Architecture, planning and the colonial city: using biographical methodologies to explore the life and works of Sir Charles Lanyon (1813-1889)

  • Steven Joseph Donnelly

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


In life and death, people of history impact our city. Sir Charles Lanyon (c.1813-1889) was a renowned civil engineer and architect, devoted Freemason, and politician. He is celebrated in Belfast, Northern Ireland for his contributions on an architectural but also a charitable basis. Lanyon remains a figure better known to an enlightened public with a keen eye for history compared to more mainstream celebrities of the 20th century such as George Best (c.1946-2005). Lanyon’s legacy is firmly imprinted into the built environment through his designs, now adopting new purpose as testaments to Belfast’s Victorian and industrial heritage, and within the histories and namespaces of institutions such as Queen’s University Belfast and Freemasons Hall Arthur Square. With subtle irony, in a city full of quarters and areas characterised by his prolific architectural imprint, only one area in the city is dedicated to his name - Lanyon Place. Lanyon Place stands as testament to the strategies of the Laganside regeneration project (1989 – 1999) when Belfast was moving into a new post-conflict era and began positioning itself as a city on the global stage. However, the place name dedication bears no historical or architectural connection to Lanyon whatsoever unlike other spaces in the city (for example, Custom House Square). The power of such place-naming practices constitutes a distortion of historical narratives.

This PhD thesis employs a two-part (A: Historical, and B: Contemporary) mixed-method study which seeks to situate Lanyon within three domains based on his recorded lifepath: [1] his architectural career; [2]; his contribution to Freemasonry; and [3] posthumous engagements. The methodology engages with archives, urban design conceptualisations, and semi-structured interview practices to develop its empirical grounding. Each of these specified domains take a different lens on Lanyon and promote differential engagements with place and space. The available biographies, authored by various groups and institutions, demonstrate a plurality of identity and geographical lenses applied to understanding one’s life and actions. This plurality of identities not only empowers analyses of discourses applied to the articulation of space but also the attraction to translate a particular person of history into the contemporary via toponymic inscription – whether perceived as neutral or contested. With the translation of the Lanyon name from the historical to the contemporary realm, the final chapter seeks to use archival and interview transcriptions to investigate the applicability of the naming practices affiliated with Lanyon Place and its implications for future development and nearby communities.

Date of AwardJul 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorM. Satish Kumar (Supervisor) & Philip Boland (Supervisor)


  • Imperialism
  • Ireland
  • colonial urbanism
  • masonic urbanism
  • biography
  • toponyms

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