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You shouldn’t need new reasons to visit Belfast

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But here are three good ones, writes Rory Olcayto

Last week Queen’s University held a series of events celebrating the life and works of Peter Rice (below), a graduate of the Belfast institution and the brilliant engineer behind many of the best landmark buildings of the recent past: Sydney Opera House, the Pompidou Centre, the Louvre pyramid.

Despite his relatively short life - he died aged just 57 - Dundalk-born Rice got a lot done. His partnership with Renzo Piano was especially fruitful: they even set up a practice together and, though it lasted only three years, their friendship and mutual understanding saw Rice continue to work with Piano on all his major projects, including Kansai International Airport on Osaka, the Menil Collection in Houston and the World Cup football stadium at Bari in Italy, until Rice’s untimely death in 1992. So much of what Rice achieved is central to the look and feel of contemporary architecture. Structural glass walls, for example, all-pervasive today, can trace a line back to the huge greenhouses known as Les Serres in the Parc de La Villette in Paris that Rice helped design. Architects clearly loved working with Rice and he was duly honoured. He was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal in the same year that he died.

But Rice did other, smaller projects, too, less well known but perhaps even more impressive. The Full Moon Theatre in southern France, for example, whose stage and actors are entirely lit by moonlight. It may well be Rice’s best, in that its poetic nature captures the essence of his talent: a risk-taking dreamer, a believer in science and technology but one inspired by the magical.

In honour of Rice, Queen’s is hosting Traces of Peter Rice, a fantastic touring exhibition commissioned under Arup’s Phase 2 cultural programme and curated by Jennifer Greitschus. It has already visited London and Dublin and was brought to Belfast by Michael McGarry, Professor of Architecture at the School of Planning Architecture and Civil Engineering at Queen’s. Fittingly, given Belfast’s heavy engineering heritage, its location within the university’s vast Lanyon Building is signposted by a 1:1 scale model of Rice’s famous cast iron Pompidou Centre gerberette built by McGarry’s students (in wood!). You can’t miss it. The model, that is - but also the show, which runs until 26 March. It’s a good enough reason to make the trip.

Lyric and MAC deserved better recognition

Not that you should need more reasons to visit Belfast, given it is home to what must surely be two of the best public buildings built in the British Isles in the past few years. Hall McKnight’s MAC (designed when Mark Hackett, now leading the Forum for Alternative Belfast, was a studio director and had his name above the door) is one, and the Stirling Prize-nominated Lyric by last week’s AJ cover stars, O’Donnell & Tuomey, is the other. In retrospect, it seems ridiculous that the Lyric Theatre lost out to Stanton William’s Sainsbury Laboratory: the level of craft at a small scale in terms of the internal details right down to the furniture spec, and at the urban scale in terms of how the soaring brick edifice segues with the terraced housing behind it, should have seen it rewarded at the highest level.

Even more absurd is that the MAC didn’t make the shortlist in 2013. And all because the RIBA, which named Heneghan Peng’s Giant’s Causeway visitor centre as a contender - and you’ll just have to trust the AJ on this - couldn’t countenance the idea of Northern Ireland having two projects on the shortlist.


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