Friday, 30 September 2011

The MAC Belfast Culture Night 2011 Hard Hat Tour

On Friday 23 September 2011 Belfast's third annual Culture Night took place at nearly 100 venues in the Cathedral Quarter. An estimated 20,000 people visited the area to watch and take part in over 170 different events. It was a welcome sight to see so many families enjoying the city centre after office hours and into the evening. It is well documented that Belfast lacks an inner city population and activity after office hours and so Culture Night is to be commended in successfully tackling this urban issue - even if it is only one night in the year!

Part of the evening's free events were a series of Hard Hat Tour's of the MAC which is under construction in the Cathedral Quarter. The Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) replaces the Old Museum Arts Centre (OMAC) which has served Belfast from College Square North for over 20 years. The team are now looking to the future and believe that the MAC will bring the arts into contemporary life. The building itself is located behind Saint Anne's Cathedral in the Saint Anne's Square Development. The six storey building designed by Hacket Hall McKnight will complete the piazza and provide life to the public square.

The new MAC at 5,500 sq m is around eight times the size of the OMAC and will include two theatres, three major visual art galleries, a dance studio, education, workshop and rehearsal spaces, offices for resident arts groups as well as a resident artist and café and bar. It is anticipated that around 200,000 people will use these facilities every year which is sure to boost the local area which is already eagerly anticipating the development of the University of Ulster's City Campus around the York Street area.

Architectural render of the MAC completed.

But enough background! Let's see inside this impressive building...

Leading the tour was Anne McReynolds (Chief Executive of the MAC) who has previously worked at the OMAC and for the Belfast Festival at Queens. Accompanying the group was Stephen Lee who is site manager for the contractor - Bowen Mascott - a joint venture company who began construction in December 2009 and will complete in time for the June 2012 opening.

Beginning our tour of the £17.9m venue we were shown the 350 seat theatre (550 standing) which will stage a diverse year-round programme of mid-scale visiting and local drama, dance, comedy and music. Anne explained that the MAC team considered all styles of seating arrangements including full 360 degree in the round, but in the end there was a desire to create a space with multi-functionality designed into it. It was therefore decided that the MAC's largest theatre space would incorporate fully retractable seating to allow for as much flexibility as possible.

The main Theatre (September 2011). Photo by Gary Potter.

The main Theatre as it will look on completion. Image from

Moving through the building we came to the main foyer area were Anne explained that the MAC would have two main entrances for the public - one off Saint Anne's Square piazza and another of Exchange Street West (behind the Cathedral). The main foyer space provides the box office area and the bar and catering facilities (which will be franchised out).

The box office area (September 2011). Photo by Gary Potter.

The foyer area (September 2011). Photo by Gary Potter.

The bar and foyer area (September 2011). Photo by Gary Potter. 

Up the stairs we came to the 120 seat studio theatre which, as Anne explained, is virtually the same space as offered by the OMAC. The programme for this space "will build on OMAC’s international reputation for presenting the best of new and emerging as well as established small scale theatre and dance".

The 120 seat studio theatre (September 2011).
Photo by Gary Potter.

As we passed through the building we stopped briefly as Anne explained the unique walls created by pressing wood against concrete ... the results of which can be seen below...

The next stop was the large open space of Gallery 3 which will have natural light pouring in when completed. Anne explained that this space was of an exceptionally high quality - so much so that the infrastructure on the roof will be hidden from view in recessed tracks along the ceiling (seen below). The MAC provides a number of complex spaces and as Anne admits, "no one person has all the answers", so the design processes for the MAC have taken on-board the requirements of everyone from dancers performing center stage to stage hands moving equipment backstage.

Gallery 3 (September 2011). Photo by Gary Potter.

Gallery 3 (September 2011). Photo by Gary Potter.

The 'Den' is a "positive and engaging space where young people can connect directly with the life of the MAC". The space will provide for workshops, training and education with impressive full height windows providing an abundance of natural light into the building.

The 'Den' (September 2011). Photo by Gary Potter.

The Artist in Residence Studio (complete with spiral staircase!) will provide a creative space for artists of all backgrounds to experiment and develop their craft.

Artist in Residence Space (September 2011).
Photo by Gary Potter.

The final indoor space visited on our 'hard hat tour' was one of four multi purpose gallery spaces. The galleries will be the largest, most significant purpose-built visual art spaces in Northern Ireland. Anne explained that the 1,000 sq m space is particularly special and exciting as it is a 'Closed Controlled' visual art gallery. This means that the MAC can showcase priceless art works that require heat and light and humidity controls that would not normally have a space in Northern Ireland to be exhibited. The Closed Controlled system allows the humidity, temperature, and light in the space to be precisely monitored.

The Closed Controlled Gallery (September 2011). Photo by Gary Potter.

Our final stop on the tour led us out onto the roof top to view the striking 'lantern' which reaches a height of 32 metres (105 feet) into the Belfast skyline and will change colour in the night sky.

The roof area of the MAC (September 2011).
Photo by Gary Potter.

The MAC's lantern (September 2011).
Photo by Gary Potter.

Looking out over Saint Anne's Square with the
Boat in the background (September 2011).
Photo by Gary Potter.

The Culture Night Hard Hat Tour of the MAC was a great opportunity to see inside this soon to be world class venue and understand the complexities of designing and creating some truly magnificent spaces. The building itself is an impressive architectural addition to the city and the contrast between the Saint Anne's Square scheme and the MAC works well to create an exciting urban plaza. The construction process has involved complexities ranging from working in a restrictive urban plot to employing innovative new solutions for arts spaces but the project is coming together and the end result is sure to impress and firmly place Belfast on the international map for culture and the arts.

The MAC opens to the public in June 2012...

The MAC: Metropolitan Arts Centre

What is it?
An arts and cultural venue which will include two theatres, three major visual art galleries, a dance studio, education, workshop and rehearsal spaces, offices for resident arts groups as well as a resident artist and catering and bar facilities.

Who designed it?
OMAC and the Royal Institute of British Architects ran an International Open Design Competition to select the team that would design The MAC. Belfast-based firm Hackett Hall McKnight were appointed, after a selection process which considered entries from around the world, to lead an integrated design team to design The MAC. 

Who built it?
The contractor is a joint venture between Bowen Construction and Mascott Construction. The structural and M&E engineers are Buro Happold. The project manager is Scott Wilson and the Quantity Surveyor is Johnston Houston.

Who funded it?
Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Department for Social Development and Belfast City Council and several charitable foundations including Ulster Garden Villages.

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