CastleCourt: the shopping centre as an imposed symbol of civic normality

Thomas McConaghie, Agustina Martire

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


The political headache of Brexit has focussed public discourse back onto Northern Ireland to an extent unseen since the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998 which is widely regarded as the ending of ‘the Troubles’, the violent ethno-political conflict which gripped the region for more than four decades. While the last 21 years have seen peace and prosperity, the lasting impact of both the conflict and the transition to ‘peacetime’ are keenly felt. This is true even for planning and architecture.

The capital city, Belfast, bore a significant brunt of the conflict, with approximately 1,800 explosions recorded in the city between 1970-1975, forty per cent of which impacted commercial premises (Murray, 1982). This left Belfast city centre devoid of investment with developers unwilling to take risks. The number of terrorist attacks declined after the creation of an extensive security zone, named the ‘ring of steel’, which encircled the major shopping streets although a change in the terrorists’ tactics, transitioning from commercial bombing to attacks on personal manifestations of British ‘imperialism’, such as police personnel, politicians, and judges.

In the 1980s, as civic leaders sought to bring a renaissance to commercial life through initiatives such as late-night shopping and pedestrianisation, a consortium of British property developers, strongly backed by key decision-makers, proposed a major shopping complex in the northern quarter of the city centre. The proposed site contained two historic Victorian buildings: the General Post Office and the Grand Central Hotel; the latter of which was home to the British military during the conflict. It might be suggested that while the site transitioned from hotel to retail and office complex, it was still a symbol of British state influence on Belfast city centre. The centre, named CastleCourt, became a cornerstone of the efforts to ‘normalise’ Belfast in the face of terrorism, as demonstrated by the unprecedented public funding injected into the scheme.

This paper will use CastleCourt as a case study to explore urban renewal in Belfast in the 1980s while it was threatened with destruction. Themes to be explored include the complex relationships that exist between the various levels of government involved from the relatively powerless city council through to Westminster; the opportunity for democratic participation, or lack thereof, in the “single largest commercial development ever undertaken in Northern Ireland” (Brown, 1987: p.201); the politics and planning processes to lead Belfast back to ‘civic normalisation’; and the legacy of CastleCourt as the first of several retail-led regeneration schemes in Belfast, the most recent of which is presently in the planning system.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2019
EventArchitecture and Democracy: Jaap Bakema Conference Rotterdam - Het Nieuwe Instituut , Rotterdam, Netherlands
Duration: 20 Nov 201921 Nov 2019


ConferenceArchitecture and Democracy
Internet address


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