Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Why Belfast really needs to rebuild its tourist image

There was a time when, if you'd asked me to name the ugliest building in Belfast, I'd have been hard pressed to go past Transport House.

A Sixties-ish monstrosity I would have said. (Actually it was built in 1959.) I would have told you back then that its dull-green mosaic facade depicting local industry and massed ranks of workers looked like the Russian revolutionary version of Vera Duckworth's cladding.

It just looked badly dated, tired and unfashionable. I would even have gone as far as saying that the great work of architect JJ Brennan was an oul' eyesore.

But it braved the Troubles when all around was being bombed and bulldozed, and like an old warrior, pock-marked by age it may be, but it's still standing.

And over the years I have wised up to its charms.

It is a unique gem of a building. Different and daring in a city centre whose architecture was largely dictated by Victorian boom and '70s car bomb.

I love it and I worry about its future.

When it was listed a few years back Transport House became the youngest listed building in Belfast. (It may still be.) Originally designed as headquarters for the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union it was eventually taken over by Unite who (I assume) own it still.

But the building is now boarded up - literally. Presumably it cost too much to keep open and maintain.

I often see tourists standing outside it aiming their cameras, not at Transport House itself, but the slightly tipsy Albert Clock just over the road.

Old Albert, oddly enough, seems to be one of our most photographed landmarks.

What must those tourists make of the shabby-looking, sad-looking tiled tower rising above them?

Would it be all that hard, all that costly, for some funding body to step in and provide the capital to spruce it up and maybe open it to the public as, say, a museum dedicated to Belfast's industry and union history?

The façade (I'm no expert on architecture or construction as you will have gleaned) still looks fine to me.

Do we just sit back and let the building go like some old beauty losing teeth and hair and eventually giving up the ghost altogether?

Maybe there are plans somewhere to resuscitate the old girl. But I haven't heard of them.

And as I say I wonder what the tourists make of it. I wonder what they think when they stand beside it to photograph Albert across the road.

Sometimes I know they consider using the underground walkway that would take them across to our most photographed clock.

I know this because when I've been sitting in traffic at lights I've seen them go down into the subway but then re-emerge seconds later blinking apprehensively.

You get the impression it doesn't look too inviting to tourists down there.

We attract visitors to our capital city but we don't make it easy for them.

Like a hostess guiding guests to her glittering dinner table past various heaps of stinking rubbish strewn about the floor, we seem to focus on a few chosen target landmarks without casting a general eye over the rest of the place to see if it couldn't all be tarted up a bit.

Has anybody from the Tourist Board, for example - or from the City Council - been down Lower Donegall Street recently to ponder a tourist's eye view of the ugly graffiti on that long-ago burnt out arcade there?

That graffiti is so old it almost qualifies for listed status itself.

Belfast 2012 - Our Time Our Place.

Time some neglected bits of our place also got some attention.

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