A new arts venue for the centre of Belfast has a transformative effect on the structure of the city, says Shelley McNamara. Photos: Christian Richters.
Wedged between the site of an unbuilt car park and a recent commercial development, the MAC transforms its context, in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, into a true urban experience. The wonderful thing about this newly-completed city block is that the new and existing streets and alleys set up a scenario whereby one discovers the basalt-clad tower over the entrance anchoring an embedded internal public square. The tower provides a focus to this new public space and completely changes the register: the architecture of the existing surrounding buildings recedes and the public space becomes the primary element.
A deep, strong brick wall wraps the public spaces, forms the cuts in the block and continues into the foyer, an interior ‘urban room’. The skill evident here is the ability to transform what might have been a mediocre urban intervention into a real addition to the city. The Irish traditional musician Micho Russell, speaking about his craft, said that it was not just the notes that count, but the space between the notes. Hackett Hall McKnight has achieved here in urban terms what Russell did with the space between the notes.
When I first saw images of the project I was struck by its freshness. The brick, the basalt and the concrete make an easy, assured collection of elements. The basalt ‘stake in the ground’ reminded me of the 1947 Anglo-Irish film noir Odd Man Out, directed by Carol Reed and starring James Mason. It depicts a gritty industrial city that is wonderfully vibrant and active, but taut, dark and intense. The film gave me, an outsider, an insight into what the collective memory of Belfast might be for those who live there.
When I visited the MAC it had only been open for a week, but it was evident that the populace had taken ownership of this place, without hesitation or reservation, and with a palpable sense of pleasure and pride. Young and old, posh ladies, families, teenagers, all were engaged either as observers or participants. The building takes the city into its heart, visually and physically. From within, the wedge-shaped foyer maintains a vertical cut which frames the view of the adjacent church – an intensely theatrical moment.
This central space contracts and expands, zooming in and out of the interior and exterior worlds of the spaces rotating around it. The materials used internally are those of the city walls, and one moves easily from surrounding streets and square to the world within. A wandering, inviting stair leads you from floor to floor. The vertical movement is ‘choreographed’ to provide an ever-changing relationship with the central space and the city beyond. There is a real sense of theatre in this progression up through the building. It is also a delight to view this movement of people from below, especially when the stair steps behind the brick piers at the fourth floor, where it forms the entry to a large art gallery. This is the final ‘leg’ of the open public stair and you feel that visitors are disappearing into this box of light.
The way the building is organised volumetrically is incredibly skillful, achieving density, complexity and richness. Each level offers a different series of experiences, both back- and front-of-house. Large and small exhibition galleries, with window lenses focused on the city beyond, merge with ledges and niches and alcove spaces for intimate groups, small meetings, or for the individual to hover alone. Little booths and vitrines house small bars and dining areas. People moving, eating, drinking, talking, sitting alone, all work happily together within a space which has a ‘tonality’ conducive to all of these activities simultaneously.
The flexible black box theatre space is entered at first-floor level. The wall of the theatre is populated by gallery levels which hugely enriches this space. Mute colours and textures, together with the lack of separation between audience and stage, give the theatre a relaxed, intimate quality.
The upper galleries, rehearsal rooms and studios are wonderfully generous and full of light and joy. Offices, workshops, and a studio for an artist-in-residence each have their own distinct identity within the complex three-dimensional section.
The building achieves a level of finish and craft rarely encountered. Polished concrete floors lead to dark timber floors. Dusty coloured brick walls with horizontal concrete strips form a cool, monumental, lean elevation to the surrounding streets, remembering the character of the industrial buildings of Belfast. Polished local basalt, with just 3mm joints, produces the monolithic surface of the tower. The workmanship here is astonishing in its precision. This extremely elegant wall has a real feeling of weight and presence, drawing a sense of the geology of the surrounding landscape into the city. The white glass lantern tops the tower as a joyful signal to the city. There is a sense of restraint, of measure and pace. The work is assured and fresh, looking outward, allowing in…
I first met Alastair Hall fifteen years ago when he worked in our office for too short a period. He made beautiful black pencil drawings of a project at Trinity College Dublin where we were using basalt lava cladding. Since then I have been watching the work of his practice, Hackett Hall McKnight – now practicing as Hall McKnight – knowing that it has something special. Proof is evident yet again in this wonderful, inspirational building.
In their competition entry, the architects referred to lines from Ciaran Carson’s poem Turn Again: ‘Someone asks me for directions, and I think again. I turn into/ A side-street to try to throw off my shadow, and history is/changed’. The MAC makes a piece of Belfast that re-imagines and returns the city to its citizens. This building shows Hackett, Hall and McKnight’s real feeling and love for their city, and that feeling is embedded in concrete, brick and basalt.
Shelley McNamara is a partner in Grafton Architects, whose buildings include the Solstice Arts Centre, Navan (AT173), and the Universita Luigi Bocconi, Milan (AT197). She teaches at University College Dublin and has been a visiting professor at Mendrisio and Harvard.
Hackett Hall McKnight
Hackett Hall McKnight was established in 2003 by Mark Hackett, and Alastair Hall after they won joint first place in a competition for Belfast’s Lyric Theatre. They were joined by Ian McKnnight in 2008. In 2012 the practice became Hall McKnight following the departure of Hackett, now co-director of Forum for Alternative Belfast. Current projects include Vartov Square in Copenhagen, due for completion in the autumn.
Architect: Hackett Hall McKnight; David Black, Susie Carson, Kate Doherty, Richard Dougherty, Mark Hackett, Alastair Hall, Matthew McCrum, William McGonigle, Ian McKnight, Nigel Murray, Anna Nowacka, Niall O Hare, Will Thornton, Mark Todd, Ronan Watts; structural engineer: Buro Happold; services engineer: Buro Happold; qs: Johnston Houston; theatre consultant: Carr & Angier; acoustics: Buro Happold; BREEAM consultant: Buro Happold; fire engineering: White Young Green; project manager: Scott Wilson, Braecom; main contractor: Bowen Mascott JV; client: Metropolitan Arts Centre.
Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Lighting: Erco, Zumtobel; glazing: Schüco; acoustic ceiling: Sto; brick: Baggeridge; lifts: Kone; timber flooring: Junckers; internal doors: Leaderflush; dance floor: Harlequin; stone cladding: Cunningham Stone; terrazzo: Fegan Terrazzo; sanitaryware: Pozzi Ginori; fabrics: Kvadrat, Bute; formwork: Kevin Henry Construction; m&e subcontractor: Antrim Electrical & Mechanical.
First published in AT228, May 2012