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Stirling shortlist: Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre by Heneghan Peng

This building characterises the causeway; a zone of transition where natural meanings are brought together in a new way,’ writes Stephen Best

A far projecting, firm, basaltic way
Of clustering columns wedged in dense array;
With skill so like, yet so surpassing art,
With such design, so just in every part,
That reason pauses, doubtful if it stand
The work of mortal, or immortal hand.
From The Giant’s Causeway: a Poem (1811),

by William Hamilton Drummond

The Giant’s Causeway, on Antrim’s rugged northern shore, has always inspired and challenged our imagination. Just as Fingal’s Cave roused composer Felix Mendelssohn, the Irish poet William Hamilton Drummond was compelled by wonder at the genius of Fionn mac Cumhaill’s hexagonal pavement. But as childhood enchantment fades, scientific knowledge diminishes myth and legend. We now know all about crystal formation in fast cooling lava, and that giants don’t really exist. Yet there remains a yearning for the mystery of an enigma. Heneghan Peng Architects’ new visitor centre may have just returned a little of the magic.

Atop the cliff, overlooking Northern Ireland’s only World Heritage site, the partially buried building has a sculptural form that is sewn neatly into the landscape. Its 1,800m² footprint is concealed under a grassy cloak, which from afar melds seamlessly into the agrarian setting. Hidden from view, building and car park form a new topological terrain that presents a serrated and tousled silhouette against the 19th-century white-rendered Causeway Hotel. This clever trick accentuates the hotel’s pavilion-like nature.

Heneghan Peng has eschewed the temptation for excess and instead made an unpretentious yet thought-provoking threshold.

H_P_Giants_Causeway___Hufton_Crow_022

The line of the roof, which rises in a severed zig-zag from the ground to the ridgeline, becomes a symbol of force and dynamism. It is supported on an orthogonal system of vertical, manmade basalt spars that echo the ones on the shore below. This is, of course, more conceit than archaeology. But when, in typical style, it is done with an artistic intensity and rigour that might be found in a Gesamkunstwerk by Joseph Beuys, it transcends parody and creates a romantic scene, where the power of the earth is intensified and the mystery of the natural forces resound in harmony.

The patterning of the stone joint on the facade, which went to represent the best of Irish architecture at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, reflects the architects’ interest in surface decoration. It is a passion that can be seen in their work elsewhere. In this building, simple repetitive elements create an apparently random array on the facade that is an echo of the rhythm of fractures in the Giant’s Organ set into the cliff face below. Its effect symbolises, through formal articulation, the reciprocal relationship between the natural and the manmade place.

The entrance, veiled behind the corner columns, leads to a single, cavernous room. Stepping gently from front to back, it comprises a sequence of café, shop, exhibition and orientation centre, rimmed by unseen support spaces and facilities. The outside-inside relationship is complex. To one side, supporting the pale grey exposed concrete soffit, the basalt columns form an attenuating black phalanx, through which light is carefully filtered.

H_P_Giants_Causeway___Hufton_Crow_041

Like the descent into a cave, where imagination blossoms with allegorical resonance, the space becomes ever darker and the atmosphere more intimate. At its end there is a narrow, illuminated exit that leads down to the shore. This bright spot acts as a beacon that draws the visitor through. Above, the dark ceiling is punctuated by glazed fissures in the concrete that mark each step.

This building characterises the causeway; it is a zone of transition where natural meanings are brought together in a new way, each abstracted from its original context and composed anew to form a fresh, complex meaning, which illuminates nature as well as man’s role within it.

As in music, poetry and sculpture, the architecture is at times irrational and subjective. This is its strength. The nature, clearly defined, is emphasised. Heneghan Peng’s building demonstrates the loving care of man and allows visitors to bring their own imagination to bear.

Stephen Best is a senior lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology

Read John McLaughlin’s building study (AJ 04.10.12)

AJ Buildings Library

See drawings of the Giants Causeway Visitor Centre by Heneghan Peng

Q+A

Roísín Heneghan, director, Heneghan Peng Architects

What was your initial design concept?

From inception the design concept was to create a carefully sculpted intervention into the coastline comprising two folds in the landscape: one folding up to accommodate the building, the second folding down to house the car park and shield it from view. Between the two folds a ramp leads to the cliff edge and the coastal path, which winds along the cliff edge of the Causeway Coast.

Did the executed project differ from this initial concept?

Throughout the detailed design stage of the project the competition-winning concept remained paramount. All detail development sought to improve the usability and buildability of the design, while remaining true to and, where possible, further reinforcing the original design concept.

What elements of the surrounding context does the building draw upon?

The Visitors’ Centre re-establishes the ridgeline of the cliff edge to make a building that looks back out over the landscape while remaining invisible from the Atlantic side. This integrative approach was reinforced through the selection of locally sourced materials, including basalt from the same lava flows which formed the Causeway, and seeds for the grass roof from the surrounding fields to ensure the delicate ecology of the area was preserved.

What was the client’s input?

The National Trust team displayed exceptional levels of commitment and knowledge throughout the design and construction process, covering all aspects of this complex project, including extensive community liaison. The Trust was a highly organised client and the right person at the right stage - from operations to fundraising to wild seed collection - was made available to the design team, to the great benefit of the project.

What was the most challenging aspect of the project and why?

The project involved agreement between various statutory and non-statutory agencies: the National Trust, the Local Council, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and government on a series of complicated and interlinked planning and programmatic issues. The design process was further complicated by the multiple environmental designations arising out of the scheme’s location within a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its being designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

What is the most important lesson you have learned from this project?

Persistence. It’s surprising what can be done if one stays with it.

Where does this building sit within the evolution of the practice?

We were starting to get things built so it was exciting to see these speculations become concrete.

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