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Land of the giant: Heneghan Peng's visitor centre

The spectacular landscape of the Giant’s Causeway flows into Heneghan Peng’s visitor centre, writes John McLaughlin. Photography by Hufton + Crow

The Giant’s Causeway is a dramatic landscape of columnar volcanic basalt on the north coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland. It was formed around 60 million years ago during the tertiary period by great flows of basalt lava that welled up through cracks in the Earth’s crust and spread out, creating layer upon layer of rock.

These basalt layers cooled rapidly in a river valley, causing them to contract into polygons that then cracked vertically, producing stacked columns of organ pipe-like structures buried in the earth. The rock was later exposed by glacial erosion, which created the unique landscape that we see today.

In 1986, the Giant’s Causeway was entered into the register of UNESCO natural World Heritage sites - one of only three on the island of Ireland. The listing was for three different reasons: the site is significant as a geological formation; it has a unique landscape; and it has played a role in the emergence of the science of geology in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the Victorian era, the Giant’s Causeway became a major tourist attraction, and today it is owned and managed by the National Trust. The entire coastline is named after it and it is protected as an area of outstanding natural beauty. The Causeway itself is the most visited attraction on the island of Ireland. In 2000, the visitor centre burnt down and in 2003 a site visit by UNESCO made a number of recommendations about how the site should be developed and conserved into the future.

The UNESCO report led to an open international architectural competition administered by the Union Internationale des Architectes (UIA) for a new visitor centre in 2005. The area of new building specified was 1,800m2 with a significant requirement for car and coach parking facilities to facilitate growing visitor numbers. The competition was judged by an international jury chaired by Juhani Pallasmaa, and it attracted more than 200 entries from as far afield as Japan. It was won by Dublin-based Heneghan Peng Architects.

The architect’s approach to the site was to treat the building as part of the landscape by burying it in a fold in the ground below the line of the coastal ridge, and to recess the car park in a second fold at the level of the approach road, with a grass pathway to the ridge of the site rising between the two folds. The architect’s competition statement said: ‘The folding landscape respects the horizontality of the site without mimicking nature, giving an introduction and route to the Giant’s Causeway, but also to the Causeway Coast.

There is no longer a building and a landscape, but building becomes landscape and landscape itself remains spectacular and iconic.’ The jury agreed, and cited Heneghan Peng Architects’ entry as ‘exuding a simple and quiet monumentality that evoked a strong sense of drama and expectation.’ The project was developed up to a planning application in 2007 but was then suspended for a time due to political interference by the Northern Irish Executive. Eventually, it restarted in 2009 with the National Trust and Moyle District Council as project promoters, and was completed in June 2012.

The building integrates landscape and architecture into a synthesised whole, the green fields of the Causeway Coast literally cloak the roof of the centre which lies buried below the ground. Grass continues down the ramp connecting roof and entry levels so that the facades emerge from the ground facing south and west.

There is no visual impact on the Causeway itself - the visitor centre cannot be seen from the north or east. The fold of the car park dipping down on the south-east side reveals a retaining wall of polished black basalt reminiscent of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. This retaining wall is clearly visible from the road approaching the site from Portrush, where a screen wall of elongated lozenge-shaped columns rises out of the ground and supports the grass platform of the visitor centre’s roof.

The centre is entered through these basalt columns and the space inside, beneath the hillside, is a large roomy cave that is punctuated with linear rooflights cut out of the sloping roof. The floor is made of polished concrete with an exposed basalt aggregate suggestive of the basalt strata below. The telluric quality of the building is evocative of ancient architectures and this is part of the subtle power of the project.

The facades are made of local basalt, which the architects describe as a ‘weak stone’ because although it is strong in compression, it has little tensile strength and is prone to cracking. To counter this they developed a structural solution based on keeping it in permanent tension by passing steel tension rods through it. The result is an angled load-bearing screen of trapezoidal columns between inside and outside which orientates views diagonally. It is an elegant technique and is well-suited to the geological context of the Causeway.

Inside, however, the structure switches to steel columns which allow for more slender proportions with greater spacing between them. While these are visually elegant, they somewhat take away from the structural clarity of the composite facade system where the compressive strength of the basalt has been exploited.

The interior is immaculately made. The architects have deployed a restrained language of concrete, glass, steel and oak to frame a simple sequence of spaces. The order is logical and clear, leading from the ticket desk past the café, shop and exhibition, and then out through a cleft in the hillside that opens on to the pathway down to the Causeway itself.

The precision of design and fabrication is exemplary, and the handling of details has a purity that means the crowds of visitors are easily orientated through the spaces. The floor of the building slopes gently up as you ascend towards the coast. Though the architecture has power, it is not overpowering, thanks to an overall lightness of touch, whereby you are delivered out into the space of the shore in a calm and restrained manner.

The National Trust placed a high value on sustainability and asked the architects to use local stone. They also used an ambitious suite of environmental measures for the servicing of the building, including a geothermal heating system and a rainwater harvesting system, which contributed to its BREEAM ‘Excellent’ rating.

All of these are seamlessly incorporated into the design so they are quietly working in the background. A building of this quality is rare and it is hard to overstate the importance of the client bodies involved, seen in the leadership shown by UNESCO, and the National Trust in making it happen. It is a great achievement by Heneghan Peng Architects, which has delivered on the promise of a strong piece of architecture which is even better in reality than in drawings.

The building also makes a compelling case for the open competition process which allowed a young architectural practice access to a commission that would be impossible to reach through typical procurement channels. The RIBA should take note of the leadership displayed by the UIA, and actively lobby for more of this type of competition, as a means of generating opportunities for young architectural talent.

AJ Buildings Library

See images and drawings of the Giants Causeway Visitor Centre by Heneghan Peng

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