A bold attempt at regeneration or an icon too far? Titanic Belfast is a little of both
When Titanic Belfast - the World’s Largest Titanic Visitor Experience - opens on Saturday, locals will be confronted by a curious sculptural mass rising out of the city’s derelict dockland
They will see a landmark building that resembles both the ship it celebrates and the iceberg that sank it 100 years ago. It is the last and strangest of all the British icons inspired by the Bilbao Effect, where ‘visitors will re-live the entire Titanic story from her birth in Belfast to the fateful maiden voyage and her eventual discovery on the seabed.’
The new, £100 million building was designed by Bluewater maestro Eric Kuhne with interiors by Kay Elliott Architects and Todd Architects as the executive. It will open to the public on Saturday, at the beginning of a three-week festival marking the centenary of the disaster. The Northern Irish Tourist Board is counting on success - the attraction needs 290,000 visitors a year just to break even. But it’s not cheap to get in: £13.50 for an adult, half that for a child and nearly a tenner for students and the unemployed.
Getting there on foot won’t be easy either. Like Zaha Hadid’s Riverside Museum in Glasgow, the venue is cut off from the city by a looping motorway. Yet it does have some selling points unique to its context that set it apart from other gimmicky icons built to reinvigorate Britain’s ghostly docklands, such as Richard Roger’s O2 on
London’s Isle of Dogs, or The Deep in Hull by Terry Farrell, one of the first British icons to emerge after Bilbao. Titanic Belfast is located 100 yards in front of the slipway where the RMS Titanic’s hull was launched, to its right is the drawing office where she was designed, and to the left is the river Lagan where she first set sail.
Part of the ‘experience’ you pay for, is a recreation of the ship’s launch in 1911. A large window that overlooks the launch site is fitted with glass containing electrodes that switch from the normal view to a superimposed image of the Titanic on the slipways. The marketing copy reads: ‘This extraordinary recreation offers a unique vision of how the ship would have appeared sitting on the slipway and gives the visitor an intense and authentic perspective that cannot be matched elsewhere.’
The landmark building however, to use an appropriate pun, is just the tip of the iceberg: it is the centrepiece of Titanic Quarter, a regeneration project with residential, leisure and science park zones on Queen’s Island, a peninsula adjacent to the city centre. You might see this as a bold attempt at urban redensification in what is the UK’s most suburban, car-dependent city.
Or you could argue it signals the logical endgame of the iconic project in Britain: a cry-candy landmark, mixing theme-park entertainment with disaster dollar history in a desperate bid to revive the city at large. In Belfast, which specialises in opposing views, it’s probably both of these things.
It’s been a while since the AJ heard from Ken Armstrong, principal of Armstrong Architects and partner of David Chipperfield before an acrimonious split in the 1980s.
According to his LinkedIn page, today Armstrong is also trading as a director of Urban Bubble, ‘the brand name for leisure phenomena destined for success worldwide,’ as the Mack-trained architect himself puts it.
‘These are cool 21st century futuristic urban clubs, offering members an unprecedented choice of activities from entertainment to sport and health, all housed within ‘pod’ villages set on a floating landscape set right in the heart of your town or city,’ he explains.
For those who have wondered why the talented pair, who met at Fosters, split soon after their early success, perhaps the aesthetic of Urban Bubble offers a clue.