A version of this piece first appeared in the May/June issue of Perspective magazine.
“Robots will take our jobs," wrote Larry Elliot, The Guardian’s economics editor, in an interesting opinion piece earlier this year. They already have, I thought to myself, about a century ago — it’s called the industrial revolution. Manufacturing processes began to become automated, the worker took on a different role; more passive and repetitious. Industries like linen manufacturing that had remained largely unchanged for centuries were transformed, as the weaver's hand was exchanged for the power loom — something that Karl Marx noted with interest in volume one of Capital.
Marx also understood that the power loom wouldn’t replace the weaver; the role of the weaver would change. It was no longer a case of the machine serving the worker, but of the worker serving the machine. New jobs were created as men, women, and children were sent deep into the earth to mine for coal — the new power machines need fuel. Robots will take our jobs but then we’ll get different ones.
New machines and different sources of power meant new building materials — or new ways of using old materials. Towards the end of the 18th century, as the industrial revolution was beginning to take flight, engineers and scientists were experimenting with new types of cement from which came Portland cement created by Joseph Aspdin. By 1898 The first multi-story reinforced concrete building, Weaver´s Mill, was completed in Swansea.
Nine years later Architect and missionary William J. Roome, who had recently moved to Belfast from England designed The Weaving Works, a linen factory for Greeves, Ridgeway & Co. Linen and Damask Manufacturers. Likely inspired by the Swansea Mill, the Weaving works is thought to be the first use of the Hennebique system of ferro-concrete — what we now call a reinforced concrete frame — in Ireland.
Buildings are remarkable storytellers; if we take the time to stop staring at our palms while walking the streets, look up and listen to what they have to say. This handsome but unassuming brick warehouse among Belfast’s many brick warehouses tells an important story — the story of the vast changes that have taken place in Ireland and the U.K over the past four centuries. New forms of technology, means of power and ways of working. Following a recent refurbishment designed by RMI Architects, the story continues as The Weaving Works begins yet another chapter its long and important history. From weaving linen threads on a hand-loom to invisible threads of binary data weaving there way from Belfast across the world at imperceptible speed, The Weaving Works will soon be occupied by a different, more familiar kind of worker — the office employee of the digital age.
The refurbishment is a simple, unassuming affair — higher spec reception area, white walls, timber floors, glass balustrading, exposed ducting: familiar territory for those acquainted with medium to high spec office fit-outs. Respect has been paid to the important architectural history of the building by leaving the existing concrete frame exposed internally. As office workers go about their daily work with the tools of modern, digital technology — staring at HD screens and talking into complex communication devices, the like of which Roome could never have conceived — there, as it has done for centuries, will quietly stand a monument to past technological change.
The real success of the scheme is the addition of a Gluelam timber fourth-floor extension. “This is the first Gluelam extension of its kind in Ireland” Architect Rob Jennings tells me. “We wanted the new addition to be in keeping with the history of the building” — the story of ‘first’s’ continues. While having the obvious benefit of an increased rentable area for the landlord, the new addition provides an architectural benefit too. The building always had a slightly awkward scale but the addition of a new storey gives the elevations a more aesthetically pleasing proportion. It is a rather large mercy that the planners did not get their way with the mansard style roof proposed by the conservation officer.
Over the other side of town, the proposed redevelopment of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter has once again elevated the conversation about the cities built heritage. It is thought that around 90% of the areas built heritage will be lost to a controversial and highly criticised scheme predominately made up of new-build retail and commercial uses. The issues around built heritage are complex. At one end of the conversation is nostalgia for a city that never existed, while at the other a blatant disregard for our architectural history. Neither blind nostalgia nor thoughtless disregard will suffice to save our city. Perhaps a more nuanced path can be found — ears attentive to the whispering walls of the buildings that line our city streets and eyes not afraid to see the possibilities of the new.
There is a simple lesson to be learned from The Weaving Works. Buildings tell stories and it is the job of the architect to see that the stories are told, and, where appropriate — like with The Weaving Works — retold. It’s a shame that a building as historically and culturally significant as this will likely remain closed to the general public. Maybe there is a conversation to be had about collective ownership of the stories hidden within the walls of our cities built heritage and how the public can continue to feel connected to them.