Researching ‘the Troubles’ Through the Study of Architectural Heritage Destruction

By Andrew G. McClelland

The destruction of architectural heritage features prominently in the reporting of modern-day conflicts and their aftermaths. Whether deliberate targets, collateral damage, or part of the narrative of peacebuilding ‘post-conflict’ – the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia and Herzegovina being a prime example of the latter – the fate befalling places of cultural significance is intimately bound up in the discourses attending war and human conflict.[1] After all, images of burnt-out homes, bomb damaged infrastructure, and ruinous historic cityscapes, generate powerful resonances that serve many prospective purposes; from assigning blame and evidencing the ‘barbarous’ intent of opponents, to rallying communal support and defiantly pledging to reconstruct. At its worst, the intentional destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime and a ‘crime against humanity’.

The scale of physical change imposed on the historic, urban landscape of Belfast from the 1960s was considerable. Yet, for a city so synonymous with violence and destruction during ‘the Troubles’, I was surprised to find, when I embarked on my PhD research a decade ago, that architectural heritage destruction had not been systematically explored.[2] Although several authors had written about the loss of historic buildings, specific cases had not been investigated in sufficient depth to fully illuminate their ‘prehistory’ of destruction.[3] Having already documented architectural heritage at risk across Northern Ireland for eight years prior to starting my PhD, examining and interpreting instances of destruction in the urban landscape in the past through an extensive survey of the archival records offered a complementary and vital challenge.

There is insufficient space to provide a fulsome account of the ‘causes’ of destruction. Suffice to say, the violence of ‘the Troubles’ eroded the physical fabric of the city, with bombs and incendiary devices proving particularly damaging to commercial premises, pubs, and residential properties in interface areas. But its intentional impact on key features of Belfast’s architectural heritage was not as significant as is perhaps generally assumed. There were no ‘Baedeker raids’ analogous to the targeting of historic cities by the Luftwaffe during WWII.[4] A case could be made that many older buildings survived in Belfast city centre because development was effectively ‘frozen’, at least for a time within the confines of the ‘ring of steel’ security cordon, where little ‘ordinary’ demolition is said to have taken place for want of investment.[5] Few notable historic buildings – as opposed to the widespread loss of glazing and other architectural detailing – were totally destroyed from attributable acts of violence or conflict-related vandalism. The Grand Opera House, of course, was restored on several occasions following major bomb damage.

Recognising that changes in the urban landscape of Belfast emanated from ‘civil violence and state planning’,[6] I was predominantly concerned (for several reasons) with the latter. Firstly, purposive redevelopment processes, whether state or private developer-led, are more likely to leave documentary traces in the archive. Secondly, such proposals frequently attract contestation, making visible the multifaceted claims and shifting relationships among key protagonists, including residents, conservationists, and public officials. Finally, the prolonged gestation and implementation periods commonly associated with redevelopment reveal the potential for value and attitude shifts towards the places under threat, while also extending opportunities to alter the course of events.

I will not dwell on the interpretive and definitional issues permeating the research, which also caveat the paragraphs above. Differing interpretations abound as to what constitutes destruction. Judging the demarcation between what Dario Gamboni categorises as the ‘“creative” eliminations undertaken by “embellishers”’ and the ‘aggressive ones by “‘vandals”’, depends on many contextualizing factors.[7] Polemical, overly-simplistic, and accusatory tracts are all too common on the subject of architectural heritage destruction. Moreover, my focus was firmly upon places lacking official protections, due principally to the inadequate legislative/institutional apparatus for conservation at the time in Northern Ireland. In essence, the places I selected were deemed a heritage in retrospect as they were not officially protected by the state prior to redevelopment, and the campaigners contesting their threatened destruction ultimately failed to elevate them to an official heritage status.

Here, I suggest two avenues for further research into the destruction of architectural heritage during ‘the Troubles’ Both bring to the fore the indirect ways in which violence and the conflicted politics of Northern Ireland fundamentally shaped the social, economic, and political context within which the destruction of architectural heritage and radical change within the urban landscape was enabled – and vice versa.

One such avenue relates to Christopher Lawson’s recent piece on deindustrialisation in which he seeks to further understandings of its contributions to the origins, outcomes, and legacies of ‘the Troubles’. An inevitable consequence of the profound change wrought by this process on industries like linen and shipbuilding in the 1960s was the increasing functional redundancy, dereliction, and outright demolition of the structures associated with the historical growth of these industries. Redevelopment pressures for new office accommodation, for example, were particularly intense in city centre locations, including the warehouse district around Bedford Street where multiple Victorian-era buildings made way for new edifices such as Windsor House (now the Grand Central Hotel).[8] Opposition to the latter from the late-1960s formed one of the early campaigns of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society.[9]

Of course, these piecemeal on-the-ground changes were also taking place in the context of political exhortations ‘literally to transform Ulster’, with a more comprehensive and interventionist government approach to planning and development emerging in the wake of the Matthew Plan in 1963 and articulated through the likes of the Belfast Urban Area Plan in 1969. Did this programme of ‘modern reconstruction’, as Miles Glendinning alludes, contribute to the outbreak of conflict through a ‘dis-embedding of traditional community patterns and prejudices’?[10] The ‘struggle’ for heritage protections was certainly implicated, albeit on the margins and partially inadvertently, within wider reformist agendas over parity and civil rights, particularly concerning planning and local government reorganization.[11] Thus, deindustrialisation as it played out both physically and in the politics of protest and heritage-making during the early period of ‘the Troubles’, merits further scholarly attention.

A second avenue revolves around the harnessing of economic development by the government in ‘neutral’ city centres from the mid-1980s as part of its political strategy to manage ‘the Troubles’ and to promulgate a narrative of progressive change. The symbolic landscape under construction tended to privilege the new and the ‘modern’, prompting contestation over what should be conserved – and therefore what could also be destroyed. The way in which the glass-façade of Castlecourt shopping centre fronted on to Royal Avenue represented the ‘zenith’ of this approach, serving multiple policy agendas including the attraction of external investment, creation of service-sector and equal-opportunity jobs, expanding consumer choice, and creating demonstrable signs of ‘progress’.[12] Its development is remembered, as predicted in an Ulster Architect editorial in June 1990, ‘not just for what it has contributed to the city but for what it has taken away’– the Head Post Office and Grand Central Hotel being two significant Victorian-era buildings ‘taken away’.[13]

In addition to insights over the ambiguous place of architectural heritage in regeneration initiatives, this case underscored the critical importance of the institutional settings within which decisions were made and policies formulated. Privileged access and a cocktail of planning, financial, and other supports were afforded to the development consortium. For example, a £10 million Urban Development Grant, compulsory acquisition powers, and outline planning approval was secured within two months. Critically, inaction was deliberately embraced through the non-use of heritage protection powers.[14] Significant governance issues were also revealed, including concentrations of power and conflicting interests over diverse functions within the Department of the Environment, with little scope for internal dissent or democratic accountability. In short, it represents a microcosm of the arguably under-examined administrative history of ‘the Troubles’.   

The problematic legacies from this period of dramatic change in the urban landscape of Belfast, the Castlecourt development being a case in point, are still subject to intense debate over how to alleviate the negative social consequences of the ‘broken urban structures’ bequeathed.[15] Meanwhile, contemporary struggles continue over the conservation and destruction of the city’s places of cultural significance, with the Save CQ campaign offering a pertinent case in point. Approaching ‘the Troubles’ through the lens of architectural heritage destruction can illuminate much about the politics of heritage-making, both in the past and the present.

(Image: Andrew G. McClelland – adapted from Gilbert Camblin, The Town in Ulster (Belfast: Mullan, 1951), plate 61. Red represents demolished buildings in the centre of Belfast, with blue showing damage caused by the Belfast Blitz during the Second World War.)

[1] For example: Harold Kalman, ‘Destruction, mitigation, and reconciliation of cultural heritage,’ International Journal of Heritage Studies 23 (2017), 538-555.

[2] Andrew G. McClelland, Contesting destruction, constructing heritage: the social construction of architectural heritage values in Belfast, circa 1960–1989 (PhD Diss. Ulster University, 2014).

[3] For example: Charles E.B. Brett, Buildings of Belfast, 1700-1914, Revised Edition, (Belfast: Friar’s Bush Press, 1985); Paul Larmour, ‘Bricks, Stone, Concrete and Steel: The Built Fabric of Twentieth-Century Belfast’, in Enduring City: Belfast in the Twentieth Century, Boal, F.W., and Royle, S.A. [eds], (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2006), 30-55; Marcus Patton, Central Belfast: An Historical Gazetteer, (Belfast: Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, 1998).

[4] Charles E.B. Brett, ‘Conservation amid destruction,’ Country Life 10 October (1974), 1016-1018;  

[5] Patton, Central Belfast: An Historical Gazetteer.

[6] Jennifer Curtis, ‘“Community” and the Re-Making of 1970s Belfast,’ Ethnos 73 (2008), 399-426.

[7] Dario Gamboni, The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution (London: Reaktion Books, 1997), 212.

[8] Building Design Partnership, Belfast central area: a report to Belfast Corporation on planning policy in the city centre, (Belfast: Building Design Partnership, 1969).

[9] Andrew G. McClelland, ‘A “ghastly interregnum”: The struggle for architectural heritage conservation in Belfast before 1972,’ Urban History 45 (2018), 150-172.

[10] Miles Glendinning, ‘“The Forgotten Revolution”: Northern Ireland’s heritage of modern reconstruction,’ The Journal of Architecture, 15 (2010), 621-636.

[11] McClelland, 2018, op cit.

[12] For example: Malachy J. McEldowney, Ken W. Sterrett, and Frank Gaffikin, ‘Architectural Ambivalence: the built environment and identity in Belfast,’ in Urban Planning and Cultural Inclusion: Lessons from Belfast and Berlin, Neill, W.J.V., and Schwedler, H-U. [eds], (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), 100-117.

[13] Ulster Architect, ‘Castle Court and the Minister’s Lights,’ Ulster Architect (May/June, 1990), 5-19.

[14] McClelland, 2014, op cit.

[15] For example: Ken Sterrett, Mark Hackett, and Declan Hill, ‘The social consequences of broken urban structures: a case study of Belfast,’ Journal of Transport Geography 21 (2012), 49-61.

Dr Andrew McClelland is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place, an interdisciplinary institute based at the University of Liverpool. His specialist research interests include public policy challenges implicating heritage, including its contested and reconciliatory potential with particular emphasis on the post-conflict context of Northern Ireland. He tweets @AMcClelly.


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