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Master of Arts

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Glenn Howells Architects has produced a theatre and arts centre which has the heroic qualities of great civic architecture, and knits together the urban fabric of Armagh

Armagh’s primacy within Ireland as a centre of religious and temporal influence extends over more than two millennia.

But the visitor today is struck by the physical outcome of much more recent events; burgeoning commerce in the eighteenth century produced one of the finest Georgian towns in the British Isles, while the twin cathedrals of St Patrick, from their hilltop site, dominate the concentric city beneath. Indeed, it was this remarkably clear urban parti which prompted the Ulster poet W R Rodgers to represent Armagh as ‘Raised at a time when reason was all the rage/ Of grey and equal stone.’

Glenn Howells Architects has responded to this unique context with a theatre and arts centre of matching clarity to serve the cultural needs of Armagh.

Apart from the dominance of the Protestant cathedral, restored by Cottingham in 1826, and the presence within the Market Square of Duff’s free-standing classical Technical School of 1830, the purely physical demands of the site seemed equally daunting: a crossfall of 6m and, at the same time, a requirement to link, across the contours, Market Square to the south and St.

Patrick’s Trian to the north, called for a strategic plan both ingenious and legible, which could simultaneously reconstruct the urban fabric of Armagh.

Howells’ deceptively simple plan meets all of these complex constraints with remarkable directness; first, the smaller cellular volumes of gallery, art studio, and studio theatre, which do not require traditional fenestration, are dug deep into the hillside to the west of the site, while the raked floor of the theatre follows the natural fall of the site to the east. The interface between the theatre and the smaller volumes forms a concourse embracing three levels, the central of which projects via a massively scaled, double-height entrance canopy, into Market Square to the south and connects with St.

Patrick ‘s Trian to the north.

Significantly, the height of the fly tower has been kept to a minimum so as not to offend this most sensitive of sites, but the windowless volumes are simply left expressed as huge unrelieved planes of pre-cast cladding panels, thankfully devoid of any attempt to provide gratuitous elevational incident. Indeed, such restraint is taken perhaps to the limit of credibility where scene dock doors are imperceptibly clad in standard pre-cast panels. Such directness of architectural expression imbues the building with an appropriately heroic civic scale, further reinforced by the double-height entrance canopy, and by the ‘void’ of glazing which marks the entrance. Moreover, the glazing is recessed deeply beneath the oversailing roof; invitingly transparent rather than an opaque reflective barrier. Such transparency also establishes an engaging ambiguity between inside and outside, where flooring and cladding materials and their modules run seamlessly through the building from canopy to concourse.

At a secondary level, this parti is developed with similar rigour, particularly in the section, so that various floor levels and room heights are all accommodated within a vertical module generated, in the event, by the 450mm cladding panel used externally and internally. Therefore, the floor-to-floor heights of the central concourse exactly correspond to six cladding panels, while the 450mm floor thickness embraces a single panel. The precast cladding panels generate a horizontal module of 1,200mm to produce a 7,200mm x 3,600mm structural grid of circular pre-cast concrete columns visible in the front of house spaces and also externally as support for the giant canopy oversailing the external terrace off Market Square.

The consequences of such rigorous tectonic display are profound and inform the essential character of the building.

Nevertheless, service areas, including kitchens, lavatories, plant rooms and lifts, and the myriad back-of-house spaces are ingeniouslyhidden from view within the plan, enhancing the uncluttered, almost spartan nature of the major spaces.

Eschewing air conditioning in favour of passive cooling via the hollow pre-cast concrete floor and roof slabs, which also incorporate light fittings and electrical services, further serves this pursuit of the pristine. But such aesthetic concerns, if they are to be explicit throughout the working life of the building, will have to be matched by an equal commitment from successive generations of theatre managers, whose current penchant for luvvy portraits and posters celebrating their past successes has challenged many a provincial front-of-house with dire consequences, architecturally. It is not clear, yet, how Armagh could absorb such potential infelicities.

But how does an apparently remorseless rationale surrounding the building’s organisation and tectonic outcome inform the major spaces of Armagh’s most significant community building?

Effectively, there are three categories of public space: first, the set pieces of 400-seat theatre and art gallery; second, the ‘flexible’ single-height art studios and the double-height studio theatre; and finally, the interstitial concourse and bar areas for informal social intercourse.

The theatre embraces the three levels of the concourse, with end-stage flanking galleries and balcony; the three front rows of auditorium seating occupy a platform which may be lowered to form an orchestra pit or raised to form a vestigial apron stage. Such flexibility is matched by an admirable intimacy for a 400-seat auditorium, where the arrangement of galleries at each level within the double-cube space ensures that even a half-capacity house need not feel the unease of isolation; from the player’s standpoint, this configuration also offers a welcome sense of cohesion to the audience. Rather cumbersome balustrades at all levels in American oak add a richness to the auditorium, in contrast to the dour black tweed seating upholstery.

Unlike most theatres, the back-of-house accommodation has been detailed with equal rigour; most ingenious is the fenestration for green rooms, offices and the like, which is grouped to form large elevational elements to match the building’s heroic scale. Particularly successful is the use of large translucent glass panels which offer privacy, associated with fullheight clear opening lights for ventilation and controlled views over the city.

Access to the art gallery is via a transitional ‘sub-space’, itself side-lit by translucent glazing, a device which is successfully reiterated throughout the project. The double height gallery reads as a perfect cube with a lowered central ceiling and associated perimeter roof glazing which effectively washes the walls with light; such a simple manipulation of proportion, form and light has produced a space of profound calm.

While the gallery, theatre and studios are necessarily inward-looking, the interface of concourse, foyers and bars demonstrate an intimate correspondence with Market Square and, indeed, the city beyond. The concourse’s linear form is enhanced by a central ‘running’ stair linking all levels and their associated foyer spaces, but given the constriction of the site, these minimal galleried foyers appear too cramped to induce informal social contact during intervals in the performances. By contrast, the bar area and associated external terraces are generous, urbane spaces, offering a vision of urban living rare in the Province.

To many architects in Northern Ireland, so long wedded to an outworn Post-Modernism, or, indeed to equally spurious notions of a regional vernacular, Howells’ uncompromising civic architecture may appear somewhat austere.

But the sheer didactic authority of Armagh Theatre transcends any such concerns; in its urban presence, its organisation, and in the seamless correspondence of tectonics and architectural language, it extends with great conviction an architectural tradition established ‘when reason was all the rage’; that W R Rodgers’ maxim has been so eloquently re-visited represents a truly seminal architectural event for Northern Ireland.


The structural design of the new theatre and arts centre involved a consideration for the steeply sloping site of the city centre, the proximity of the existing Film House and St Patrick’s Trian car park, and the use of Termodeck slab construction details to reduce energy costs.

The foundations consist of a system of in-situ reinforced concrete rafts, interconnecting beams and suspended slabs exerting a maximum pressure of 150KN/m 2on the clay bearing stratum. Cast in-situ reinforced concrete retaining walls are incorporated where the building is toothed into the sloping site. A system of cantilever beams and sloping props within the lowest storey height had to be utilised to enable the back of stage wall to abut the existing film house wall which had foundations projecting into the theatre site.

Above the concrete substructure the superstructure steelwork frame utilises 203 x 203 UC stanchions generally, with 457 x 191 UB stanchions along the back of stage,254mm deep UB section beams supporting 140mm thick in-situ concrete on permanent metal decking floor and roof slabs. Within the main auditorium, studio theatre and art studio, relatively deep precast concrete units used by the Termodeck system to provide thermal storage also enabled the greater clear distances required to be spanned within the overall slab thickness.

Overall stability is provided through a system of braced bays with the structural slabs transmitting horizontal forces to these bays by diaphragm action.

The north-west corner of the new theatre and arts centre building overhangs the existing St Patrick’s Trian car park. Thus, a system of cantilevers placed above the existing car park, acting together with a truss formed by the superstructure above, has been designed to transfer the building loads back into the foundations for the new building and not onto the existing construction.

The main entrance and foyer area utilises white precast reinforced concrete roof panels and columns integrated with the structural steel framing to either side. The panels which incorporate light-admitting louvre slots were designed so as to minimise their thickness. In order that the matching precast concrete panels used in the external wall construction could be stack bonded, stainless steel reinforcement was placed within the bed joints to enable the wall to span horizontally between stanchions as well as vertically between floors.


Costs based on tender sum



Reinforced concrete slab and retaining walls


Cast stone columns 350mm diameter and steel framework within walls

UPPER FLOORS £21.82/m2

Composite concrete/ steel floors spanning between steel frame timber in steel framework to auditorium

ROOF £87.18/m2

Polished cast stone units with insulation and single ply membrane

ROOFLIGHTS £39.91/m2

Double-glazed units in aluminium frame

STAIRCASES £30.62/m2

Limestone and steel feature stair cases with precast concrete stairs to back of house


Generally blockwork with partial fill cavity insulation and cast stone units externally

WINDOWS £3.29/m2

Double-glazed units in aluminium frame


Specialist fabricated steel frame doors with precast units to match wall. Glazed sliding doors to main entrance


Plastered blockwork with precast units


American white oak veneered solid core doors.Solid core doors painted to back of house


Plastered blockwork/ cast stone


Limestone floor tiles and generally American white oak to auditorium, studiotheatre and lower bar areas


Plasterboard/Gyproc and suspended ceiling to back of house


FURNITURE £80.90/m2





Termodeck system to Auditorium and Studio Theatre


Internal and external lighting, power distribution, escape lighting



Two passenger lifts and dumb waiter to kitchen


Telephone data installations and PA system




Paving and regrading of Market Square. including steps, planters and landscaping



Wall finishes 17.11 1.51

Floor finishes 32.85 2.90

Ceiling finishes 13.49 1.19




Sanitary installations 10.98 0.97

Disposal installations 3.73 0.33

Water installations 4.51 0.40

Space heating and air treatment 62.80 5.54

Electrical services 100.64 8.88

Lift and conveyor installations 15.45 1.36

Protective installations 49.34 4.35

Communication installation 33.84 2.98

Builders’work in connection 7.83 0.69


PRELIMINARIES 181.06 15.97

TOTAL 1133.88 100.00

Costs supplied by Rodney MacKenna, W H Stephens & Sons Chartered Quantity Surveyors






FORM OF CONTRACT/ PROCUREMENT JCT 80 with Contractor’s Design Portion, Local Authorities Edition 1980

CLIENT Armagh City and District Council

ARCITECT Glenn Howells Architects: Darren Barbier, Ian Butler, Martin Canaway, Nick Fleming, Bob Ghosh, Glenn Howells, Gerard Lyons, John McCart, Stuart Palmer, Graham Petrie

QUANTITY SURVEYOR The Back Group (precontract) W H Stephens (postcontract)

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Dewhurst Macfarlane and Partners

SERVICES ENGINEER Fulcrum Consulting



LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Nicholas Pearson Associates


SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS watertight concrete SIKA; steel frame erector Ballykine; concrete walls and roof Histon Concrete; pre-cast concrete slabs Breton Precast; precast concrete stairs Creagh Concrete; curtain wallingMAG Hansen; steel doorsHansen Doors; natural stone flooring Antonio Foyos Rizo; carpetsCarpets International; lighting ERCO, WE-EF, Meyer; signage HB Signs; render Eglington Wallmaster; plastering Clarke Contracts; gas supplies Calor Gas; electrical AJ Electrical; acoustic smoke vents Bilco UK; ventilation system Termodeck; linoleum DLW Floors; roof membraneProtan; external paving Finlay Concrete; theatre seating Auditoria Services; roof safety systems Barton Industrial; groundworks contractor WJ and H Crozier; telecommunications consultant Challenger; specialist concrete designCox Clifford Partnership; balustrade Design and Fabricate; theatre technical Northern Light; stage systems Telestage Associates; ventilationJames French Engineers; ceramic tiles CESI; plumbing contractorMaurice Stephenson; catering fit-out McLaughlins Food Services; steel fabrications Metaltech, Malspec; glass flooring Roman Glass; liftsSchindler Ireland; ironmongery Williams Ironmongery; traffic control Blick; louvered walls Hynds Architectural; timber columns Carlton Smith; louvre blinds Faber Blinds; formwork contractor Hugh Rogers; pile crushing Castle Contracts; landscapingLandscape Centre; roofingMichael Henry and Sons; stone masons A+G McDowell; joineryMastercraft Construction; roof insulation Kooltherm; wall insulation Owens Corning

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