Tuesday, February 5, 2013


The stories took our journey to the top of Northern Ireland - the Giant's Causeway. It has always had a giant reputation. It is said to be the most visited site in Northern Ireland - possibly Ireland. One easily forgets that this island comprises two quite separate countries with different laws, governments, flags and currencies. With the number of visitors arriving at this most northerly tourist attraction, it became necessary to create a visitor centre, a place where access to the causeway could be facilitated: a place that could provide information, shelter, refreshments, souvenirs and support for the tourists. There was an international competition for this project. A firm of Dublin architects, Heneghan Peng Architects, working with engineers Arup, won. The project was completed in 2012.

The building was unexpected. Well, nothing in particular was expected apart from the familiar causeway images of acres of hexagonal paving and thousands of tall stone columns; but seeing this building at this remote location was a surprise. It was a thoughtful building that was obviously sensitive to and cared for its unique site. It improved it. It was quietly exciting. The building seemed to be a carefully considered response to the proposition that asks: how should one approach this challenging problem at this special place? How should this place become a welcoming introduction for visitors? It seemed that the core task was to overcome the potential problem of an overbearing presence on this exposed promontory. A building here, at this lauded location that has been given World Heritage recognition, should ideally not intrude into or interfere with the landscape; nor should it become an attraction more startling than the natural wonder that it promotes - the causeway. Such a building should enhance rather than dominate: entrance. Overbearing buildings that do impose are easy to design. Indeed, they are commonplace. That is why this building looked unexpectedly special.

What puzzled was that this quality of building could be erected without it being known across a broader context than Northern Ireland, perhaps Ireland. Gosh, Gehry's buildings become instant international news wherever they might be, and at all stages, starting from the first scribble. Was this project too modest to be spoken about - too subtle to become news that prefers headlines like: 'Man eats dog' rather than 'dog eats man'? I had never heard even the slightest mention of this centre, yet it was immediately evident that it was a significant place, well considered, carefully resolved and beautifully detailed. One could quickly sense the logic: the dark stone detailing, its geometry and its relationship to landscape, had taken its inspiration from the geology of the causeway. The strategy was self-evident. It was an impressive place that displayed an integrity and coherence - a commitment - in its concept and completion, while avoiding the dangers of its references being trite or kitsch.

We swung the car into the car park and stepped out into the crisp chill of the evening's dimming. The building looked even better than the first glimpse revealed. There was an intelligent zigzagging rising from the car park that continued right up to the earth roof of the centre. It grew out of the ground one was standing on, moving from below one's feet to become the 'cliff' above one, effortlessly, without any unusual distortion, screaming or boasting. It sat as silently as rocks do, in earth and out of earth. The highest corner of the black stone tower facings looked like the entrance, so we headed for this. And indeed it was. Good buildings can be easily read and are true to intuitions. The relationship to the geometry of the geology in the detailing was impressive. The crenellated plan form of the polished black stone-faced retaining walls told of the reference clearly: organ pipes and hexagonal tessellations. It was wonderful to be able to see these matters without any bemusing ambiguity or clever arrogance.

While they could, in one way, be assumed to be a somewhat excessive exuberance, the castellating of the walls made sense. They were structural as well as expressive, logically enhancing the retaining strength of the walls as well as touching on the character of the causeway elements; and when these became enclosing walls, they did likewise - seen as buttresses to strengthen piers carrying the heavy earth-clad concrete above. Walking closer too these elements gave one a relaxed confidence - their convincing reading and their reality did not disappoint. The rigour of the concept had been maintained. It was a building tied to the very ground one was walking on; a building that one could walk into and over. Its making and markings were meticulously consistent. The form allowed one - even encouraged one - to explore the ramping pavements and sloping grassed areas all while being reminded of the concept - the geometry and its organisation.. There was no intimidation here - just an easy welcome with quiet hints of what was to come. There was an eloquent mannered competence lingering in this place.

The entrance had a transparency that welcomed with its inside-outside interplay. Here the extruded tessellations had been transformed into lozenge-shaped piers holding an earth-clad roof above with a grand modesty that freely offered shelter from both wind and rain. It was a cave entry. All attention was directed towards the interior - or getting there. The polished facings gave the building a prestigious, a stately presence that made one feel important - recognized. Entering the visitor centre was like approaching a refuge. One was safe and sound - protected. It was a good location to be in, where one could be free of all concerns - a true tourist: see http://springbrooklocale.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/who-or-what-is-tourist.html

It was clear that the building had been dug into the slope to allow it to sit comfortably beside the traditional hotel nearby with a minimum disturbance to the landscape. The black facings let this new and bold presence retreat into the shade of the older white hotel that stood proudly nearby. Yet the polished dark facing of the castellations of the visitor centre displayed a pride and principle in intent that gave a hint of authority in spite of its humility. It was indeed impressive, as was the rigour of its geometry. The crenellations jerked out in their isometric projections that continued as an idea in every detail of the building. The paving pieces all fitted into this lozenge shaping precisely, and aligned accurately too, as did the seats and tables. Inside, this geometrical shaping continued throughout, in every aspect of form. Even the cane baskets for the sundry souvenirs followed this theme, as did their display counters. There was commitment here - depth: see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/on-souvenirs-place-memories.html

The planning was self-evident. In one large space under a broad tilt of the concrete roof slab, the floor stepped up from the entrance zone to the shop area and again into the information section, and down into the cafe. It was simple and straightforward as a diagram, but small steps in large spaces are a problem, as was made evident by the yellow danger tape warnings on the risers and nosings; and the signs that oddly took one's attention away from the changes in levels they were declaring. One wondered why the architects had not chosen to use shallow ramps to make these transitions. It would have overcome the problem of steps and accessibility, and paralleled the gentle slanting slope of the slab over.

The lighting of the area was as carefully managed as all of the details. A simple grid of downlights stretched over the space and around four glazed slots that let in natural light through the lawn above. These glowing strips helped define the zones and opened them up to the variations of mood with the time of day and the variations in the weather. One was underground but still exposed to the light of the day spilling and filling the space between the two concrete slabs - one polished and reflective, the other off-form and dull. The contrast between the prestige of the stone wall facings and the more rudimentary concrete floor and ceiling finishes, highlighted what looked like an intent to touch the raw character of this ancient but special place. Something rude - rudimentary and basic - was being revered.

There was a nice twist in the planning strategy that led one through the black-piered wall into a darker area that revealed the toilet facilities. This arrangement made one feel as though one was moving from open space into a subterranean zone, when one was already below earth. It was a clever move that displayed an intelligence and careful control, as did the small glass display cases beautifully detailed to fit between the attached columns of the walls. They were jewels themselves - gems - as well as housing attractive jewellery for the shop display. There was something exquisite about this place.

The more one looked, the more one found things to admire. Where other interior walls were needed, these were clad in a perforated stainless steel, perhaps to assist with acoustics while reproducing the status and prestige of the exterior walls internally. It was a lovely building. One moved through it to a rear exit that took one past the audio supply counter and onto the path that led to the causeway about a kilometre away. One exited out into bright light between large, grass-covered banks that framed the tunnel link with the car park one had arrived in.

It was all very satisfactory, but it did have its problems. Trying to get grass to grow and to stay on steep banks is always a challenge. Here chicken wire and dirt made it obvious that there was a difficulty. The extreme supervision of the entry/exits also highlighted a problem with people management. Unusually, one had to pay to go into this visitor centre - a 'steep' eight pounds, fifty pence per person. As if to try to explain this excessive charge, one was old that this cost covered the parking, the entrance and the audio guide for the tour. What one was not told was that the causeway could be accessed without going into the visitor centre or its car park - without paying for anything. It was discovered later as one strolled in and out, around and over the centre, that one could walk through the tunnel, or up and over the grassed roof and down again, to get to the path after parking free in front of the hotel. This possibility seemed to be a concern to the management as much as it was to the visitor once one discovered just what was occurring.

Visitor centres are typically places of open welcome, free or all to come and go, with any charging for trips, excursions, etc. being made as separate arrangements within this open area. Rarely do these centres themselves become places of control where visitors are constantly checked on their comings and goings to ensure that they have not entered the visitor centre interior without paying. One has to display the receipt of payment even when leaving the car park, such is the effort to extract every possible pound out of purses. All of this supervision arises from the silliness that says that one may not enter the building without paying for a ticket that, ironically, can only be purchased once one has entered the building. Having what amounts to two entrances to this centre that stands at the start of a public path leading to the attraction, makes it necessary for staff to literally guard these doorways that have crowd control races to assist with this task. 'Race' is a strange name for something that slows one down. Everyone entering the space, both before and after visiting the causeway, is stopped and checked to ensure that payment has been or will be made.

These controls are at odds with the welcome that the building offers. The whole approach to payment and people should be revised so that the intent of the building and the actual outcome for the visitors can blossom into a cohesive and rich experience of arrival, being there, and departure. The present arrangement is awkward and must turn folk away - at least disappoint them. When we first arrived in the rain, late in the day prior to our early-morning return, we were interested in just looking at the centre, a quick in and out, but we were denied even this innocent review by two aggressive uniformed guards on the doorway. It was a shock, but we left and returned first thing the next day that luckily turned out to be sunny and bright. We headed for what turned out to be the 'free' car park at the hotel, intending to stroll over the grass, but were marshalled by attendants who made sure we parked in a different area and paid. This gave us entry and audio too, but audio guides are always an intrusive gimmick that distracts one from just being there, seeking out the sense of place and, as Kahn said, what it wants to be.

After strolling back to the centre from what turned out to be a miniature rock outcrop - why were we expecting broader areas of tessellation and grander towered cliffs? - we climbed timber stairs that looked like an afterthought, to get to the grassed roof. This area was nicely bordered with carefully detailed stainless steel balustrades. The place had a lovely feel of hill overlooking water and distance. One discovered the gazed slots in the grass and could peer down as an enthralled child might, into the space below. The balustrades framing this broad rampart carefully continued the geometrical theme of the whole building.

Kahn's First Unitarian Church of Rochester

This was indeed an interesting and very beautiful building. Parts of it reminded one of Louis Kahn's First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY.  It is a great shame that the experience is muddied by money. Maybe the income is required for the upkeep - or perhaps for the construction of the building itself? Is it, by some silly twist of logic, to pay for the supervising staff? Surely not: but there seemed to be too many uniformed attendants around for such an apparently welcoming enterprise. Unfortunately bespoke buildings like this do not come cheap, but they are worth every penny spent on them when they can be afforded. The implementation of simple respect for place and people with the care that this project displays, and the rigour with which this has been implemented, is admirable. It is a requirement of all building, no matter what the budgets might be, and remains a challenge for all architects and builders. It could be said to be the core challenge of our time that has too many other matters on its mind - to do with quantity rather than quality: see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/01/starting-work-what-to-do.html


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