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Monday, 7 October 2013

Floors Divided | Ah Wai Chung (QUB Architecture Graduate)

Ah Wai Chung (Queen's University Architecture graduate)

Buildings in Belfast city centre have had many of their ground floors renovated to accommodate the requirements of commercial businesses. What this results in is a very obvious divide between the ground and first floor…or is it so obvious?

Credit: Ah Wai Chung

Now that the purpose of the ground floor is for commerce, it is safe to assume that all efforts have been made to divert all attention to eye level resulting in Belfast’s heritage being pushed out of view. As you can see from the images above, when viewed as a whole, aesthetically, the divide is obvious and some may argue that the divide in fact emphasises Belfast’s heritage as the contrast between floors is rather strong. However, one consideration that was emphasised during my Architecture course was considering what people could see and so it is rather unrealistic to assume people in transit would notice anything more than the ground floor; eye level barely reaches above the ground floor and is pulled back down by the attempts of the shop to advertise their wares.

Credit: Ah Wai Chung

What you find is that the ground floor features a much greater use of fenestration; to flaunt items, create transparency to appear welcoming and to exhibit those already within the store to generate interest. Then there is the lighting and signage that draws one’s attention (incidentally away from looking above) and into the building. These attitudes do not apply to only stores, as if we inspect PLACE’s design, it involves a cantilever that projects from the building thus advertising its existence from the start of the street. As can be seen from the image, PLACE’s ground (and only) floor does not, I believe, fit naturally within its context, much like the examples shown previously.

However, cities develop and as such a building’s purpose can change which results in buildings transformed rather than demolished and rebuilt to meet a new brief, The issue is not whether buildings should be changed and how drastically but rather I am writing to ask if there is a more sensitive way to treat what we currently have.

Credit: Ah Wai Chung

An interesting example is the Robinson and Cleaver building at the corner of Donegall Place and Donegall Square North which became a top department store in Belfast after opening in the late 19th century. It is now home to a restaurant which has kept the same name and I would like to direct attention to its new sign which is located underneath the original; a polite nod to times gone past. However, the building is home to multiple businesses and some are not quite as sensitive as can be seen below.

Credit: Ah Wai Chung

Referring back to my course again, we were taught to consider the building as a whole and not floor by floor. And so with that thought in mind, one might think that I am alluding to the thought that any transformation should be whole but we must first consider the buildings purpose and that is when considering a building as a whole becomes rather difficult to do. Currently, the ground floor might be owned by a form of retail business but the rest of the building is quite possibly owned by a different party and thus fulfils a different purpose such as office space. This leads to a lack of synergy both on the exterior and interior of the building. If we consider the Ulster Museum and its café on the ground floor, we can see how although they are for different purposes, they are still part of the one entity and the café provides a service for the museum as well as an experience for the users. In contrast, the floors in the city center have different purposes but were never considered together when renovated as it is very likely that both these purposes appeared at different times with no obvious interaction with one another.

Credit: Ah Wai Chung

Having already discussed the desire to draw attention to ground floors by businesses, now let us consider the inverse; the desire to not draw attention to the first floor and above. From a residential perspective, the common pattern is that you have a private room such as the bedroom on the upper floor and this attitude remains when it comes to the city center. The upper floors do not want attention because the users tend to have no interaction with the public (eg. office space) and so there is little need to change the upper floors. Although the windows may not be considered ‘small’; they pale in comparison to the transformation below thus granting them this privacy. In a way, we should be grateful that there is this contrast as it is possibly one of the reasons why our heritage still remains untouched above.

Credit: Ah Wai Chung

A more modern example of this hierarchy of spaces can clearly be seen in the Potthouse on Waring Street designed by Box Architects. It is a six storey building where the lower three floors are occupied by a bar/restaurant and the upper three floors are occupied by office space. This allocation of space is visibly apparent on the exterior which echoes what I have explained previously.


Credit: Ah Wai Chung


To summarise my final thoughts; a successful building (new or renovated) is formed by the careful consideration of its purpose as a whole but this is rather difficult when floors are purchased individually by different parties. They cater their slice of the property to their specifications which results in a considered floor in an unconsidered building. Few parties need the multiple floors our city centre buildings provide and as such, one cannot be too harsh on the pragmatic actions imposed on the buildings with the distribution of floors. But I must ask again whether there are not more moderate ways to treat the ground floor. I have already acknowledged cities develop resulting in buildings changing but if one wanted to advertise their ground floor business then surely a unified complete building would draw similar interest, if not more from afar. Now for those wanting privacy above; the fact that there is that vertical difference creates that privacy similar to residential buildings where most do not have the same stark contrast between floors.

It is difficult to find a “correct” treatment and it is not as simple as finding a middle ground.

Credit: Ah Wai Chung

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