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Theatre of light

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A semi-abstract basalt tower that soars over Belfast: Hackett Hall McKnight’s MAC is a one-off. Photography by Christian Richters

Belfast is on a roll. There’s scarcely time to let the hangover from one launch party fade, before it’s time to raise the champagne flute yet again at another. Just a couple of weeks after the opening of Titanic Belfast, and less than a year since the birth of the new Lyric Theatre, Hackett Hall McKnight’s powerful and decidedly individual Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) was opened by the uber-cool Mariella Frostrup.

In the past couple of years, Northern Ireland has had an astonishing conveyor belt of new cultural projects. Many of the better ones, like the MAC, were commissioned by enlightened clients through open design competitions. Hackett &Hall, as they were then known, won the MAC competition in 2007 shortly after being pipped at the post by O’Donnel & Tuomey for Belfast’s other plumb job, the Lyric Theatre.

To encounter the MAC suddenly in the Belfast streetscape is to be stopped in your tracks. Its impact is visceral. The soaring seven-storey honed basalt campanile-like tower, capped with an icy glass lantern at the entrance, is a symbolic, semi-abstract object.

Unfortunately, its power is muted, hidden behind an introverted pastiche mixed-use commercial project that presents little more than fire escapes to the surrounding streets. It’s not all bad news; while the faux-Italianate colonnade rams incongruously into the side of the MAC, the square itself is finely proportioned and spatially coherent with the tower.

The MAC comprises two theatres with associated rehearsal space, three art galleries, a dance studio, a suite of eight workshop and education spaces, as well as a café and bar. Costing £18 million to build and extending across 5,500 square metres, this building is the new home of the beloved but tiny Old Museum Arts Centre previously housed in College Square North.

Located behind St Anne’s Cathedral and barely visible from the street, the MAC is a difficult building to read. Unlike most recent cultural buildings, it doesn’t present itself to be admired for its sculptural beauty. But this is its strength. When so many contemporary buildings could have been designed by any one of a number of architects, this one is refreshing for its individuality. Instead of an empty shell fitted out by others, this is as strongly tectonic inside as it is out. In an era where buildings are increasingly concocted from a standard catalogue of internationally sourced parts, this is an august, tailor-made one-off.

The MAC’s rich, polychromatic folded form is wedged into the centre of a new city block next to some of Belfast’s oldest buildings and vibrant nightlife. Its north elevation is a sheer red brick wall that anticipates something new on the next door Belfast Education and Library Board site. It leaves little more than a sliver of the building visible to the wider city. The architect has, however, exploited this limited opportunity to its full potential, slicing open the red brick facade to form a huge wedge-like entrance, which steps back regally to form an engaging civic gesture and addresses the cathedral.

Inside, the galleries and theatres are arranged around a cranked internal foyer or ‘street’ that connects the two entrances. The walls surrounding it are, by turns, raw concrete or Belfast red brick. Sandwiching the space are two serene blocks; one with a punctured brick skin imitating the exterior, the other a massive hovering solid concrete form, its surface modulated by board-markings that provide a visual memory of the external patterning on the stone at the entrance.

This heavy stripped concrete mass dominates the space. Its sheer verticality and expressive cantilevered corner squeezes the volume and creates a feeling of tension. Whereas the soft red brick has a calming, more humane effect, emphasised by the phalanx of cosy dark timber snugs nestling between the projecting piers at the first floor level. Below, these snugs become more private tucked under the stairs on the ground floor, their timber enclosure rising up to form an encapsulating cocoon. A perfect spot for an after show discussion.

The space is reminiscent of the tight urban fabric of nearby Hill Street, which itself has a big city feel that could almost be the back alleys of New York. Ian McKnight points out that a consistent comment about the building is that it doesn’t feel like Belfast. It does, but only the good bits of the city.

The internal fabric takes its hues from Belfast’s industrial palette. The stair balustrades are painted mute grey, handrails are covered in dark tan leather, pale grey terrazzo floors are set into a golden grid, ceilings are a neutral white and counter tops jet black. The whole place is sumptuously plain, extremely tactile, and highly articulate in its handling of space and light.

It’s a vibrant, democratic space where the spectator becomes the spectacle

Daylight canons down through the ‘street’ from three rectangular slots in the roof, illuminating every recess including the deliberately gloomy ground floor snugs. The quality of light that has been achieved points to the work of John Soane, an architect that many like to reference, but few as successfully as this.

The project is envisaged as a gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, as in the Glasgow School of Art (1896-1909), by C.R. Mackintosh. It’s no surprise that Ian McKnight is a graduate of that school; the architect’s hand is seen everywhere from the rough-cast concrete to the boardroom table. They are inseparable parts of a common whole.

Fluidity and visual connections between the interlocking spaces of the foyer create a strong dialogue between the gallery and circulation that blurs the definition between performance and performer. The space is layered, Adolf Loos-like, to be inhabited. It creates a vibrant, democratic space where the spectator becomes the spectacle. This building is as much about seeing as viewing and perhaps it is no accident that the opening programme in the ‘Tall gallery’ is a joint exhibition of poetic working class observations from local artist William Conor and Stretford-born L.S. Lowry: A People Observed.

Stacked vertically, the lower levels contain café, bar and the ‘Sunken gallery’, as well as entrances to the two theatre spaces, ‘Downstairs at the MAC’, a flexible 350-seat auditorium and ‘Upstairs at the MAC’, a 120-seat studio space with retractable seats.

Above these sit the publicly accessible visual arts rooms, on the third floor, the ‘Tall gallery’, which contains three temperature and humidity controlled white-box spaces, each with a single sliding shutter that allows views out and daylight in. On the fifth floor, there is the large, 280 square metre, six metre-high ‘Upper gallery’, and hidden away above this are more private floors, housing experimental and education spaces where local and international artists can prepare new work.

The café and bar spread across the lower levels of the foyer with framed views towards the cathedral. This is a social realm designed for comfortable inhabitation, a meeting space with art and performance the common ground.

Behind the scenes, the MAC will also be fun. Artists, musicians, dancers, actors will all be invited to take possession of the loft-like spaces at the top of the building. Decorative white timber wall linings in the dance and rehearsal spaces echo that of the stone entrance tower and the massive concrete lobby wall, yet another example of total design.

Things are looking good for Belfast. The southern quarter has the Lyric Theatre and now the city centre has the MAC, two world-class additions by any measure. Challenges lie ahead, though. These cultural catalysts are vulnerable and create a difficult standard to uphold, as its misconceived, market-driven neighbour, St Anne’s Square, can attest.

AJ Buildings Library

See full project data, photographs, plans, sections and details for The Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC), Belfast, by Hackett Hall McKnight

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