Belfast’s new arts centre explores the idea of architecture as collage in a city understood as an assemblage of fragments, elements and materials
For fairly obvious reasons, Belfast has lagged behind other post-industrial cities in the pace of urban revitalisation. The Troubles froze development of the city centre and split residential neighbourhoods as traditional heavy industry and the shipyards declined. In the long term, however, such delay may be to Belfast’s benefit, especially if the experience of other metropolitan brown fields can be absorbed and refined.
Belfast’s current leaders are betting rather heavily on the quixotically titled Titanic Quarter with European-style apartment buildings and a Libeskind-esque centrepiece across the River Lagan from the historic urban core. Yet is there anything specifically Northern Irish about the design of many such ‘developments’? Closer to the city centre, the new Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) is compelling evidence of an authentic Ulster voice in architectural culture.
The MAC occupies, and harnesses, a frankly eccentric site tucked around the back of St Anne’s Anglican cathedral. The new building is a multipart assemblage of discrete blocks, each presenting a distinctive facade to public scrutiny.
The frequently opaque walls are essays in texture and scaling, in the contemporary use of stone, brick and concrete, the materials from which Belfast itself is made; and the architects have strategically positioned these main programmatic components such that tall interstitial voids open up inside as unexpected social spaces illuminated from above.
The first major work by local practice Hackett Hall McKnight, the MAC is at once pragmatic – addressing myriad issues of programme and construction – and ambitious, perhaps even romantic in its trust in material, light, volume and the resolution of detail.
St Anne’s is an Edwardian Romanesque structure with an impressive frontal facade, designed to commemorate the many sons of Ulster who served in the First World War, and a recently-added, hyper-attenuated spire.
Directly to the rear, where a quiet side street bends about the cathedral’s apse, the MAC is first glimpsed as an enticing, skinny facade bracketed by a massive party wall to the north and a vaguely post-modern commercial development to the south.
This narrow westerly facade of brick and glass is stratified horizontally with large windows to the street and a recessed upper terrace framed by a bridging panel of brick that continues the adjacent parapet line and reinforces a sense of the terrace as an outdoor room. You are immediately aware that here is a building concerned with form, with communal legibility, and with views both in and out.
The lot immediately north of the MAC is currently vacant. This results for now in a massive party wall that faces not only the flattened site but, across Academy Street, the Belfast campus of the University of Ulster with many students in architecture, art and design. Hackett Hall McKnight envisage using this mostly blank MAC facade for projected images and other temporary and/or temporal artworks.
The principal performance space juts eastward towards a turreted brick pile housing the Belfast Education & Library Board, a wonderful remnant of the city’s Victorian heyday. From there, a lane tucks back against the MAC and a striated facade of vertical panels of brick or glass to provide access to St Anne’s Square, an almost secret piazza wrapped on three sides by the aforementioned commercial development (typically two storeys of accommodation plus attic above a double-storey colonnade).
Here, facing south, the MAC steps forward to deliver its signature statement. A tower of inky black basalt and staggered orthogonal windows is topped by a glazed cubic lantern visible from many directions. It’s a kind of luminous caged billboard taking a puckish stance against the Ulster sky.
The volumetric components of the MAC, its palette of materials, and the placement of windows may all be considered as urban elements: the building as collage in a city understood as collage. Certainly the architects are highly conscious of the implantation of forms into the urban matrix and of characteristics their materials share with the historic fabric of the city.
There is also, however, something topographical about the massing of the MAC, the striation of the facades (brick panels sliding horizontally between slim concrete bands) and the way the basalt tower emerges from the ground surface of the new piazza. Basalt is not merely a material with beautiful surface qualities useful for honorific and ceremonial structures, in Northern Ireland basalt signifies the Giant’s Causeway, that iconic landscape of polygonal shafts emerging from the seas north of Belfast.
The main atrium is a warm-hued canyon of brick and vertically striated concrete
Hackett Hall McKnight pay considerable attention to the texture of walls, both inside and out – indeed they take care to allow surfaces to be legible and extend from exterior to interior or vice versa. This again augments a reading of the architecture as a geological or natural phenomenon.
Visitors enter from behind the cathedral or directly from the new piazza into a high hall reminiscent of an interior canyon; it cranks like an expressionistic ‘L’ in plan and is illuminated by afternoon light flooding in from a high west window.
The flank of the block wrapped by this civic hallway is exposed as an extensive concrete wall given scale by a pattern of rhythmic vertical indentations (flush on the outer, board-marked on the inner surfaces). This block accommodates a small gallery at street level, a studio performance space above, and a second gallery on top with oblique apertures that offer unexpected views either to the cathedral or into the piazza.
Topographical allusions continue at the MAC as one proceeds through the foyer area, pausing perhaps at a long bar cut into the base of the modulated concrete wall. The primary staircase ascends to the west-facing wall of the larger of the two primary blocks (it houses the principal performance space with the largest gallery and workshops above and two dance studios on top). Terrazzo floors traverse edges of the space and flow into pools of irregular space between the more solid volumes.
Folded curtains in a dance studio continue the monochromatic striations of the ceiling and walls
Balconies or interior terraces slip in and out of view like the shelves of a highly articulate cliff face, making for a dramatic social organism especially when citizens gather before a performance or for an art opening. Balustrades run through the space like low curtains made from minimal metal rods. High above, the ceiling is cut into with orthogonal pockets that admit quantities of natural light deep into the foyer.
The main gallery and attic dance studios have similarly generous erosions through the roof slab or perimeter clerestories. Above the lane running from the piazza, double-height windows illuminate workshops on the fourth floor. Lucky artists-in-residence occupy the tower, along with a penthouse meeting room and a special projects room and intimate office space on lower floors: each enjoys a unique relationship to the surrounding city.
Hackett, Hall and McKnight left Belfast to gain work experience in Berlin, Dublin (Grafton Architects) and London (David Chipperfield Architects) – an almost ideal triangulation. With the MAC, Belfast now has a splendid facility for cultural activity and social mingling, a thoughtful yet robust building that augurs well for future contributions to the built fabric in these islands and abroad. Indeed the Belfast architects’ reworking of Vartov Square in central Copenhagen is due to be completed later this year.
Lit from above, concrete ceilings and floors change tone with the weather
The AR’s In Detail study of the MAC’s in-situ concrete wall takes a closer look at how Hackett Hall McKnight were able to add a playful rhymth to the cavernous atrium