Published: 12th March 2010

Titanic Belfast: Architecture for a New Age

Titanic Signature Building April 2011

“In the lives of cities, boldness and vision rarely follow catastrophe,” wrote architectural critic Paul Goldberger. The city of Belfast may be the exception that proves the rule. After a generation of Troubles, the citizens of the great port city have grown accustomed to peace and economic growth. Innovation is surging. Titanic Belfast rises as one of Europe’s largest waterfront structures. TURLOUGH MCCONNELL examines the complex legacy of the RMS Titanic and the impact of its compelling maritime heritage on a citizenry poised for economic and cultural success.

As recently as last December, amid a faltering world economy, supporters of Titanic Foundation wondered how the ambitious mixed-use waterfront project centred on the signature structure Titanic Belfast would be completed. Many questioned whether the ambitious visitor attraction would be ready in 2012 to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic.

Plans for building Titanic Belfast, and for redeveloping the historic shipyards, have stayed afloat thanks to the unflagging commitment of public and private stakeholders. In late 2008 Tourism Minister Arlene Foster announced that the $140 million package needed to fund the building would be shared equally b the government, through the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, 50% and 50% from their partners in the private sector, Titanic Quarter Ltd and Belfast Harbour Commissioners. Belfast City Council contributed the balancing $15 million. Overall this unique funding partnership has but one single objective: to complete and open the main attraction to visitors in time for the 2012 centennial.

Today, the pace of construction is brisk. Activity around the site conjures the tumultuous images of 19th century Belfast, of workmen, vehicles and objects moving swiftly in all directions.

Minister Foster recently confirmed that work is advancing well. “Good progress is being made to create a world-class tourist attraction for Northern Ireland. We have a proud industrial and maritime heritage, and only Belfast can tell the complete story of the world famous RMS Titanic. This project will give potential tourists a compelling reason to visit.”

“The social and economic benefits will also be very significant. We estimate that Titanic Belfast will attract around 400,000 visitors annually, of whom between 130,000 and 165,000 will be from outside Northern Ireland.”

Titanic Foundation is a company limited by guarantee with charitable objectives to educate people on Belfast’s social, historical, industrial and maritime heritage through the story of the Titanic. The goal is to communicate through extensive outreach programs that the innovation, engineering and craftsmanship that flourished in Belfast one hundred years ago continues today.

The Foundation plans to create a one-of-a-kind, “must-see” visitor attraction. Jonathan Hegan, Chairman of the Titanic Foundation, points to the scale of the project and its capacity for delivering an inspirational learning experience. “Titanic Belfast will be a flagship destination,” says Hegan. “Iconic in design and home to a world-class exhibition on the site of the Belfast shipyard where the great ocean liner was built. It will inform, inspire and entertain the thousands of visitors ever year who walk through its doors.”

The aim of the Foundation is to restore the pride associated with the building of the Titanic. The project will honour the technological capability that produced the Titanic a century ago as an inspiration for establishing Belfast and Northern Ireland as a leading tourism destination, building on the global recognition of the Titanic brand.

Strategic Investment Board, Northern Ireland Ltd (SIB) is one of several groups supporting the goals of the Foundation. Dr Bryan Gregory, SIB’s Strategic Advisor and Interim CEO of the Foundation, speaks of the need to maintain authenticity. “The overall design of the building has been influenced by the shipbuilding heritage of Belfast. The building in its line and form incorporates elements of the Titanic bow, the White Star Line insignia and the gantries used to build the Titanic.”

“Titanic Belfast will be over 5 storeys high,” adds Hegan. “It will house a range of themed exhibition galleries capable of handling around 900,000 visitors annually. Visitors will learn about the construction of RMS Titanic and the wide and rich story of Northern Ireland’s industrial and maritime heritage.”

As he sees it, “The mission of the Foundation is to educate the public about Belfast’s maritime heritage through the story of RMS Titanic. This will be done mainly through Titanic Belfast and outreach programs that will inspire a new generation to become truly ‘titanic’ thinkers.”

“As one of the cornerstones of Titanic Belfast and a symbol of the Northern Ireland’s vitality,” says Gregory, “we plan to promote an understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of maritime history and heritage and its values in this authentic setting.”

The Titanic Belfast concept began to emerge in 2005 as part of a revitalization plan for the city docklands. Angus Waddinton, Project Manager for Todd Architects, says with pride, “As soon as Titanic Belfast opens its doors it will earn its place as Northern Ireland’s centrepiece of modern architecture. We are all very proud to be working to make this happen.”

Howard Hastings, Chairman of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, says: “Titanic Belfast was identified as one of five Signature Projects to showcase what is unique about Northern Ireland. This project will bring the story of RMS Titanic back home to Belfast, where she and her sister ships were designed and built. It will also act as a massive pull for visitors to the rest of Northern Ireland.”

Mike Smith, CEO of Titanic Quarter Ltd, added: “Progress on the main building will enable us to develop related plans for hotels, retail units and additional leisure space, including the development of Slipway Park- one of the largest public spaces to be created in Belfast in the past 50 years.”

“Belfast Harbour already attracts 60,000 cruise passengers and crew every year and over 1.2 million ferry passengers,” says Len O’Hagan, Chairman of Belfast Harbour. “Creating a focal point for the only authentic Titanic heritage in the world, just miles from where passengers arrive today, will be a major attraction that will enhance Belfast’s growing popularity as a tourist destination.”

Just how significant is a great building to the revival of a city? Rarely can a single building be judged a transformational work. But one major precedent inspires all charged with that mission- Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao.

The latest issue of Vanity Fair reports on a survey of 90 of the world’s leading architects, teachers, and critics, who were asked to name the most significant structure built in recent memory. The majority of the 52 experts who ultimately participated in the poll- including 11 Pritzker Prize winners and the deans of eight major architecture schools- cited Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao.

What Bilbao was in the 20th century for Spain, Titanic Belfast plans to be in the 21st century for Northern Ireland. The city of Bilbao- today one of Europe’s top tourist destinations- was such a backwater in the 1990s that, according to Gehry, the 265,000-square-foot museum went up almost unnoticed by the press.

In 2005 Eric Kuhne and Associates (also known as Civic Arts) were appointed by Titanic Quarter Ltd as lead concept architects and Master Planners for Titanic Quarter. Civic Arts began creating the Development Framework, originally designed by Turley Associates, into a Master Plan for Titanic Quarter. The Master Plan created a blueprint for the Titanic Quarter into a $5 billion waterfront development expected to create at least 25,000 new jobs over the next 15 years.

As envisioned by Kuhne and his associates, Titanic Belfast will be a spectacularly visible structure serving as a sculptural backdrop for Queens Island, the Port of Belfast, the Lagan River and the hills surrounding Belfast. Kuhne describes the rationale for the design. “Other cities waterfronts have nowhere near the legacy of this site. During the latter stages of the Industrial Revolution, Belfast attracted some of the world’s best engineers, designers and artisans. The city was the centre of innovative naval architecture and single-handedly invented luxury ocean travel. We have already seen the success of the Northern Ireland Science Park at the docklands in attracting major investors like Microsoft and Citigroup. This is only the start of the growth that will be achieved here.”

Historic precedents have driven the design process. The final form of Titanic Belfast will reflect the industrial legacy of Harland and Wolff and the impact of shipbuilding and the sea on Belfast’s development. The prow of the building’s glass-walled atrium plots a course down the centre of the listed Titanic and Olympic slipways towards the lapping waters of the River Lagan. The project’s close proximity to the site where these two ships were forged lends an exceptional authenticity and immediacy.

The building’s form evokes a host of maritime metaphors; its four projecting segments suggest ships’ prows ploughing through the North Atlantic swell. Almost the entire façade will be clad in faceted, three- dimensional zinc plates in a pattern resembling the construction of the great ocean liners. The reflection pools that spread out from its base multiply the nocturnal illuminations. The lower portions of the of the four wedges tell the evolution of shipbuilding technology with a series of materials, including lapping timber planking, riveted iron, welded steel, and finally, aluminium.
Within, the project provides over 12,000 sqm of space on 5 floors whose combined height is equivalent to that of a 10-storey building. Every element of the construction and design has been executed with close attention to detail. The generous ceiling heights allow for large-scale exhibits, while the lower levels are controlled environments suitable for installations evocative of heavy industry or the depths of a ship’s hull. Directly under the sweeping roof will lie a banquet hall to seat 750, the largest in Belfast. Panoramic views can be had from various entertaining areas. Strips of under-lit glass will radiate from a compass rose laid into the atrium floor to create a dramatic “carpet2 of light across the square. Like the lines of antique nautical charts, these lines allow pedestrians to navigate to other local landmarks through connections between the exhibition’s displays and the topography of the site.

A century ago Belfast was a hub of the Industrial Revolution, thriving on heavy engineering and shipbuilding, and the Port of Belfast was one of the world’s greatest docklands. When work began on the RMS Titanic in 1909, Belfast was at its peak, but by 2000 shipbuilding was down to a trickle and the Belfast docks lay almost idle. Now, after more than a decade of peace and in response to the demise of the great shipbuilding days of yore, a new vision is taking hold on the docklands within walking distance of Belfast’s city centre. Titanic Quarter is one of Europe’s largest urban waterfront developments- more than twice the size of London’s Canary Wharf. “This will become a major symbol of the economic regeneration of Belfast and Northern Ireland,” says Hegan.

“Bringing Titanic Belfast to life isn’t just about bricks and mortar,” he explains. “It’s about fostering a sense of community and ensuring that existing communities can benefit from and be part of the structure. The Foundation’s integrated approach recognizes the importance of the economic, social and regional aspects of regenerations.” Hegan continues, “Our key responsibility is to the community.” Although Titanic Quarter is creating a new urban centre in the heart of Belfast, it is also establishing a community that will be part of day-to-day life in the city.

“We are committed to engaging with the people of Belfast, particularly those from socially disadvantaged communities, and encouraging them to avail of opportunities in Titanic Quarter.” Says Hegan. “To this end, we work with the public, private and community sector organisations throughout Belfast, especially those in neighbouring East Belfast.”

As Belfast’s Lord Mayor Pat Convery sees it, “Titanic Quarter, with the exhibition structure at the centre, will bring new life to a part of the city that is rich in both history and potential. It will become a major social and business meeting place with galleries, theatres, parklands and water sports all easily connected to Belfast’s thriving city centre.”

“In the lives of cities, boldness and vision rarely follow catastrophe,” wrote architectural critic Paul Goldberger. The city of Belfast may be the exception that proves the rule. Innovation is surging. Titanic Belfast rises as one of Europe’s largest waterfront developments. Architecture can play a major civic role in creating symbols of local, regional or national pride. Buildings have regenerated and energised cities worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was expanded in 1967 by the architect Kevin Roche. Other examples include architect John Utzon’s Sydney Opera House in Australia and I.M. Pei’s remarkable project at the Louvre in Paris. Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron redesigned the Tate Modern in the Bankside Power Station on the Thames River. The original Tate Modern was designed for 1.8 million visitors a year. Ten years later, 45 million have visited the galleries, more than twice the number predicted.

Iconic structures do connect visitors with the culture and the history of cities worldwide. Titanic Foundation holds as its central mission to develop educational programs that will help inspire the next generation of leadership and innovation. With the best visionary leaders, urban planners, architects, builders, creative designers, educators and community activists at the helm of Titanic Foundation and Titanic Belfast, Northern Ireland is poised to show how the architecture of hope and the architecture of history are bound together as never before.