Writer’s Block – Frank McNally on the ugliest building in Belfast

Revisiting the old offices of The Irish Times

Fanum House: Now deserted, and long due for demolition, it’s surely the ugliest building in Belfast

Back in Belfast this week after a lapse of some years, I was surprised to see that Fanum House is still standing, although the subject of redevelopment plans for more than a decade.

The Irish Times used to have offices there. And one of the great things about working in them was that, once inside, you couldn’t see the building. This was a mercy denied to most people in the area.

A 1965 atrocity of brutalist architecture, the creators of which should have claimed responsibility in a coded phone-call to a newsroom, Fanum House takes its name from – or at least shares it with – a Latin word meaning “temple or sacred place”.

But even at its newest, it can never have been a shrine to good taste. Now deserted, and long due for demolition, it’s surely the ugliest building in Belfast.

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Strange to say, some locals think the City Hospital – an orange, modernist cube from the mid-1980s – deserves that accolade. On the contrary, I would argue: by comparison with the aforementioned, the hospital is a latter-day Taj Mahal.

Another advantage Fanum House used to have, mind you, at least for the news organisations working in it (they also included RTÉ and Sky), was that its 11-storey-high roof offered a panorama of the city.

Some of the grimmest days of the Troubles, including Bloody Friday, were filmed from up there. Only the British army observation post on the top of Divis Tower could rival the view.

Today, happily, aerial panoramas of Belfast no longer involve plumes of smoke rising from bomb sites. And partly due to peace, their altitude has improved too.

When I gazed down over the city this week, it was from the glassed-in observatory on top of one of Belfast’s newer hotels, the Grand Central: a 23-storey vote of confidence in the future.

Even now, alas, Belfast is still best viewed from the air. As the slow recovery from 30 years of violence continues, it’s not exactly pretty at ground level. Or maybe it never was.

Some of the older buildings that survived the destruction are handsome in a robust way. As for City Hall – the most obvious expression of the city’s Victorian heyday, when it briefly overtook Dublin in population – well, only a mother could love it. (Which said, the burghers of Durban, South Africa, were sufficiently smitten to commission a replica).

Between the legacy of the Troubles and the more recent ravages of the pandemic, meanwhile, Belfast still looks desolate in places. On the plus side, it’s not nearly as forbidding to walk around as the organisers of a British Cyber Security conference this week suggested.

Their dire, in-house warning of the dangers faced here by people with English accents – a latter-day version of “whatever you say, say nothing” – was leaked to a radio station last week, provoking outrage and an embarrassed apology.

And yet the contrast between Belfast’s shared, politically neutral centre and the more-divided-than-ever suburbs is stark. The people are friendly, but the territories are indelibly marked by plaques and murals, which seem only to have multiplied since the ceasefires.

These have long been a tourist attraction, especially the “International Wall” in the Lower Falls, where the road now has a lay-by for all the tour buses and taxis.

The wall interweaves Troubles history from a Republican viewpoint into a tapestry of global struggles, including Cuba, Palestine, and a mural to Tamil separatism complete with the slogan “Tiocfaidh ár Lá”.

Meanwhile, over the other side of the Orwellian “Peace Wall” the murals emphasise British military history, with few exceptions.

But even in the Shankill, there are clear demarcations between UVF and UDA territory, the former almost always foregrounding the first World War and implying unbroken links between those who fought at the Somme and the loyalist gunmen of the Troubles.

According to our guide Dominic Bryan – a Queen’s University historian and anthropologist who still speaks with his native English accent but has spent 35 living in (and loving, despite everything) Belfast – there remain about 100 “interfaces” in the city. And if uneasy peace reigns along them now, their rival commemorative decorations don’t suggest any meeting of minds is imminent.

The continued existence of Fanum House aside, by the way, another thing that hasn’t changed since my Belfast reporting days is that there is still a “Hope Street” nearby. Short and devoid of much interest, it used at least have a Victorian Baptist Church at its junction with Great Victoria.

I always thought the latter should be renamed “History Street”, so that even if they never rhyme, Hope and History could at least meet at the corner. But that hasn’t happened yet. In the intervening period, I find, the old church was demolished in 2014.

So now, ominously, Belfast’s Hope Street is even more empty than I remembered. It also remains, as it was then, a dead end.