Victoria Square, Belfast

June 24, 2011 Filed under: 2000s, Masterplanning, Retail by Sanna Fisher-Payne Comments Off

Placed 18th in the Placebook vote of favourite buildings by BDP
The multi-award-winning Victoria Square is a fine example of BDP's interdisciplinary building design working, but it represents something more important to writer Jonathan Lee

What would uncle George have thought?

My wife’s uncle George owned an umbrella shop on this spot for decades. But BDP triumphed where the IRA failed. They demolished the building (George’s brolly business was long gone by then) to make way for this scheme, threaded through the heart of Belfast.

If you need a pointer, head for the glazed dome: a translucent 38 metre-wide carapace tops the development, punching the skyline and visible from pretty much anywhere across the city. Northern Ireland’s capital is still defiant, still gritty. The spectre of the Troubles still lingers. Sectarian scuffles, although infrequent, are sadly still with us. But the overall trajectory is up. Recently, millions of pounds have been pumped into this part of town. The Laganside waterfront now hosts fine performance and conference venues. There’s a flourishing cultural seam complete with arts festival. The former Ulster Bank HQ is a now a five-star hotel, surrounded by a gauntlet of sparkly new bars and restaurants. In short, there is a spring in the city’s step.

Victoria Square, BDP’s mixed-use development of shops, flats, restaurants and cinemas, is a key part of the masterplan. Symbol of renaissance? Beacon of regeneration? As they locals might say, “catch yourself on”. The Northern Irish don’t do marketing jargon. This is a shopping centre, plain and simple, but a rather good one.

Firstly, it doesn’t feel like a shopping centre. Covered walkways flow into open-air streets, so there’s an abundance of light and fresh air.

Secondly, it’s integrated rather than discrete. It eschews the ‘detached ocean liner’ template beloved of so many retail hubs: a porous structure has created new links between river and shops, hotels and performance venues.

Thirdly, and this does sound like marketing jargon, it’s more than a shopping centre. Yes, its two floors proffer nigh-on a hundred of the usual retail suspects (House of Fraser, Reiss, H&M, Apple et al), but for me it’s the chance to shinny up to the top viewing platform that really appeals. From here you can spy right across the metropolis, taking in must-sees such as City Hall and the Victorian St George’s Market; the shipyard, spiked by Harland and Wolff’s twin cranes Samson and Goliath; and even the mini mountain range that is Cave Hill, said to have inspired Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

In essence, it’s a shopping centre that encourages you explore Belfast’s history and changing present, but also to look up and beyond the city limits; to dream a little about the future. You know, I think Uncle George would have been all for it.

Journalist, author and broadcaster, Jonathan Lee has written for publications including the Guardian, Time Out, and Wallpaper*, as well as for BDP's website and publications.