Modern Ulster Architecture By David Evans et al.
Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, 2006.£20.00
For all the vigour of the arts in Ulster during the past decades its architecture has rarely garnered international acclaim, despite such excellent homegrown publications as Ulster Architect and Perspective. Here is a volume which does the nine counties of Ulster proud. Its tone is authoritative, selective, critical but ultimately celebratory, presenting best of breed to a wider audience.
In what must be the definitive overview of Ulster architecture's gradual absorption of mainstream Modernism from 1900-50, Paul Lamour highlights work which can stand comparison with what was being designed on the continent at the time - Philip E Bell's sailing clubs and white cubic villas; John McBride Neill's streamlined cinemas; and the schools of Reginald Wilshere. Styled in a bricky Dudok manner, these schools were innovative and attracted European interest through contemporary publications. They certainly deserve a fresh airing.
Ulster can offer prime examples of all post-war architectural persuasions. For full-blooded Brutalism there is the Ulster Museum extension, Francis Pym's competitionwinning design of 1963. A gigantic and fervent homage to Corb, it continues to amaze with the boldness of its response to the original Wrenaissance museum. It is epic architecture, now sadly under threat (AJ 15.02.07).
For mainstream white Modernism there's Cruickshank & Seward's Ashby Institute at Queen's University Belfast (1960-65), a sophisticated Corbusian slab and podium model that dominates the city's southern skyline; or Aldergrove Airport from the mid 1960s (WH McAllister Armstrong and Partners), which before later additions offered a dramatic expression of flight.
Those seeking what must rank as the finest Modern churches in Ireland will savour the work of Liam McCormick.
In the second of the introductory essays, David Evans describes Ulster's architectural community as 'self-contained and introverted perhaps but, like a rock pool, continually refreshed by incoming tides and new arrivals'. Thus the recent scene is an intriguing blend of work, including Armagh's Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre by Glenn Howells Architects (2000), and equally inventive and assured designs by local practices. Here there is variety and surprise, from the lifeaffirming glassy beacon of the Falls Leisure Centre (Kennedy Fitzgerald & Associates 2005) to the powerful modesty of Alan Jones' own house in Randalstown.
This is an exemplary publication. Generous in its presentation, with perceptive mini-essays describing each of the selected projects, it presents an architectural culture which deserves to be far better known and celebrated. It is not a story of flash or fashion, of stars or smart gestures, but of a growing confidence and pride in the quality of the best buildings thus far and in what Ulster will build in the future.
Neil Parkyn is a London-based architect and writer on design