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More than meets the eye by Richard Kennedy

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

We live in the virtual age where we are are growing increasingly accustomed to things we can see but not necessarily touch nor feel. In a world that is becoming an expert in the art of deception we must learn to question the most dependable of our five senses; sight.

When seeking companionship very few of us would claim to be influenced based on appearance alone. There is more; how a person makes you feel, how comfortable are you in their company, I could go on. We take time to consider these factors and make an effort to recognize and weigh up positive and negative attributes. The product of this is the capacity to make a much more measured judgment. So why when looking at architecture do we abandon this ability of perception? My guess is for convenience, it takes a second to look but longer to understand. With this attitude we may lose the ability to both, appreciate and create good architecture.

More and more we send computer generated visual to clients. ‘This is what your building will look like’ we say. Whilst this fulfills our primary sense, I think it is about time we learned to communicate our design intent by considering all the senses and thus more fully rationalizing our design decisions.

The Lyric Theatre in Belfast by O’Donnell + Tuomey is a building that evokes more than fleeting appreciation of its exterior. When inside, you are transported from one space to another with an increasing sense of intrigue and wonder. This is due to good design, obviously, but it is the architects careful selection of materials that allows this good design to be great. This is my experience of the building during a recent visit to Belfast..

Today The Lyric sits quietly in south Belfast on the edge of the river Lagan in close proximity to Queen’s University’s student heartland of Stranmillis. By night, the theatre shines through the trees on the banks of the Lagan, dramatically lighting the evening sky. Made from the same red brick as the residential terraces beyond, the Lyric sits appropriately within its context. The accommodation dictates that the building is large, but it appears less so intrusive due to its choice of material. As I enter from the street the grey pavement gives way to golden sandstone, a welcome change to the typical thin, red theatre carpet that other venues employ. After grabbing my ticket to the show I begin the ascent up sandstone steps that take me up through the atrium towards the light that pours in from above. Assisting me on the journey between two large slabs of brick on my left and right is a timber balustrade that sits upon randomly angled, rustic steel balusters that appear to be walking alongside me, hurriedly guiding me to the summit. I feel like I am stood within the tight passageways between the surrounding houses staring up to the sky above, all the while unconsciously clinging to the warm timber balustrade that provides a comforting touch.

I am guided to my left where the sandstone now turns to red brick beneath my feet, a strange sensation. My world has temporarily turned 90 degrees as I feel like I am walking on the walls. I have entered a large café/ bar space with a large glazed facade that offer spectacular views out over the River Lagan. Despite the openness of the space its feels oddly intimate, I am encased by red brick. Cleverly there are areas of rich dark timber cladding to provide relief, creating a sense of comfort against the drama of the rough bricks beneath and the rusty metallic surface of the soffit above. Poking through the seemingly impenetrable floor is a monolithic concrete block which forms the bar. At this point I become aware that although the building is completely new to me, I seem to know exactly where I am going. The architect’s consideration for materials has ensured that there is a obvious difference between public and private, service and serviced. I buy a drink and turn back towards the stairs staring down to where I entered the building. The people ascending the stairs looked like they are fighting the current of a fierce river gasping for air as they stare up to light above. I then continue up another few steps into a double height space where I finally sit down and set my drink on the timber transom that runs the entire length of the glazed façade. The feel of the timber again signifies a time to relax. Perhaps relax isn’t the correct word. As I become more accustomed to my surroundings I become aware of my other senses.

The many conversations that fill the atrium and café space are flying through the air, reflecting of the brick floor and walls, gaining momentum and volume. This adds an edginess, but it is more through anticipation of the show rather than worry or fear. This crescendo continues as we are advised to take our seats and begin the walk into the main auditorium.

The sounds of many conversations begin to fade forming a welcome silence. I now stand within the timber sandstone have disappeared, there is no place for them here. The light dances across the many angled timber panels that line the walls and ceiling, gently illuminating the auditorium. The light is absorbed by the wood creating a softness and warmth that similar to that of the balustrades that guided me up the sandstone river a short while ago. I can smell the richness of the wood and feel surrounded by rich dark timber. Again this creates a feeling of intimacy in a large space, which I can not remember experiencing before. I take my seat and take it in. The curtain rises, the drama continues.

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