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Breaking through the walls

A rich, colourful theatre in the heart of a historically divided city aims to provide high-quality facilities for the whole community

Derry is one of the classic examples of a city made famous by conflict. From the Battle of the Bogside to Bloody Sunday, it has apparently become known as 'Stroke City', a name coined by BBC Radio Foyle presenter Gerry Anderson as a way of getting over the linguistic tension between 'Derry' (republican) or 'Londonderry' (loyalist).With the current concentration on the peace process, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Millennium Commission-funded project, known as the Millennium Forum, is intended to interpret and make real the new-found objectives of community integration - to bridge the divide. The scheme is about what the Millennium Commission calls 'the provision of a community-neutral hall'.

Set in the heart of the city, it has been contained within the great historic citywalls, which were built between 1614 and 1619. The planners have allowed the building to breach this historic structure at the east wall only once, and this has been done relatively discreetly (to accommodate fire escapes), and the maintenance of visual continuity has been handled well. In such a politically sensitive area, where 'even though this area is staunchly republican territory, the protestant community has a strong allegiance to the east-wall site', details matter.

Entering the building past the inverted, tapered column, through the glass facade and into a wide generic auditorium ticket hall resplendent in lush red carpet and strong oak, I was reminded that Derry is Irish for 'oak grove'. The architect has incorporated this ancient link by specifying the wood everywhere for its warm natural tones.

This entrance area is a focal point, meeting place and informal community information point. The entrance level is at the higher south-east corner and the entrance balcony provides views over the lower public piazza level, containing an internal street and commercial units - currently unlet (although the building has only been open for two months).

This is a very large area, designed to cater for large throngs of people congregating at the entrance to the auditorium.

At this level, looking around the doubleheight atrium, the building has the feel of a high-spec building - oak, German marble, mahogany parabolic screens, commissioned public artworks and Italian-leather seating all give the feel of a community facility that has not been provided on the cheap.

From the entrance-mezzanine balcony, access to the administration rotunda building is via a polished concrete pagoda-style archway. From here, one can progress through a pierced parabolic structure and across a timber and steel bridge to the upper bar (see working details, pages 34-35).

Architect Kevin McClelland alludes to the imagery of fortifications and battlements in the design stylisation of the guarding.

The auditorium is designed for flexibility and comfort. Situated in the centre of the building, the room is a blaze of oak on the floors, walling and partitioning, and the richness is complemented by the red upholstery.

The auditorium is provided with a cinema screen and projection room, a removable proscenium, hinged stalls (to provide a floor level with the stage to cater for tea dances, etc), and a dozen speakers on each flank wall, to fine-tune the high and low frequencies in performances to balance residual resonances. For local or small-scale productions, the mood of the stalls can be altered by a variety of independent light-rigs and acoustic panels.

Corridors around the auditorium lead to lavish changing, WC and rehearsal facilities - the latter 12 x 12m room sized to match the main stage, replicating the conditions to be found in the actual performance. This rehearsal room's sprung floor also hosts local Irish dance classes. At this point it is worth mentioning that, when asked, the architect denied that it had come up with the building's name, nor did it choose the font and insipid turquoise of the name signage applied to the front and rear elevations. I believe that the architect is responsible, however, for the 'interesting' use of colour in the private and services areas; off-white, fairfaced blockwork with blue side corridors culminating in a block of purple (claimed as 'Derry crimson' by the clients).

Externally, the recessed walkway serves as a fire-escape route, but also reduces the dominance of the elevation over the relatively narrow east-street thoroughfare. To further reduce the massing, and to assist views through the site, the stone and rendered facade has been punctured by abstract slits and voids, echoing the language of the incomplete city walls. In the lower bar, for example, holes have been punched in the structural wall to show the 'original' city wall beyond - windows onto local history.

This building has benefited from a good working relationship with the local planning department, a reasonably generous budget and careful design for a potentially sensitive site. The auditorium is central to the building and it is hoped that such a state-ofthe-art venue can be begin to attract high-quality entertainers, rivalling those of Belfast's facilities. You never can tell, but the Millennium Commission may have backed a winner this time.


The Millennium Forum is a building which responds sympathetically to the city's historic fabric, while marking its presence on the cityscape.

The main entrance provides a strong focus for the two separate pedestrian access points. It also completes previously unsuccessful vistas and forms a modern gateway into the inner city.

The aluminium-clad fly tower is the element which communicates the primary use of the building, dominating the lower part of the site from the wider city views.

The main elevation along the east wall uses an interplay of solids and voids, with the building revealing further layers behind large, glazed or open terraced areas. At the lower part of the site - where functional back-ofhouse spaces are located - an external terrace overlooks and overhangs the city walls. This has enabled continuing exposure of much of the existing internal face of the city walls, and creates pockets of activity along the entire building and not just at the public faces.


FUNDING The Millennium Commission CLIENT Millennium Forum Trust ARCHITECT HMD, tel 028 7126 7143 STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Taylor and Boyd M&E ENGINEER Patrick McCaul Consulting SCHEME MANAGER Fermac Properties QUANTITY SURVEYOR James Sammon ACOUSTIC CONSULTANT Adrian James Acoustics THEATRE CONSULTANT Michael Holden Associates MAIN CONTRACTOR J Kennedy & Co VALUE £10 million BUILDING AREA 8,145m 2CONTRACT PERIOD 20 September 19994 August 2001

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