Derry is blessed with an array of beautiful and interesting buildings. Yet stitched in between there also lurk a few architectural horrors which impact the overall look of our city.
This Tuesday sees the awarding of the annual ‘Stirling Prize’ for the best new building in the UK. To mark that occasion Derry-style, here’s my list of what I think are the ten worst buildings locally. See if you agree:
10. Foyleside: A worthy contender for three key reasons. Firstly - proximity to the walls makes this a sensitive site deserving of a building much more sympathetic to its surroundings.
Secondly – combined with the Bus Station and Central Library, the building makes Foyle Street look like a red bricked canyon. And thirdly – its layout and design has reduced the southern end of Foyle Street to nothing more than a warehouse for cars devoid of life at street-level.
9. Crescent Link: The Waterside escapes lightly in this list, with Crescent Link the sole standard bearer for BT47. In an age where out-of-town shopping centres have long fallen from favour elsewhere, Crescent Link was granted planning permission on the magical thinking that a large car-centred fringe shopping area wouldn’t negatively impact our city centre or road network.
Reality has shown the opposite to be true, leaving town planners scratching their heads and wondering where they went wrong. Never mind – they’re still permitting further development there even now. When you’re in a hole….
8. Richmond Centre: People of a certain age have fond memories of ‘The Richie’. In the 1980s it provided retail hope for our heavily bombed town centre, as well as somewhere for teenagers to idle on Saturday afternoons.
But it’s no looker – and fronting onto five streets within the walled city, it fails to add architectural merit to any of them.
The Richie’s been there for so long that we’ve become largely immune to the aesthetic insult it still offers our walled city. And in a further two-fingered salute, it’s about to house a large new gaming arcade at the top of Shipquay Street. At least it wasn’t built with red bricks.
7. Sainsbury’s: Although no worse than many other modern supermarkets, three factors have propelled this building onto the list.
Firstly - because it was built on top of a key part of the city’s maritime history. Similar to the way that Spanish Conquistadores erected cathedrals over flattened Inca pyramids in Mexico, this Sainsburys is symbolic of the decline and shift in Derry’s economic fortunes - with part of our former, locally-owned, high-skilled shipping industry buried beneath this low-paying, low-skilled chain supermarket.
The second reason is the building’s river setting and flawed orientation – ignoring the River Foyle to instead front onto a large car park. And thirdly, it’s made the list because its symbolises lost opportunity.
This area was identified in the 1990s as a potential location for a new civic theatre for Derry, with river frontage offering the potential to build something really interesting and iconic there. Instead we got the Millennium Forum shoe-horned into a corner next to the Walls. If wrong decision-making was an Olympic sport, Derry’s planners would have more gold than Mr T.
6. Embassy Building, Strand Road: Derry’s tallest building and the nearest thing we have to a skyscraper. Its six-storey frontage lies masked behind smoked glass windows (despite containing nothing worth concealing), and its red coloured sides loom over the neighbouring buildings.
This is another example of a structure that’s been there for so long we’ve grown numb to its awfulness, and is only one of a number of architectural horrors that haunt Waterloo Place.
5. Former Calgach Centre, Butcher St: Beginning life as the Celtic-themed ‘Fifth Province’ visitor attraction, the gods of Irish architecture were doubtless spinning in their dolmens when this abomination appeared in the 1990s.
Butcher Street’s original name of ‘The Shambles’ may well have provided the inspiration for its designers.
Along with its equally over-powering twin opposite (The Tower Hotel) it is completely out of proportion to its surroundings in a highly visible location, and ruins the look and feel of a street that already suffered enough during the Troubles.
The building now serves as the headquarters of a local housing association, and could desperately do with ground-floor retail outlets to at least provide some active street frontage there. Race you to the wrecking ball...
4. Telephone Exchange, Queen’s Quay: There is nothing positive to say about this prominent building.
Housing the city’s telephone exchange, it offers six stories of unattractive cement-clad bulk and stands out like a rotten tooth in the city’s riverfront smile.
Given modern technology, do BT really need a large bunker to house their cables and mainframes locally anyway? I say it’s high time they hung up on, and tore down, this architectural abomination.
3. Central Library: Everyone loves a library (even if few of us use them these days), and as buildings they often say a lot about a city’s self-regard and ambition.
If so, Derry’s Central Library raises serious questions about the civic state of mind in which it was designed in the 1980s.
Resembling a two-storey red-bricked fifty pence piece, it is one of three ‘ugly sisters’ (along with the bus station and Foyleside) that have conspired to make Foyle Street look like a poor man’s Petra. The library’s one saving grace is that its free-standing design doesn’t obscure the City Walls that sit behind it.
Instead, that section of Walls is left alluringly visible yet fenced-off beyond the reach of ordinary folk.
It would be a fitting final chapter for this forgettable building if it was instead replaced by a lovely public space alongside the walls there.
2. Waterloo Buildings, Waterloo Place: A beautiful bank building sat on the Waterloo Buildings site from 1858 until it was bombed in 1975. In its place was erected a carbuncle described by the Ulster Architectural Society as ’representing the city at its lowest architectural ebb’.
Ulster Bank vacated this building in 2007, and it sat idle until it was purchased with public money in 2013. As if to prove the old adage that you can’t polish a turd, £1.9m was then spent making its facade slightly less brutal (despite the property being valued at only £2m at the time).
New render may have made the structure a little easier on the eye, but it remains a badly-designed building in a prominent city-centre location. And it continues to imprison a large section of city walls in its rear yard. The millions spent ‘enhancing’ the structure could have been put to much better use by levelling it to open up that section of Walls and create a fantastic new civic space adjoining Guildhall Square. #FreeTheWalls.
1. Quayside Shopping Centre: Tears were shed locally when the home of the former Coppin shipping family was flattened to make way for this building. More were shed when people saw what finally replaced it.
The Quayside dominates a substantial stretch of Strand Road and Queen’s Quay with a series of featureless red bricked boxes - made worse by turning their backs on the Foyle.
A riverside walk that should be one of the most beautiful promenades in central Derry therefore includes a view into the bowels of this unappealing structure.
The building recently returned into local ownership again, raising hope that a more sympathetic development of this fantastic site may someday transpire. In the meantime, a featureless red brick design and complete disregard for its riverfront setting make the Quayside my choice for Derry’s Worst Building.
What’s on your list of Derry’s Worst Buildings? Join the debate via the Journal’s Twitter and Facebook pages and have your say.
Steve Bradley is a regeneration consultant and commentator from Derry. He can be followed on Twitter at @bradley_steve