few as the year the idea of the ‘Westlink’ was conceived, and many others as they year the most recent incarnation of ‘The Troubles’ began; two events which have fundamentally defined the contemporary city of Belfast.

Despite it’s hotchpotch nature, an inevitability given the age of the building, St George’s Church is not only an important piece of architecture but is firmly embedded in the urban history of Belfast. It’s history is Belfast’s history, something which sends a chill down this otherwise level-headed architect’s spine.

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