(PAW2009 04/52)

In the six or so years I lived in Scotland, the centre of Belfast changed — and not only in that I forgot my way around. The change continues.

The dome of Victoria Square is a very visible symbol of what’s happening. Under it there are many shops of a kind Belfast never expected to see, charging prices that not much of the city is used to. On one level this is, of course, good for the city; it certainly seems to be helping the city’s image.

Yet under the dome there are still plenty of empty units, and at least one that has been vacated as a result of the recent economic mess. The covered streets of Victoria Square still seem quiet during the day, as if they expected a bigger crowd than Belfast has been able to provide.

The building itself, though, is spectacular. I’m a student of neither architecture nor engineering, but I know the feeling of walking round a building and being impressed. I can still stand and look around me, mouth hanging open.

It’s one kind of expression of one kind of hope, a statement from a city that’s still trying to drag itself out of history. Other developments seem focused on reaching as high as possible, while others are trying to do something quite different. What is it about building that we focus on? Buildings are attractive, seductive, monumental, exciting, inspiring and eloquent — how we build and occupy area and space can reveal much about what we value and where we want to go.

In the past, the biggest and grandest were for government and worship; then there were the museums and galleries; today we build shopping centres and multiplexes. What will be next?