|Colin Shaw chairing the panel discussion|
On Wednesday 20th October we were delighted to welcome three leading lights of architectural conservation to Belfast . Nicholas V Thompson, Niall McCullough and Dawson Stelfox - working in London, Dublin and Belfast respectively - were at the Ulster Museum for the PLACE Restore, Reuse, Recycle panel discussion.
Nicholas V Thompson of Donald Insall Associates described his “ten degrees of intervention” which encapsulated the basic concepts of conservation and restoration. From “regular daily care” to “radical interventions to secure a building’s future” to “major urban change involving multiple interventions”, each successive degree increased in complexity and involved a greater level of intrusion and transformation.
Thompson’s talk explored the degrees of intervention with examples from the work of his firm, Donald Insall Associates, whose portfolio includes numerous well-known buildings across the UK. These included the restoration of Windsor Castle after a catastrophic fire in 1992, the modern refurbishment of the courtyard of Somerset House, and the sensitive conservation of the Houses of Parliament.
Niall McCullough of McCullough Mulvin Architects was the second speaker of the evening and he highlighted his firm’s work in producing modern interventions in old buildings. Their Rush Library in County Dublin, for instance, involved a startling modern intervention in a Victorian church. The new structures were sensitively implanted into the heart of the original building; they were independent and non-invasive and thus allowed new and old to co-exist.
Intervening in an already existing building demands learning and appreciation of the existing built fabric - McCullough sees it as “a form of geography, working within a building rather than with fields or hedges”. This learning experience also has the capacity to surprise: “When you make an assumption about a building, it comes back to bite you”. You have to “work with, rather than against” the building. The process of intervention “engenders humility”, says McCullough. “You are just one person working on this building over several years”. Taking this concept to its logical end, the firm ensured that their intervention was reversible: “What goes in could come out.” Finally, McCullough pointed out that his work was merely a means to an end: “The people and [in the case of Rush Library] the books complete the architecture”, he says.
The final speaker of the evening was Dawson Stelfox. Stelfox is Chairman of Consarc Design Group, a practice working across the UK and Ireland, with a strong track record of rehabilitating derelict and dilapidated buildings in Belfast. Stelfox raised some interesting questions and touched on the paradoxes and problems inherent in architectural conservation. Speaking of the refurbishment of the House of Commons Chamber at Stormont following the fire of 1995, he described how the decision was taken to replicate the original chamber…but change it. Stelfox tackled some potentially contentious issues, discussing the possible futures of the North Street Arcade in Belfast and questioning the audience as to what should be done with this dilapidated building.
The evening ended with a Question and Answer session with the three speakers which instigated an interesting and lengthy discussion ranging from reuse of vacant buildings to increasing public appreciation for built heritage.
Rosaleen Hickey and Conor McCafferty
Photography: Amberlea Neely