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Cultra shock

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The Road Gallery at Ulster's Folk and Transport Museum. Deborah Singmaster reports

The new Road Gallery at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Cultra, Co Down, is an extension of the acclaimed Rail Gallery, both designed by Ian Campbell and Partners. The design of the galleries complements the engineering splendour of the exhibits, but whereas the Rail Gallery flamboyantly demonstrates contemporary technology, the Road Gallery acknowledges Belfast's past in a quieter display of fine brickwork

The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum's Rail Gallery opened in 1993. An uncompromisingly modern structure, its barrel-vaulted steel roof gleamed brashly in the lush setting of the museum's grounds at Cultra, just outside Belfast - this was not the sort of building red-brick Belfast was used to. Yet plans were already afoot for a second gallery, by the same architect, to house the museum's road transport collection. The result is the Road Gallery, an extension to its older companion, very clearly related, yet distinctly different.

A change in scale

The design of the earlier Rail Gallery centred on a pre-existing engine turntable, linked by a short spur to the Belfast-Bangor rail line. The new gallery shares the 9.45m x 9.45m grid established by the plan of the older gallery and continues to exploit the steep east-west slope of the site. But the scale of the road collection is smaller and more domestic than that of its steam-centred forerunner and Campbell wanted the new extension to reflect this difference. 'Belfast was traditionally a red- brick town and people are used to seeing trams against this background,' he says.

Both galleries use the same materials: reinforced concrete with a needle point finish, steel and brickwork. But where steel predominates in the Rail Gallery, brickwork is the main material both inside and outside the extension. Similar roofs and the continuation of the blue engineering brickwork of the Rail Gallery plinth around the upper level of the Road Gallery walls, externally and internally, provide strong visual links between the two structures. The underfloor heating and ventilating systems are also similar, as is the very limited use of controlled natural light to preserve the paintwork and upholstery of the exhibits.

The Road Gallery, 'T' shaped in plan, has three ramp-linked levels, giving a total floor space equal to that of its apparently vast neighbour. The stem of the 'T' contains a two-storey link, housing bicycles and motorcycles at mezzanine level and cars and milk floats below. A low-ceilinged gallery beneath the main exhibition floor contains small cars including the notorious De Lorean, produced in Belfast.

The Road Gallery extension steps down the slope from its neighbour, and as in the earlier building the entrance is above the main exhibition level. You can enter either through a separate new entrance, approached along a terrace outside the buttressed west wall of the Rail Gallery, or directly from the old gallery floor. You must then traverse a packed display of bicycles, motor scooters and motorcycles, before reaching the edge of the mezzanine gallery and gaining an uninterrupted view down into the 9m high main hall. 'You should have seen it when it was empty,' says Campbell wistfully. Indeed, had fewer partitions been used in the fit-out of this mezzanine space, visitors would have had an exciting preview of the vista ahead on entering the gallery.

A more domestic approach

The Road Gallery is a quieter structure than the Rail Gallery. There is no train-spotters' circular balcony and the brick walls lack the drama of the high-tech steel frame roof vault; the shallower roof vaults are supported on traditional vertical trusses rather than 'V' shaped space- frame trusses.

In compensation there is much fine detailing. The spiral ventilation ducting has been carefully routed so that it wraps around the walls like a projecting frieze and rises up in the form of hopper-topped columns either side of the roller shutter doors. Glazed balustrading reduces the visual presence of the ramp and the red-brick lower walls, forming the desired urban backdrop to the tramcars, trolley buses and fire engines, are expertly laid in stretcher bond with buff mortar and 3mm square recessed joints. At the level of the mezzanine floor, the red brickwork merges into the blue engineering brickwork in a stack-bonded band comprising three courses of headers, topped by two courses of plinth stretchers.

As in the Rail Gallery, the reinforced concrete frame of the Road Gallery gives longitudinal stability, while external columns, propped by the main gallery floor, provide lateral stability and cantilever upwards to support the roof, tapering inwards as they rise. This tapering column formation provided the inspiration for the unusual diaphragm wall on the western end of the Road Gallery, which was finally chosen for economic as well as aesthetic reasons.

The diaphragm wall

Approximately 1.4m-thick at its base, the wall creates integral porches at the two visitor exit doors and has sufficient strength to span between columns without requiring secondary supports. Stainless-steel ties connect the outer skin of brick to the inner brick and block skin. Carefully considered decorative treatment of the external facade avoids the appearance of what Campbell calls a 'cliff wall of brickwork'. Bricks are taken up the battered profile in a series of steps: courses of red plinth stretchers extend up to the level of the main gallery floor, the saw-tooth profile mimicking the effect of the red painted louvres across the plant room openings, with stop ends which give a neat flush frame to each opening.

The wall continues upwards in a series of bands, stepping inwards every eight courses with five courses of headers and three stepped plinth courses, until reaching the upper level of blue engineering brickwork. A horizontal rhythm has been established by paired recesses containing rainwater downpipes which are set on either side of structural columns (supporting the roof trusses) within the diaphragm wall.

The south gable end of the Road Gallery evokes Victorian engineering at its most monumental. The top of the large roller shutter door, used for vehicle access, is arched in blue engineering bricks punctuated by a large red keystone; buddleias bloom in abundance outside - there is a definite whiff of industrial archaeology about this facade, in marked contrast to the contemporary radiused gable end of the Rail Gallery further up the hill. According to rumour, the museum is contemplating a nautical gallery - and perhaps even an aeronautical one, funding permitting. If these were to materialise as further extensions of the same standard as the Rail and Road Galleries, Cultra would indeed have a comprehensive and fitting monument to Belfast's great engineering past; it is doing pretty well with the two it has already.


Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra


Ian Campbell and Partners

Structural consultant

Taylor & Boyd

Services consultant

Gilmore and Barnes

Landscape consultant

Environmental Design Consultants

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