Merged photos of Belfast old and new…

Someone in The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) has been busy with the aul photoshop. They have merged old photos of Belfast with modern views and the results are pretty cool. Whenever I see old photos of Belfast in its Victorian splendour I can’t help thinking it’s been downhill ever since. But I suppose we can console ourselves with indoor plumbing, antibiotics, the internet, Poundland and all the other wonders of the modern era. See all the photos on their Flickr page.

High St




LinenHall Library
Queen’s Bridge, Belfast



Cromac Square/Place, Belfast
Cromac Square/Place, Belfast
Market Street / May Street junction, Belfast
Market Street / May Street junction, Belfast
Belfast City Hall
Belfast City Hall

I help keep the good ship Slugger afloat by managing the business and techy stuff. My day job is creating websites and software. My personal site is:

  • tmitch57

    The architectural styles have changed, but there does not seem to be a century’s worth of differences between the old and the new. The new does not appear radically out of place–I don’t know whether or not that is a good thing.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I can only agree with Brian’s “Whenever I see old photos of Belfast in its Victorian splendour I can’t help thinking it’s been downhill ever since.” I suppose that if you remember, as I do, the old Victorian Belfast that still existed in the 1960s with its quite cohesive architectural themes, then the new post-GFA steel and glass Belfast looks rather tawdry in its patchy, characterless attempts to look like a poor man’s copy of everywhere else.

    Importantly, too, the new architecture has required two very significant changes from building practices in the past. Firstly, the steel frames require invasive deep concrete foundations to hold the girders. These have to be sunk through the archaelogical traces of older streets and buildings that have survived previously when one building was demolished and another constructed over the same place. The encoded memory of centuries is entirely effaced, and no amount of rescue archaeology can save everything that is being lost. By definition the attempts to record the opened site is a rushed activity, and while there is a stripulation that some rescue activity is required from a developer, no one seems to have thought of the cost of preserving and publishing the findings and artifects, and this serious failing was pointed out some time back on Slugger. The other issue is the very short life expectancy of the new buildings. They will not survive for even a fraction of the time the Victorian buildings lasted, and their built in redundancy means that they in turn will have to be replaced within a few decades. Enjoy them while they last…….

  • Jag

    Ah yes, the “victorian splendour”, rampant poverty, deprivation, smog, pleurisy, TB, exploitation of labour, child prostitution, it brings a nostalgic tear to your eyes and urges you to maintain and preserve the architecture of the period.

    Those who wax lyrical about their Victorian architecture seem happy to ignore the poor construction standards for those buildings, poor ventilation, poor heating and insulation, poor waterproofing, inefficient and poor water use and disposal systems. “but they looked so pwetty and uniform”, you claim? Give me the Titanic quarter, the Gherkin or National Convention Centre any day! Only a person who doesn’t have to work in them would yearn to be accommodated in an old Victorian building. Give me the Waterfront Plaza anyday of the week.

    On the residential front, personally I like the fact my home doesn’t need to have the heating turned on (even on zero degree days, it’s comfortable), it’s carbon neutral, I like the fact the windows insulate against sound as well the cold, I like the power showers, the toilets which only need one flush though there’s a yellow flush option.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    In Glasgow they were quite insistent on façade retention for some of the buildings in the city centre/Merchant city area.

    This meant from the outside there was still the attractive Victorian city scape and inside there was the all mod cons of modern buildings e.g. the Virgin records (or whatever Virgin rebranded as) shop on the corner of Buchannan and Sauchiehall st as well as a fair whack of the Ingram street area.

    If a building simply can’t be saved or for whatever reason has to be brought up to a certain standard then I think this is a fantastic compromise (though personally I’d try to preserve the whole lot, but this simply isn’t always practical).

    I recommend a dander around the Merchant city to see how new and old can live side by side, simply cowping a few old buildings and replacing them with identikit modern buildings can have a very detrimental effect on the city’s appearance.

    We constantly chatter about the importance and potential of tourism. No one wants to come and see the same old bland apartments that they have in every other city in the world. A sensible management plan regarding the Belfast’s architectural heritage could bring in tourists and therefore money and jobs.

    The Ulster Architectural Heritage Society have some good ideas regarding this:

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh dear, Jag, you seem to need to get out more into the real world rather than dream on in what appears to be the siren picture of modernity depicted in “Mad Men”. Having had to live and work in both types of building in a number of different cities (London, Belfast, Stockholm, Los Angeles…), and more importantly, having had to pay for repairs to them as the problems arose, a well built Victorian (or older) building beats the modern build (over a period of forty years) every single time. The advantages are entirely in the purse as well as the eye.

    Last time I was in a certain major shopping centre cinema near one of the places you wax lyrical about, I was told that the buildings fabric is already beginning to disintegrate with damp, leaks and very serious cracking. If you continue to live in a modern build past the honeymoon period of the first five or so years, they begin to deteriorate fast, and the repair bills come flying in in flocks. Most public buildings are owned by people who want to make money from them fast, and when they begin to go, if the tenants are public bodies or large businesses, they simply move on. You must have seen this constant flitting across Belfast over the past twenty years. The issues you raise can all be rectified in old buildings that can be given another century or more of life. While modern build may have these features built in their short lifespan make them an expensive as well as an ugly alternative to intelligent reconditioning.

    I live in an eighteenth century Antrim farm house with two to three foot thick walls. With decent underfloor central heating these walls retain the heat and become a form of storage heater. When my central heating range failed for a month in the year of the big snows, I was able to keep a perfectly decent level of heat with two small wood stoves supplementing warm walls that retained their heat. Many of my neighbours in “well insulated” modern builds of a similar size mention oil bills three times bigger than my own every winter. An intelligent refurbishing of older houses can build on superior construction standards in most cases than those of today to develop both beauty and utility. You can keep the short term fix……

  • Ernekid

    It’s a shame that what the Luftewaffe and the IRA didn’t wreck the planners finished off. Belfast is a mix of Victorian elegance and modernist ugliness.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    And I remember when it was pretty much all Victorian elegence! Marcus Patton’s excellent record of what still stood a few years back also offers an important unpacking of many of those points I’ve raised in my other postings below:

    My own concern, over and above the built in obselesence of the modern buildings, is their inhumanism. Where the centre of Belfast was a busy little place with a great sense of community in the 1960s, the only places I still find anything of this spirit are those parts of east and west Belfast that have retained areas of human scale Victorian houses. It is something of a truism taht the spirit of community is strongly nurtured by the real physical continuity of a built environment, and anyone wanting to disapate the solidarity this engenders will break up such communities and place them in more dehumanised, alienating environments, such as the big out of town housing estates of the 1960/70s. I may have my own beefs against Mrs Windsor’s son, but on architecture he certainly offers us the goods.

  • Jag

    “2-3 feet thick walls”? Is it a castle or a farmhouse Sean? Don’t tell me though, ill-fitting doors and windows, heating on from late September, bad dose of flu once or twice a year, cistern touching the ceiling but you still need flush twice, showers (if you have them) like being peed on by a centenarian, smokey rooms, ashes. Lovely, we should all live like that, sure isn’t it like living in a picture postcard.

    You do know there are people out there – I’m one of them – that rarely need turn the heat on ever because their house is so well insulated. Whose homes have lots of windows, lots of light, great views, great sound insulation. Yes, you could retrofit insulation in your 2-3 foot walls, rip out the water and heating systems, fit 21st century windows and doors, but what are you really keeping? The external Victorian style?

    I’ve worked and lived in both types of build, modern and period. Give me modern any day. Do you think all Victorian buildings were well built? The primary purpose of a building, commercial or residential, is to provide comfortable accommodation to occupants, and in this regard, modern buildings are superior. Don’t like the external style? Feck off then, you should have as much input into it as you have for my choice of car, bicycle or clothes.

  • Bryan Magee

    Ernekid I have always thought that the planners did more damage than the IRA and Luftwaffe put together. Not just Belfast. The town of Antrim is a case in point where a large road was forced through and the (handsome) main street replaced by a horrible shopping centre. It is amazing what planners in the 1950s wanted to do. They had no ideas of conservation whatsoever.

    I don’t remember them, but at one time Belfast had three beautiful Vicortian style terminus railway stations. The pictures of them are really quite spectacular. We replaced such style with structures that have absolutely none! What vandalism. Makes me want to cry!

    I am glad to see so many people agree that there is asthetic merit in retaining and preserving Victorian architecture. It is not so long ago that people thought nothing of pulling down the beautiful building where the Castle Court centre now stands. The following is what used to be where the Castle Court centre now is:

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Jag, serious question. Are you involved in the development boom, as a builder or land developer, or perhaps an estate agent? None of the nightmares you list apply to my life in a very quirky human proportioned house dating from the eighteenth century and well kept from that date! And yes, its a very aesthetic experience, over and above the simple comfort. And living in open countryside, I do not need sound insulation, even if the thick walls both keep a very pleasant working quiet within the house during high winds, and let me play loud music that cannot be heard just outside the front door! About a foot of insulation in the roof spaces combined with the walls seemingly does the rest for holding in heat. No need for insulation in walls that are thick enough to do it for themselves. The only thing that modern builds are genuinely “superior in” is their inbuilt redundancy, and key advanatge for those making a quick buck on the brand new product.

    We will just have to differ on this, I’m no fan (nor will ever be!) of the flashy, proportionless structures thrown up to accomodate urban nomads foolish enough to commit themselvse to a lifetime of morgage for “little boxes made of ticky-tacky” (in fact, breeze block, literally building on sand) that will start to decay fast the day you move in. But, in the seasonal spirit of good will, I sincerely hope you will enjoy your house until it begins to fall apart. Should I be lucky enough to hold on to mine and keep up minimal repairs I can usually do myself, then my grandchildren and theirs will have the option of continuing to live in it, three foot internal wall and all, while the ground yours stands on has hosted a sucession of re-builds.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Bryan, Antrim also lost the shell of its castle when this road was driven through, an inestimable loss to the town’s tourist potential. But as the new road was on the edge of the urban block, Antrim was let of lightly compared to poor old Larne, which has never recovered from having an overpass pushed across its conurbation’s very centre. And its not just the 1950s, the dehumanisation of our towns continues, with develpment (“profit not people!”) still being the key growth industry here, never the sign of a proportionate ecomomy!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Bryan, thank you for putting up the old postcard. I notice that the Reform Club building is pretty much all that survives intact.

  • Jag

    No Sean, none of those headings apply to me.

    I just have the crazy notion that the prime purpose of a building is making its occupants comfortable.

    Of course let’s differ on our individual perspectives, but where this all turns ugly is when those who view modern buildings as superior to period buildings, meet opposition from the troglodytes who probably still think we should live in caves or up trees “sympathetic to the landscape”, isn’t that what you say? When I see Victorian, I think slum, colossal inequality, filth and poor health, and all the stuccoing, porticos and chimneys in the world won’t change that.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “, but where this all turns ugly is when those who view modern buildings as superior to period buildings, meet opposition from the troglodytes who probably still think we should live in caves or up trees “sympathetic to the landscape”, isn’t that what you say?”

    I think it’s a bit harsh to label all people who want to see architectural preservation as ‘troglodytes’.
    It was these troglodytes that saved Edinburgh’s city centre.

    I used to work in the Dublin hospitality industry, even back then I was aware that people were coming to Dublin to see in essence its Georgian heritage.
    They didn’t say it as much but the nicer streets and areas that were popular with tourists are the older Georgian areas.
    People didn’t go to the docks to be bowled over by the steel & glass structures there.

    These matters can be handled sensibly, conservation areas can be established and the sky line protected, like wise areas for office blocks and the like can be established.
    It’s when the piecemeal demolition occurs and we have faceless buildings cheek by jowl with older buildings e.g. the Crown and Opera House compliment each other, the Europa looks like a gate crasher at the party.

    I understand the headaches of older buildings having lived in them myself and in some cases Drs. Hammer and Wrecking Ball might be required but not with the gusto that town planners and developers hold.

    And as I said earlier, façade retention is not a bad compromise , e.g. Prince’s Square Shopping Centre in Glasgow: – Victorian on the outside, modern and flashy on the inside.

    Or even the GPO in Glasgow:

    When as much effort and expense is put into refurbishing old houses as the new ‘developments’ then you have a very nice setting.

    And off the top of my head when I think of the nicer towns in NI I think of places like Hillsborough, Glenarm, Draperstown, Moneymore, Broughshane, Derry, Ballycastle, Moy, Strangford and Sion Mills amongst others.

    Although a lick of paint may be required in some cases by and large they are prettier than their neighbouring towns who did away with their architectural uniformity.

    There are of course towns that could be nice if tarted up (Portglenone, Castledawson, Dungiven, Portaferry) but if the developers have their way of squeezing cul-de-sacs into the main streets then all bets are off.

    You understandably see poverty and Victorian squalor when you see these old buildings, the communists thought similarly of the old Towns in places like Praque, Krakov, Zagreb, Ljubljana, St Petersburg. Thankfully they concentrated on building new structure around these towns rather than bulldozing through them and settling a few scores.

    Like I say, a bit of common sense could preserve the cityscape, architectural heritage and have room for new developments.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    As I’d said “We will just have to differ on this”. The real problem is that the development boom has flattened many of the strongly built heritage buildings in the city and across the countryside quite unnecessarily in the interests of private developers out to make a quick buck by “building cheap and selling dear”. A rich heritage of architecture is lost, the replacements are unquestionably “throw away building”, where the maintenance of new builds will be more expensive than demolition and rebuilding in a few decades. Its called “written in obsolescence”.

    The comfort you keep on about is pretty much a subjective criteria. You prefer slick and new, I prefer something built around human proportion, yes, and “sympathetic to the landscape” (and what’s wrong with that? I thought that that was what planning was actually meant to be about?). This is the individualistic take on the problem. But there is another issue, the effect that the destruction of old buildings has on an entire community.

    An architectural heritage that was the cultural inheritance of us all has been destroyed by developers who have, in its place built a short term fix of high maintenence architecture built to globalist designs with no feeling for the uniqueness of the place we actually live in (the “sympathetic to the landscape” issue again). For me, and I suppose my fellow troglodytes, that is the real moment it turned ugly (quite literally), with tenth rate designs drawn up by mediocre architects prevailing in the greater number of cases. We are not talking architects of the quality of Fennell and Lanyon here! The rapid decay of these new buildings, whose plans were seldom crafted to suit the particular needs of our very wet weather conditions, is another big minus, and it will be interesting to see how many of the new build proto-slums last out even a few decades.

    So the general public finds that a familiar environment that had been planned to human proportions has been removed and a hodge podge of incoherant styles thrown up in its place. Try a smidgen of sociology here, this is a very, very alienating experience for most people. Not something that is going to create any form of social cohesion in a society still rivven by covert conflict. This act of destroying and almost entirely re-bulding the environment is an imposed amnesia, a social disorientation, where the city people grew up in has been simply removed and poor quality, uncoordinated architecture substituted. I’m not against modern architecture, certain cities in the US (for example) are models of intellegent design, and hey, I ‘did’ the Bahaus at art college, so I know you CAN create beautiful and functional modern design that enriches people’s lives, but Belfast as it exists today? You must be joking!

    You see all these social issues you mention when you hear the word “Victorian”, but the improvements you claim to prefer are themselves products of the progressive thinking of the Victorian era, for we can choose to improve our cultural mores and, in addition, renovate and improve any buildings that are going to have some staying power from initial good construction practice, for only a fool trips over what is behind him. And keeping the best of the old is actually what civilisation is all about, “the unearned increment of time”, as Ezra Pound called these gifts of a nurturing past to us all. Belfast used to be a beautiful city, where mellowed, well constructed Victorian design put together by some excellent architects (Lanyon, Fennell….) blended with quite a few sensitive new builds in the 1960s. Even these interesting modern buildings are starting to go now to feed the developers greed. Only someone with no visual sense whatsoever would even begin to argue that it is an improvement!

  • Brian O’Neill

    And Tesco 🙂

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Given the proclaimed importance of British culture & heritage how come unionists politicians aren’t at the forefront of protecting NI’s Victorian heritage?

    I find it odd that curtailing some of the more extreme elements of loyalist culture is seen as ‘chipping away’ at culture but whenever an impressive imperial era building is to be literally chipped, hammered and bulldozed there is not a peep. (Like I say, façade retention).

  • Bryan Magee

    I think that until recently people (regardless of whether unionist or nationalist) thought progress meant new buildings and there was not a conservation mentality. This is also true internationally though I think the “conservationist” mindset was slow to come to NI.

    In Boston (USA) for example, where there is a lot of 19th century stock similar to Belfast, there were some horrible flyovers forced through one of the most historic parts of America down near the harbour, in the 1950s and 1960s. When I spoke to locals they said that only lately had people become of a conservationist mindset in that city.

    In Glasgow think of the M8 which just rams through one end of Sauchiehall Street, requiring some fine Victorian buildings to be felled.

    I think in NI the attitude towards protecting heritage is still new and in its infancy.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Yes, I saw that Brian. But I used “intact” carefully here. Tesco is a case of façade retention only, whereas the Reform Club retains its original interiors, something you can check out if you have a friend who is a member. For me, it’s not only the façade that is important, but the entire experience of a building. Castle Ward, for example, would loose inestimably if it were gutted to be used as office space, its teh relation of one part of the interior to another that makes it an important building. Many of the older buildings, especially those gems designed by Layton and Fennell, have interiors that are works of architectural importance also, and the destruction of this part of a building is just a vandalistic an act as the demolition of a façade. Preserving architecture is not just a cosmetic exercise, and the equivilent would be retaining a life-size high quality reproduction of a Titian painting only while getting rid of the original. Its a matter of showing a proper respect for the architect’s creative expression. Despite the wave of destruction there is much more of real merit still about in Belfast han is generally realised, as you can find in the excellent book by Marcus Patton to which I put a link in another comment below. Generally speaking, time and human vandalism have left us very little of anything of beauty across the wee six, so every single instance of cultural survival becomes even more important. A few decades back my own farmhouse would have been dismissed as simply a vernacular survival. Now, after the mass destruction of such properties it is considered important enough to be protected as a grade two listed building.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Hi AG, appealing to the Britishness of conservation thinking will never make any headway with the Unionist parties. Anecdotally, funds to run their campaigns come principally from their friends the developers, who make big money from ground up rebuilds. As long as this is the case nothing here is safe! As they say, loyalty to the half-crown………