Thursday, 21 March 2013

Critical Writing Part 2 of 2 - Belfast of New

The following was written by PLACE Volunteer and University of Ulster PhD Student Andrew Molloy as part of a critical writing workshop held at PLACE in January 2013.

This is a critical article on the MAC, meant as a companion piece to a critique of St George's Church by Andrew, found here.

I remember watching the MAC being constructed from the architecture studio of the neighbouring University of Ulster. I distinctly recall the surface of my black coffee shimmering as the building’s piles were driven down into the sleech upon which most of central Belfast rests. I later remember observing the jutting cast concrete forms and, comparing them to the drawings and renders of the building, thinking ‘too complicated, too much going on, too busy.’ In retrospect I see I was becoming ‘Architect,’ and ‘Architect’ could always do better, ‘Architect’ is always cynical.

Now the MAC is open I am a regular visitor; be it for coffee with friends, visiting an exhibition in the galleries or informal tutorials and meetings as part of my research. It’s a building I make use of regularly, all of my initial reservations being erased by the elemental act of utility. In mid January 2013 I was lucky enough to be part of a group to receive a guided tour of the building by project-architect and associate of Hall McKnight architects Nigel Murray. This gave me opportunity to sort through my contradicting thoughts.

The MAC, Saint Anne's Square, Belfast.

The new MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre) replaces an older Georgian building referred to as the OMAC (Old Museum Arts Centre), updating the slightly beleaguered building while significantly expanding the theatre’s capacity as well as relocating to the Cathedral Quarter; Belfast’s greatest hope for a vibrant, bohemian district. The building’s brief fills a definite gap in the city, providing an alternative theatre space to the formality of the Grand Opera House, acting as a companion piece both architecturally and programmatically to affluent South Belfast’s Lyric theatre in not-so-affluent North Belfast.

The MAC is a hopeful building.

Inside the MAC, Belfast.

The theatre / galley, which completes the fourth edge of the much derided St Anne’s Square, has two entrances. The red brick mass which faces the university (in anticipation of a future adjoining development) wraps round the corner and steps back at a right-angle, inviting pedestrians of Exchange Street into the building. Facing St Anne’s Square, a black basalt mass gives way to a sliding glass door, enhancing rather than shaming the previously odd and uncomfortable plastic classicism of the plaza. Both entrances lead to a broad public concourse, providing an alternative, and arguably preferable, route through the square.

The MAC is a public building.

Inside the MAC, Belfast.

The building is comprised of three forms; the imposing block of the main theatre and ‘Upper Gallery,’ the floating wedge of the smaller theatre and ‘Tall Gallery,’ and the residual space caught between the two which forms the public concourse. It was this third space which concerned me the most when gazing out from the University or pouring over the drawings and images made available online. The space seemed too awkward, the angles too severe; a space already complicated by the difficult site further abstracted by the positioning of the two hulking forms. Ironically, this is the part of the building that, for me, works the best. The vaulting brick piers and long, high windows lend a vaguely religious aspect to the building. The subtle material changes, from bare concrete, slick terrazzo, warm wood of an almost burnt hue, suggest but don’t prescribe journeys and activities. The seating areas feel like intimate retreats from the bustle and business of the cafe and box office; a range of booths allowing you to step away for a moment while the low ceiling height of the open-seating area offers a sense of enclosure.

The MAC is an intimate building.

As we wind our way upwards, the obtuse angles become quite disorientating. We walk up the main stair, across a landing overlooking the bar and up a more intimate set of steps and for a moment I feel lost. This feeling, however, is never unpleasant. As our journey ribbons through the building the building wraps around us. We enter the tall gallery and all feeling of disorientation is exploded as we are confronted with a huge picture window. Where another designer would have centered this window on the squat yet majestic bulk of St Anne’s Cathedral, Hall McKnight invite us to look beyond it. The church features on the periphery of a magnificent view of the city itself.

The MAC is a civic building.

The rest of our tour reinforces these initial impressions. Stepping out from the dark warmth of the main 350 seat theatre, a large window reconnects you with the square. Ascending the stair you note the feeling of warm leather under your palm, enclosing the industrial handrails. The confusing warren of corridors connecting the teaching spaces, offices and dance studios are relieved by occasional, sometimes tantalising views of the city or neighbouring buildings. These dichotomies, public - private, warm - cold, light - dark, lost - found, all brought forth by the difficult site and complicated brief, are reconciled harmoniously within this envelope; achieved by the delicate balance of spatial requirements, careful consideration of thresholds and impeccable detailing.

The MAC is a complex building.

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