Insights to design & space: a fascinating tour of The MAC #OHBelfast

After my tour at the BBC Broadcasting House as part of PLACE‘s Open House Belfast event, I made my way over to The MAC.

I have to confess that I never was that interested in The MAC prior to this tour. I’ve been inside it twice: once in search of a cash machine (there’s none) and the second for lunch at the Canteen (now the Native). I also find The MAC itself rather inaccessible, like the rest of St Anne’s Square, tucked away in a corner of the Cathedral Quarter and closed in on itself.

It was gratifying then, when Mark Hackett – one of the architects who designed The MAC and our guide for the day – said at the start of the tour that St Anne’s Square could have been planned better. This comment was enough for what’s left of the urban geographer in me to be hooked, and the entire tour was a fascinating insight to what went into the design of space for The MAC.

The first thing we learnt was that the door on St Anne’s Square – which most people enter by – is actually the side door. Its front door is in fact on Exchange Street, the intention being that the space inside gradually unfolds as you make your way further into the building.

I think this photo below encapsulates so many aspects of The MAC. The art installation itself is, as Hackett described, a great example of art engaging with its surroundings. It visually highlights – very strikingly – how the building uses natural lighting to enhance its interior. The windows at the far end are huge glass panels, and there’re several other massive glass windows elsewhere in The MAC that allow light to filter through. These glass panels are among the largest in Belfast too.

2015-07-18 15.15.14

Also, brick and concrete walls were used as the architects wanted to create a “rough and tumble” sort of place. Hackett shared that when the building first opened, people were seen running their hands along the walls, which was precisely what the architects wanted – unlike plastered, white-painted walls which most visitors would be hesitant to touch.

There was meant to be another building on the other side of the brick wall, where a carpark currently stands. That wall marks where a street once stood, as the architects had tried to retain some reminder of the street that has since vanished in their design of The MAC,

We also learnt that the clients who commissioned The MAC had a variety of constraints, and it was remarkable to realise just how many challenges the architects and contractors had to overcome to construct this building. For example, the building site is somewhat oddly shaped and smaller than desired. After winning the competition to design The MAC, the architects were also told to make numerous changes – all the while maintaining key elements and concepts of their design.

I was most impressed by the fact that their design was for £13.5m and the The MAC was built for £13.5m too – it’s far more common instead for building projects to far exceed their budget. Moreover, The MAC was meant to be completed in 5 years and was only delivered 5-6 months late – in spite of an initial 9 month delay due to factors beyond the architects’ and contractors’ control. How amazing is that?!

Hackett gave us so much insight into The MAC, some of which were slightly technical but were all absolutely captivating. I’ll list those that I remember here:

  • Before being know as The MAC, this was the old Metropolitan Arts Centre, although Hackett made quite clear that it’s just The MAC now, as there’s no pretending that Belfast is a metropolis “when in fact it’s more a town” (his words this time, not mine).
  • There’re many ‘secret spaces’ in The MAC that are inaccessible and invisible to the public.
  • Hackett thinks there’re too many wires in the building, and cables and pipes that aren’t visible to visitors are left uncovered in ‘exposed ceilings’
  • The MAC has massive geothermal foundation piles that extend deep underground. Hackett quipped that it’s the place to go if you find yourself in the midst of a nuclear war.
  • Those geothermal foundation piles help to keep the building warm – but getting rid of excess heat is one of the things The MAC struggles with.
  • There’re 8 floors to The MAC, including 2 dance studios that’re supported by just 2 concrete beams. Unfortunately we couldn’t be brought into the studios and I can’t find any mention of them on The MAC’s website.
  • You can apply to be an artist in residence at The MAC. If successful, you get to occupy a rather nice studio that includes a narrow old-school steel spiral staircase. (I don’t know if it’s actually steel, but you get the idea.)
  • The Green Room for the large theatre faces Pure Gym and has a lovely view.
  • We couldn’t enter the large theatre as there were rehearsals for the evening’s performance, Rachel Tucker: Belfast To Broadway. However, we could hear that they were playing music from Wicked – there was too much excitement for me right then.
  • The glass panel at the end of the upper art gallery can be removed to allow art pieces to be directly transported into the space. That gallery was designed to display large pieces of art.
  • The upper art gallery was also designed such that the lighting can change depending on its purpose, e.g. industrial-type, bright lighting vs high society, muted lighting.
  • That The MAC is a mixed venue – comprising theatres, art galleries, a restaurant, conference facilities – is important to its sustainability.
  • One of the main challenges in building The MAC was having to deal with Northern Ireland’s civil servants. In fact, in meetings it often was that the contractors and architects were on the same side against the civil servants, which I assume is not a common situation.

At the end of the tour – which lasted much longer than the 45min planned – I was utterly enthralled by The MAC, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, even if the above tidbits aren’t as fascinating to you as they are to me! I’m glad I made my way there for this, and hopefully I’ll have more reason now to visit The MAC more often.

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