The Morning Star newspaper always runs reportage from Belfast with the proviso 'from our foreign correspondent'. No offence is intended when I say that the first feeling when in the Northern Irish capital is intense familiarity. It looks at first like a 'regenerated' northern English industrial city – bigger and grander than most, a proud and demonstrative Leeds rather than a minor mill-town. It's a great deal more familiar, in fact, than anything in Scotland or even Wales. Walk round the centre of Belfast and it's all there – towering red brick linen mills, dressed in Venetian styles; sandstone baroque commercial palaces; Portland stone civic buildings with domes and abundant Edwardian statuary; Festival Style buildings of the '50s; bland post-war office blocks; 80s vernacular; an 'iconic' shopping mall; riverside regen; phoenix-from-the-flames public art. Only the weather and the mountains in the near distance remind you you're not in the West Riding.
By the second day you start to register something different in the centre – 1980s buildings like the BBC's fortress-like Northern Ireland department or the weird Vegas entrance to the Europa Hotel that doubles as a screen against bombs; or the more recent Court buildings, with their conspicuous lack of windows. These unnerving moments are far outnumbered by northern industrial vitality and post-industrial regeneration. BDP's Victoria Square mall has a Fosterian glass dome 'contextual' with that of the enormous, overwhelming Edwardian City Hall and the multi-storey Victorian insurance offices nearby. Here there's a slight hint of Glasgow as well as Northern England, in the clear, legible grid plan, opening out to the wild landscape just outside the city. The Mills of 'Linenopolis' are pure Lancastrian-Yorkshire, however, and the place of labour in the city is stressed by the city centre's best post-war building, J.J Brennan's Transport House, a tower and wing clad in green tiles with a magnificent Constructivist mosaic running down the façade. It was occupied until recently by Unite, who should be ashamed for abandoning this building.
Walk a bit from here and the grid's coherence is replaced by the mess of speculation. That's especially sharp where the Westlink slices across the city, an urban motorway comparable in its destructive effect to the M8 more than the Westway, leaving a straggling landscape in its wake. Next to it at one point is John Smylie's ridiculous St Anne's Square, where an ill-proportioned neo-Georgian car park becomes an enclosed 'Palladian' courtyard, with detailing so cack-handed it makes Paternoster Square look like Aldo Rossi. It's hard to imagine Leeds or Manchester standing for this. Walk from here and you're in Laganside, the obligatory riverside brownfield Disneyland. Naturally, the possibility of extending inner Belfast's grid would have involved too much planning and expertise, so the place is a collection of disconnected towers, of different eras. Era one, the BT tower and the Hilton Hotel, is still fortified, stock-brick clad with ground floor blast walls; the post-Good Friday agreement era two is more optimistic, its spec residential towers boasting lots of glass and extraneous bits and bobs, like The Boat flats' brightly coloured picture frames, randomly hung onto the curtain wall. A domed concert hall is a tad more civic, but turns its back on the river. This place has some sort of record for Carbuncle Cup nominations – in 2010, it boasted the The Boat, Broadway Malyan's Obel tower (the best of this bad bunch, to be fair, as its east façade has some grace), plus St Anne's Square. The latter was surely robbed only by the fact none of the judges had seen it first hand.
So far, the only worrying thing about the Belfast landscape is the lowest-common-denominator approach to redevelopment; its sins are the sins of other cities. Things are different once you go beyond the ring road. Drastically so. Inner Belfast is demarcated by a cordon sanitaire of wasteland and surface car parks, just to make the change more obvious. It's not the most obvious barrier, though, in a city which still has 48 'peace lines'. The most famous of these is in West Belfast. When you first see the Loyalist Murals in the Shankill, you suspect they're being kept for tourists; there are black cab tours available and everything. On closer investigation it's obvious that this is real life. The Shankill, like most working class areas of Belfast, was redeveloped in a manner which makes clear the roots of 'defensible space' planning. Tiny houses in cul-de-sacs, with plenty of room on the ends for Oliver Cromwell, William of Orange, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association. Grim open space runs between the artworks, and a leisure centre tries to keep the kids busy. Walk past a large flour mill and the peace line (a gated wall open during the day, closed at night) and the murals are more right-on (Free Palestine, Frederick Douglass, Che Guevara). The Falls Road shows identical defensible-space urbanism to Shankill, although the lack of ubiquitous union jack bunting and punctuation such as the Divis Tower (no longer serving as a British Army watchtower), a more attractive keep-the-kids-busy leisure centre by Kennedy Fitzgerald and St Peter's Cathedral make it feel slightly less bleak.
There are parts of Belfast that weren't completely redesigned into encampments. Much of South Belfast, in the vicinity of the University, is a tad more normal, with terraces both regency and Victorian seeming not to be divided by walls, bunting, murals or conspicuous swathes of wasteland. There are buildings here as good as anything anywhere in the UK or Eire – Francis Pym's unprecedented, unsurpassed Brutalist extension to the Ulster Museum, Richard Turner's first ferrovitreous Palm House just round the corner, and in the residential streets, O'Donnell and Tuomey's recently completed Lyric Theatre, well-made contextual modernism pitched somewhere between James Gowan and the British Library. All of these are buildings worth an architectural pilgrimage in themselves, but the notion that such visits could help the city in some way is hard to believe. Especially so, on the other side of the river, in East Belfast.
I thought it would be interesting to see if it was possible to walk from the residential working class areas of East Belfast to the new 'Titanic Quarter' adjacent. It is, but I felt lucky to be alive at the end of it. That wasn't because of the sectariana, alarming as that is. You walk through a gap so small it may as well have a turnstile, and suddenly street signs are in Gaelic as well as English. This is Short Strand, an tiny nationalist enclave in loyalist territory. Here the Peace Line is fortified and recently extended. You find out why when you squeeze through the wall out into the surrounding area. You don't know the difference from the buildings – both consists largely of defensible space cul-de-sacs, with fragments of Victorian streets marooned in them – but instead from several new UVF murals, marking an area which had a full-scale sectarian riot in June, somewhat overshadowed by the riots in England two months later.
Northern Ireland, with its large public sector, is one of David Cameron's targets for 'shrinking the state'. To see the remains of non-state employment, you have to traverse a terrifying maze of motorway intersections to that Titanic Quarter. The planner here, Bluewater architect Eric Kuhne, made not even the slightest attempt to connect it to residential East Belfast. In fairness he'd have had to demolish part of the motorway to do so (it is instead, in an act of pure folly, being extended). There's nothing surprising here other than scale – the presence of Samson & Goliath, the astonishing cranes which tower over much of the city, and the semi-derelict sheds around it. The slogan for this apocalypse is 'we used to make ships here – now we make communities'.
There are counter-proposals for Belfast – the Forum for Alternative Belfast have published a plan for building on the surface car parks and wastes around the ring road. Architect Mark Hackett of the Forum drove me around North Belfast at the end of my visit, where the relatively simple demarcation of Shankill and Falls is replaced by an illegible chaos of peace lines, new and long-lasting, with some often handsome Victorian housing left derelict then demolished when tensions between areas run too high. This is a city riven with divisions whose post-troubles redevelopment has multiplied walls both real and perceived. It's incredibly disturbing, not for its difference from the rest of the UK, but its similarity. All the factors – rampant inequality, deindustrialisation, social divisions and poverty – are as familiar as the city centre's buildings. Sectarianism might just have lit the torchpaper. With unemployment about to explode, what will happen here in the next few years? But for the rest of the country, contemporary Belfast might be a vision of he future. It's not hard to imagine peace lines in Clapham.