When he first made Northern Ireland his home three decades ago David Brett, the English design historian and co-author with Alan Jones of ‘Toward an Architecture: Ulster’, chanced to remark that he considered himself an atheist. “I was then asked, with what seemed to be a straight face, whether or not I was a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist,” he says.
“The question, which anywhere else in the United Kingdom might seem bizarre, struck me at once as very interesting, because I recognised myself as belonging to the first category. I positively and firmly believed in what I intuited was a very Protestant style.”
The aesthetic Brett has in mind is a form of Puritan minimalism having its origins in the 17th century. Introduced by British and Dutch settlers to North America and meeting with no alternative, it quickly became the characteristic aesthetic. This transatlantic plainness, often referred to as the Colonial Style, reached its height in the architecture and design of Shaker communities.
But Ireland, too, has been shaped by similar impulses. The squares of Georgian Dublin are among the best surviving examples of this ‘plain style’ – austere, taut brick surfaces, with the roof line hidden from the street by the flat plane of the façade. Can we still speak in some useful way of a ‘Protestant aesthetic’ that has its own continuing autonomy, albeit in some contemporary inflection? Or has it been dissolved into modern culture as a whole so that it can no longer be taken out and looked at as a separate element?
If any recent building can shed some light on such delicate questions of identity in increasingly post-religious Ireland, it may be the ambiguous, award-winning black house Alan Jones built for his family in Randalstown. “We’re living between God and Ulster,” he jokes, referring to his neighbours on Portglenone Road. On one side is the Orange Hall. The Jones’s driveway skirts the side of the British Legion memorial garden. Their other neighbour is the Grade A-listed Old Congregation Presbyterian Church, whose foundation stone was laid on July 12, 1790, the centenary of the Battle of the Boyne. Next to it is the Presbyterian church hall and after that, the Masonic Hall. Behind, on rising ground, beyond the Presbyterian graveyard, is the Church of Ireland, with its steep octagonal spire.
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