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Why it's in all our interests to save Bank Buildings and other architecture of note

In this impassioned appeal, architectural historian Marcus Patton says the restoration of the Belfast landmark could help breathe new life into a city full of ‘Undead’ buildings — visually intact, but totally lifeless

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Bank Buildings after the recent blaze

It stands erect, but gaunt, skeletal, charred and almost resentfully dominating the view it once looked proudly over from Castle Place to High Street, the commercial centre of Victorian Belfast. The Bank Buildings, W H Lynn's audacious red sandstone department store, whose wide-spanning plate glass windows must have looked so modern in 1900 beside the more conventional Victorian facades of Anderson & McAuley's and Robinson & Cleaver's, suffered rapid and devastating fire damage on August 28.

Initial disbelief turned to sadness and recollection of fond memories of the building; but then came the realisation that although the building almost certainly could be saved, there was going to be a heavy cost to local businesses in preparing the way for the lengthy operation.

The building is not only substantial and fragile in itself; it occupies a crucial location at the centre of our city, and Castle Junction was so called because it was the place where buses and trams arrived, or set off for other parts of the city.

While pedestrianisation has reduced vehicular traffic considerably, this is still a main thoroughfare for public transport.

The building is also surrounded by other major historic buildings, including Anderson & McAuley's and the former Provincial Bank (now Tesco's), which are separated from the Bank Buildings only by narrow thoroughfares, with the historic Kelly's Cellars and the magnificent Reform Club yards away from it.

This renders the operation to make the building safe far more difficult than if it had been a free-standing one on an open site, and clear thinking is necessary to establish the best way of dealing with it.

Only the structural engineers and architects who have been assessing the external shell and examining the ruins by drone surveillance are in a position to comment on the operation that faces them.

It seems certain, however, that there are heavy items in the wreckage lying inside the shell, including former plant rooms with heavy machinery, and that they will have to be lifted clear by large cranes before anything else can be done.

So far, the masonry walls have succeeded in containing the debris, but it will be necessary to ensure that further settlement does not create forces that could lead to unpredictable collapses.

While the obvious thing to do now is to erect shoring scaffolding around the building to prop it and ensure the safety of the walls, it may not be considered safe to do so until such time as initial clearance has been carried out.

However, once such scaffolding is in place, it should be possible to set up protected walkways and open the area to regular pedestrian traffic again and to reduce the cordon sufficiently to permit vehicular traffic along Royal Avenue once more.

The knee-jerk reaction of people faced with the realisation of the possible time-span of this process - currently estimated at four months - is to assume that flattening the building would be the quickest solution to allow people to get on with their lives.

However, because of the nature of the debris described above, the location of the building and the importance of other surrounding buildings in close proximity, demolition would not be a simple matter of smashing the elevations and carting off the rubble.

Demolition could, of course, be done, albeit slowly, but while it may solve a short-term problem, it does not solve the long-term one of how to deal with the resulting gap site and the loss of city-centre trading that it would represent.

A new building would have to be designed, permissions would have to be sought, funding negotiated, site investigations carried out, piles augured and vast quantities of materials brought in, handled and fabricated on this very tight site. There would be complaints about that, too.

Belfast was once probably the most Victorian city in the British Isles, having expanded faster than any other during the 19th century. Sadly, much damage was done to the city centre in the war, with much of High Street and Bridge Street being wiped out; then by road plans in the 1960s; then by the Troubles; and finally by the post-Troubles development bonanza. What is left is rare and precious.

It's too late to cry over the buildings that have gone - the Empire Theatre, the Elephant Bar, the tollhouse in Bradbury Place: everyone has their favourites. Anyone who used to trawl through the junk in Smithfield Market remembers it fondly, and it is something that once lost can never really be recovered. The friendly, chaotic entirely Belfast character of those places is long gone, but they are still a part of our collective memory. If we are to pass that memory on to ensuing generations we need the buildings to explain what we have been through - what we as a city have endured - and what we have enjoyed.

Past experience demonstrates that, in cases like this, replacement buildings rarely match the quality of their predecessors, so even the idea that a really good modern building might take its place is speculative, to say the least.

In some cases, the new building doesn't materialise at all and a gap site is all that remains to mark where a fine building once stood - the important Tillie & Henderson's factory in Derry was taken down over 15 years ago in similar circumstances.

On the other hand, the record shows that when the will is there, even severely damaged buildings can be restored and brought back into full economic use comparatively quickly.

Two doors from the Bank Buildings, the Queen's Building on Royal Avenue was severely damaged in a fire of similar intensity a dozen years ago, but the building was restored and open for business three years later.

Two doors from the Bank Buildings, the Queen's Building on Royal Avenue was severely damaged in a fire of similar intensity a dozen years ago, but the building was restored and open for business three years later.

Most people will remember the two devastating bombs that left craters in the road alongside the Grand Opera House in the 1990s and how quickly each time the well-loved building was restored from what looked like almost terminal damage.

A similar record of speed and even economy can be seen in the construction of the various devolved government buildings, with Stormont restored for a mere £8m, including its superb fire-damaged chambers, against considerably more for the Welsh parliament and over £400m for the Scottish parliament.

Restoration can be unpredictable in its detail, but the outcome is certain: people like old buildings and love to see them brought back into use. They are vital to retain the identity of our towns and cities.

As for the process of restoration, there are many people here now trained in conservation, both architects and builders, and the skilled craftsmen love doing this work.

An historic city is not just important for tourism. It attracts business and it makes a healthy and lively environment for its regular inhabitants, as well.

A building which was a centre of bustling activity two weeks ago is now a ruin and accused of being a danger to life and limb. People look at it with a mixture of sadness, fascination and horror - the building is beginning to look like a spectre at the feast.

But if this is a spectre, where is the feast? Belfast has come a long way from the days of the Troubles, when the city was quiet during the day and dead at night. Normally now, Royal Avenue and the city centre is bustling, and there is no doubt that while the cordon remains around the fragile building, there will be a heavy cost to local traders.

But while the Bank Buildings is a dramatic and very prominent reminder of what Belfast could lose, hundreds of other buildings lie vacant in the city centre, along much of North Street and Donegall Street and even in Royal Avenue, where the former offices of this august newspaper lie vacant and awaiting new uses.

There may be no footfall around the Primark cordon just now, but there has been very little footfall in an entire segment of the city centre for a decade and more. The contrast with the Cathedral Quarter in the adjacent streets that have not been blighted is only too obvious.

Some of these buildings are derelict, but most have just been locked up and abandoned by their owners. If the Bank Buildings is currently a patient in intensive care, these buildings might be regarded as The Undead - visually intact, but totally lifeless.

Many are owned by speculators, who have paid premium prices for them in the past and fondly imagine that they should, therefore, command premium rents. Others are letting them rot while they apply for ever more floors on imaginary office blocks that may increase the theoretical value of their sites (known to us as buildings), but will possibly never be built.

In either case, they are dogs in the manger sitting on assets that the city needs to see occupied as soon as possible.

Developers are still wedded to the idea that a big 'anchor tenant' is necessary to draw people into a shopping centre. But do people even need another shopping centre?

Is CastleCourt any better, or busier, than the streets around it? Is using it a pleasant shopping experience?

Meanwhile, small businesses are denied the offices and shops in which they could be setting up businesses. They can't afford glossy new buildings and are quite prepared to put up with the inconveniences of less-than-perfect premises in order to see their ambitions take off.

The usual route for reviving cities is letting the artists move in first - they love run-down buildings and the character of historic, unmodernised places - then, as they make an area attractive, small businesses move in and, finally, big business recognises the opportunity and moves in last to squat over it.

In the process, of course, it squeezes the arts and small businesses out, but fortunately they move on to revitalise other areas.

At the moment, Belfast is full of opportunities for pop-up businesses and the new wealth and vigour they can bring. But, sadly, the buildings they would like to use are owned by the dead hand of developers and anaesthetised by planning blight. Rates are high and rents are often far too high.

People want the experience of shopping in streets with character, full of businesses offering speciality products that can be handled and explained by expert staff. If you only want to buy the weekly shop, you go to the local supermarket; if you want new furniture, you go to an out-of-town warehouse; and if you want a new CD, you order it online.

But people still enjoy shopping when that means attractive buildings and exciting places. The popularity of St George's Market is not accidental - it provides the liveliness and enjoyment of shopping and city-centre living which is lacking in so many modern developments.

Two things could do a lot to make Belfast as a whole that kind of lively place. One is the restoration - as soon as possible - of the Bank Buildings and other major city-centre buildings that are lying empty; the other is making those smaller Undead buildings, in streets awaiting theoretical redevelopment, available to be used.

Many of our city councillors are aware of the need for this imaginative action - when will our city officials take the steps necessary to see Belfast reach the full potential of its historic core?

Sitting without tenants, buildings fall into disrepair, weeds grow in the gutters, pigeons colonise the roof spaces and dry rot takes root. These buildings will be lost for ever unless action is taken soon.

Belfast is full of opportunities for new businesses and inhabitants, and the restoration of key buildings and the reuse of others is the key to that.

Fast-track demolition and cleared sites are something we used to be good at in the bad old days of the Troubles, but the youthful and adventurous Belfast that has emerged since demands a city that we can take a pride in, a unique city aware of - and proud of - its heritage and wanting to use it as a springboard to an exciting future.

Marcus Patton is an architect and historian, and currently Chairman of the Historic Buildings Council for Northern Ireland. He is the author of Central Belfast: An Historical Gazetteer, published by Ulster Architectural Heritage (www.ulsterarchitecturalheritage.org.uk)

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Bank Buildings after the recent blaze
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Stormont
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Queen’s Building
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Grand Opera House