The Theatres Trust

BD Online: MAC Belfast by Hackett Hall McKnight

18th April 2012

Transcending its misconceived context, the Mac proves one of the best pieces of architecture built in Belfast for 50 years says BD Online.

The shortlist for the 2008 Young Architect of the Year Award was one of the more diverse in the prize’s history and at the end of a long day of interviews, the jury found itself struggling with how to assess the merits of a number of candidates who were seeking to extend the definition of architectural practice and others whose concerns remained focused squarely on building.

For one juror at least the issue was straightforward. Glenn Howells held up the submission from Belfast’s Hackett Hall McKnight and pointed to the drawings of the Mac — the city’s Metropolitan Arts Centre — which it had recently won in competition. “This building,” he assured us, “is going to be listed.” To which Liza Fior of Muf offered the whip-snap rejoinder: “That’s because someone’s going to think it was built in 1955.”

It was a good joke, and not entirely without foundation, but Howells’ enthusiasm won the day and, happily, the completed Mac, which opens to the public today, leaves no doubt that his listing prediction was sound. In fact, the building might confidently be claimed as the best piece of architecture to have been built in Belfast for 50 years, were it not for the recent completion of another contender for that title in the shape of O’Donnell & Tuomey’s Lyric Theatre. With Heneghan Peng’s Giant’s Causeway Visitors Centre due to open in the summer, a part of the country that has long maintained a perfectly dismal architectural track record suddenly looks set to deliver three first-rate public buildings in the course of just over a year.

Frustratingly, the Mac’s immediate neighbour, the St Anne Square development, is very far from first-rate, as its inclusion on the 2010 Carbuncle Cup shortlist might suggest. Seen in photographs, the ineptitude of its weirdly Francofied neoclassicism invites no more than a derisive guffaw but to experience the thing in context is to realise what a considerable opportunity has been squandered.

The development fills out the larger part of an urban block which offers exciting adjacencies on all sides: St Anne’s Cathedral to the west; the Cathedral Quarter — home to some of Belfast’s oldest buildings and a thriving nightlife — to the south; a notably undertrafficked ring road to the east which the city’s planners have ambitions to see better integrated; and to the north, a very large site where the University of Ulster is planning to relocate to new premises designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley. What has been built seems oblivious to pretty much all of this. Certainly, the six storeys of car parking presented to the ring road hardly capitalise on the site’s potential to serve as a primary gateway to the city centre. The possibility of extending the Cathedral Quarter’s language of robustly detailed brick facades has also proved of no interest. And, perhaps most bizarrely, in allocating a place for a £13 million arts centre, the architect — take a bow WDR & RT Taggart — has seen fit to jam it in the middle of the site, robbing it of nearly all opportunity to communicate with the wider city.

Hackett Hall McKnight’s client is an arts organisation that has operated since 1989 out of a nearby Georgian building — a venue that had been known as Omac (Old Museum Arts Centre) in acknowledgement of its former life as the home of Ulster Museum. With a particular focus on performing arts, Omac established a vital role in Belfast’s cultural life, providing regular residencies for small theatre companies such as Tinderbox, Prime Cut and Bruiser. However, in moving home, the organisation has expanded its brief significantly. The new building not only includes a couple of theatres and a dance studio but also three independent exhibition spaces, ensuring that the programme will now be weighted far more evenly between performing and visual arts.

At present, the Mac is much more exposed than it will ultimately be since the abutting plot to its north has yet to be built on. There are no plans yet for that site — although its prominence surely demands that a public use be found — and so for the immediate future the Mac’s largest frontage looks set to be a great cliff of unfenestrated brick. Specified in the chalky red variety that is typical of the warehouses and merchants’ houses of the Cathedral Quarter, this material predominates both inside and out the Mac, its robust detailing offering a rebuke to its neighbour’s effete scenography.

The narrow frontage that closes one end of St Anne’s Square and houses the primary entrance is given a more substantial treatment still. It is dominated by a seven-storey tower faced in locally sourced black basalt, above which an illuminated sign rises above the surrounding rooftops to gesture to the very different city beyond. Developed as a field of ribs and recesses, the basalt has a massive character — archaic and luxurious where the shallow reveals, insulated render and UPVC windows of the neighbouring facades conjure no more than a pantomime of the past.

The tower is the smallest of three volumes that structure the highly sophisticated plan on every level. The others both accommodate a theatre on their lower storeys — a requirement that defines their footprint — while exhibition areas, studio spaces and ancillary facilities are stacked above. These blocks stand apart and at an angle to one another, framing a vertiginous foyer in the wonkily L-shaped gap.

The St Anne’s Square entrance lies at one end of the L and a secondary entrance, set within a very narrow frontage that addresses the cathedral, lies at the other. The foyer might therefore be seen as a covered street, an association strongly reinforced by the treatment of the walls that address it. Although pointedly distinct from one another, each is an assembly of repeated vertical elements, of a scale, depth and robustness that is redolent of an urban facade. The face of the larger block is a composition of brick piers, admitting views to a palatially scaled piano nobile — one of the exhibition suites — at its upper level. The smaller block is more closed and faced in in-situ concrete, but the articulation of the concrete’s boardmarking maintains a register of the floors behind and provides a surface depth which is animated by toplighting.

The largest surface of all is the internal face of the party wall that runs along the site’s north boundary. Again this is in brick, but without openings, the articulation coming instead from a parade of full-height buttresses between which café tables have been slotted. Although daylight is admitted from multiple sources, the outside world — and certainly St Anne’s Square — is all but entirely screened from view. This lends the space a distinctly theatrical character — a quality further supported by the various landings, balconies and internal windows that address it from on high. The cabaret nights that form a significant part of the Mac’s programme will surely be quick to exploit this marvellous interior’s dramatic possibilities.

Of the two designated performance spaces, one is a flat-floored 120-seat studio theatre and the other a 350-seat venue — a space twice the size of the theatre at Omac. The client initially requested that all its seats be retractable but Hackett Hall McKnight persuaded them of the merits of allowing at least some to be fixed. It proves to have been good advice, the slightly asymmetric arrangement of the fixed upper galleries rescuing the space from a generic outcome.

A long, open-sided staircase, running up the middle of the foyer, provides the primary means of connection between the basement, ground and first floor levels but, in a deftly Loosian piece of planning, the vertical circulation relocates at this point. An enclosed stair takes us up to a second foyer overlooking the first — a double-height space from which the large exhibition suites are accessible to either side. Of these, one is a hall of a scale that lends itself to the display of monumental sculpture such as the current exhibit, a gigantic table and chairs by Robert Therrien. There are more floors stacked on top so it has only proved possible to provide the gallery with a strip of sky-lighting along one wall. That asymmetry represents a curatorial constraint but lends the space a complexity that one guesses the architect hardly regrets. The other exhibition suite is an ensemble of three rooms, each side-lit by way of a full-height window. The first exhibition, devoted to the work of the painters William Conor and LS Lowry, had yet to be mounted when I visited, but it was easy to see how it might work in the two smaller galleries. The final room, however, is a double-height chimney of a space, dominated by a view out to the cathedral. Showing paintings here requires the notably awkward suspension of a lighting rig halfway up the room’s height. It is potentially a wonderful space but will require some rather more imaginative curating to make it sing.

Access to the final two storeys is by way of another stair again. Incorporating dance studios, rehearsal spaces and facilities for artists in residence, these levels should prove the busiest during daytime hours. I was reminded of arriving at the upper levels of another Mac, Mackintosh’s school of art in Glasgow. As there, the experience is one of contrast with the world below. The scale is more domestic, daylight is more evenly distributed, materials — including, in the case of the Belfast building, painted but otherwise exposed blockwork and joists — are lighter and cheaper.

As public buildings go, the Mac is certainly among the more introverted. Exploring it, one shares its architect’s keen awareness of how little of the immediate context the building might usefully acknowledge. In a sense it is a building that makes its own context — its strongly differentiated parts forging, between themselves, an atmosphere of urbanity.

PROJECT TEAM

Architect Hackett Hall McKnight, Client Metropolitan Arts Centre, Structure M&E acoustics, Breeam Buro Happold, Quantity surveyor and CDMC Johnston Houston, Fire engineer White Young Green, Theatre consultant Carr & Angier, Main contractor Bowen Mascott JV Project management Kieran Mooney – Braecom (project sponsor client representative), URS (design team)

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