For five centuries Armagh enjoyed its position as a centre of religious and temporal power, but now its renown rests upon being one of the finest Georgian towns in the British Isles.This reflects the fruits of a burgeoning commercial life established during the eighteenth century. The architectural expression of such prosperity remains largely intact despite sporadic bouts of acute political turmoil, heightening the primacy of Armagh's position in Northern Ireland's architectural heritage.
In 1993, an IRA bomb severely damaged Armagh Courthouse, designed in 1810 by the architect Francis Johnston (no relation of conservationist Leighton Johnston who was appointed in March 1994). Francis Johnston was responsible for much of Armagh's late Georgian building stock. The Courthouse - in local limestone with Tuscan pedimented portico, occupying a prominent site overlooking the Mall and adjacent to the prison - was his most distinguished public building.
Despite the severity of the damage, an early decision was made to retain as much of the fabric as possible, and that any new-build should replicate the Georgian original. In the event the new-build, replacing an undistinguished 1960s extension, far outstripped the original courthouse in floor area.Moreover, the need to resist further terrorist attack called not only for massive reordering of the plan, but also for a bomb-proof structure.The opportunity to improve the plan to meet modern requirements was seized upon.The result is not really an essay in 'conservation'. Instead, it is a replacement building of a quadrupled floor area, incorporating new walls, floor and roof slabs of reinforced concrete, to which reclaimed fragments of the original building are applied as cladding.Most interior plaster mouldings and joinery were damaged beyond economic restoration, so these items, too, are replicated.
The need to produce a 'fortified' courthouse has seriously compromised that other tenet of conservation: that not only should the building fabric be preserved, but so should the nature of the site and how the building responds to its immediate physical context.To meet this demand for defence, a 3m high reinforced concrete wall surmounted by an iron fence has been erected on the site boundary, rather like a medieval bailey wall, and, indeed, serving an identical purpose. In front of the entrance portico, the wall is reduced in height so that the building is effectively screened from the mall by a 4m high iron fence.
Internally, the courtrooms retain their integrity, as does the impressive entrance hall, in spite of the necessary inclusion of an internal porch incorporating a 'bomb-blast' screen. All original courtroom joinery has been replicated in American oak, and plaster mouldings in the major public spaces have been faithfully replaced. Air-conditioning, alarm and sound systems have been discreetly incorporated. Steel-framed windows follow the pattern of the Georgian originals but incorporate 35mm thick glazing. 'Fake' timber astragals have been planted on the glass using sticky tape.
That so little remains of the original structure raises profound issues, particularly for the architectural purist. But the deep historical and political associations of this building for a divided Northern Irish community cannot be ignored.
Historically, it could be considered to represent a 'Protestant ascendancy'. To one section of the community, an 'historicist' replication no doubt reinforces that association. But to the Loyalists, demolition and rebuilding in an overly modern idiom would surely have been construed as erasure of these historical associations and, therefore, a concession, however oblique, to terrorism.
Alongside this political dilemma, that of the architectural critic may seem trivial. The refashioned Armagh Courthouse could be construed as mere pastiche, where substantial historicist additions subsume authentic remnants of the original building. But conservationists may view such a solution as a highly successful essay in 'invisible mending', a real contribution to preserving the character and grain of a historic city. To the purist, the pastiche will be anathema, and the retention of so little of the fabric hardly worth the huge cost and effort, suggesting that a new building, sensitive to its historic context, could well have been the most appropriate route. Indeed, Glen Howell's masterly insertion of Armagh's overtly 'Modernist' theatre into its historic core has demonstrated how, in the right hands, this uncompromising strategy can succeed.
Conversely, the pragmatist will delight in Leighton Johnston's ingenuity in refashioning the essential elements of a Georgian courthouse within a discreet, well-mannered and essentially new building.
This dilemma throws into sharp focus the confused position of conservationists as we enter the new millennium - a confusion which can only be resolved by a welcome new confidence within our architectural profession.