a GRANITE city
Newry being near the foot of the Mourne Mountains, was during its boom close to a ready supply of high quality building material. A source of crystalline granite, quarried and carted down from the hills. This might not be the exact reason, simply my conclusion, though this is not the purpose of this article. I am more interested with the longstanding effect this material has upon our perception of the buildings, spaces and urban surfaces that make up our town.
Granite has an amazing ability to hold a form, carry mistreatment and years of dirt and still be able express the robustness and formal clarity the day it left the stone masons chisel, a characteristic older generations of architects and builders used to good effect and more importantly a characteristic building patrons valued enough to fund. Of course part of the joy of this material comes from the realisation that each piece has had to pass through multiple hands and processes to get to its final location - for me at least this connection to the past and craft is clear and part of the appeal. The joy of this history is that we have inherited a fantastic selection of buildings, spaces and pieces of infrastructure - upon which we can, with careful design create a city which continue these traditions, respecting the past to create a cohesive city as we move forward.
It is unfortunate that in light of the many benefits, our granite has not always been properly treated throughout the past. Across the town, many buildings originally constructed from granite have been covered with well meaning but ill advised render, as a means of keeping them tidy and the damp out. This has lead to further issues with damp due to the walls and built fabric not being able to breath as intended. Along side this practical problem, I find more issues with the architectural problem this represents. Granite, when done well as is it is in most cases across Newry, is sharp, smart and an alluring material. One which due to its hewn nature and the level of craft involved means it is exceptionally unique, Newry is full of these lovely pieces, covered by years of dull, flat and un interesting plaster. Imagine how lively and diverse our built environment would be if these were uncovered and brought back to their original material and expression upon the street.
As has often been said the canal in Newry is its shining star, the key to our future as a properly liveable city, the original green lung running through the heart of the city. This again is lined and constructed with granite blocks, the original bridges are made from some fantastic granite - just look at the arches bearing the weight of our town hall. We have granite cobbles, granite door ways, of such quality peeking out from behind the coats of render, dropped onto our buildings, this shows the value is recognised for parts.
A quick scroll through the facebook page “Old Pictures of Newry” will reveal through archive photos a world of difference in some well known buildings - of particular note is the building neighbouring the old belfast bank building on Marcus Square, this is interesting because not only has the granite been rendered over but years of mistreatment has resulted in the destruction of the once well proportioned and detailed elevation by the inclusion of a very poorly considered shopfront. It is unfortunate that this work due is most likely irreversible. There are other examples across the town, imagine the quality of our streets if they were lined once again with crafted granite facades, providing a civi backdrop to any public events or festivals.
It is not too late to bring back the civic quality this material could bring to our city. As part of our cities regeneration works and future vision, we could instigate a series of works to bring these fantastic urban pieces back to their glory and as they were meant to work. Granting them a longevity as their fabric will now function as determined, this work will result in a significant local job market in specialist conservation works, maybe Newry could become a market leader in the provision of these specialist skills.
Perhaps, as part of the regeneration works some of the new buildings or pieces of infrastructure could set an example in reaction to most of what has been built across the town in recent years by setting a new bench mark in terms of quality of design and material used, to create buildings which are truly of their place and of a standard suitable to stand next to those which have been there much longer.