Elemental by design

From the IAR Archive

heneghan peng have been announced as the winner of the competition to design the new National Centre for Contemporary Arts building in Moscow. The Dublin-based practice is no stranger to international museum projects, which include the Grand Egyptian Museum, Giza, and the Giant’s Causeway Visitors Centre in Co Antrim. We publish here John McLaughlin’s assessment of the Giant’s Causeway centre, which featured in the Autumn 2012 edition of the Irish Arts Review

The Giant’s Causeway is a dramatic landscape of columnar volcanic basalt on the north coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland. It was formed around 60 million years ago during the tertiary period by great flows of basalt lava that welled up through cracks in the earth’s crust and spread out over 3000 square kilometres creating layer upon layer of rock. Some of the layers are as much as 30 metres thick. The specific formation of the Causeway is due to the fact that these basalt layers cooled rapidly in a river valley which caused them to contract into polygons which then cracked vertically producing stacked vertical columns of organ pipe-like structures buried in the earth. The rock was subsequently exposed by glacial erosion which created the unique landscape that we see today. The volcanic lava reached over to the western coast of Scotland and the same polygonal columns can be seen holding up the coast of the western Scottish isle of Staffa near Mull which is what gave rise to the legend of a giant who built the Causeway between the two places. In 1986 the Giant’s Causeway was entered into the register of UNESCO natural world heritage sites – one of only three on the islands of Ireland and Britain. The listing was for three different reasons – the site is significant as a geological formation; as a unique landscape; and for the role that it played in the emergence of the science of geology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The other two natural world heritage sites are the islands of St Kilda off the north coast of Scotland, and the Jurassic coast of east Dorset in the South of England.

In the Victorian era the causeway became a major tourist attraction, and the land around it was acquired by a local business consortium who began to charge visitors to enter the site. In the 1960s, the site passed into the ownership of the UK’s National Trust who began to conserve and improve access to it. The causeway has consistently attracted over half a million visitors per year and is one of the principal tourist attractions on the island of Ireland. In 2000, the visitor centre on adjoining land burnt down and, in 2003 a site visit by UNESCO made a number of recommendations about how the site should be developed and conserved into the future.
Following the UNESCO report, a consortium of stakeholders led by the Northern Ireland Executive decided to promote an international architectural competition administered by the Union International des Architectes (UIA) to select a design for the new visitor centre. The area of new building required was 1,800 m2 with a significant requirement for car and coach parking facilities to facilitate growing visitor numbers. The competition, judged by an international jury chaired by the eminent Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa attracted over two hundred entries from as far afield as Japan and was won by Dublin-based heneghan peng architects.
Winning the Giant’s Causeway competition was another achievement for heneghan peng who had already proved themselves very accomplished architects with an extremely impressive record of competition successes. By 2005 they had already won the biggest architecture competition ever held – for the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo – another UNESCO world heritage site, as well as a number of other major architecture competitions.

heneghan peng’s approach to the causeway site was to treat the building as part of the landscape by burying it in a fold in the ground, and to recess the car park into a second fold with a grass pathway to the ridge of the site dividing the two folds. In the architect’s description: ‘The folding landscape respects the horizontality of the site without mimicking nature, giving an introduction and route to the Giant’s Causeway, but also to the Causeway Coast. There is no longer a building and a landscape, but building becomes landscape and landscape itself remains spectacular and iconic.’ The delicate weaving of the building into the land is achieved through the projection of geometries found on the site. These geometries are then rigorously followed throughout the building generating not only the lines of primary and secondary structures, but also surface patterns and the forms of fixed and movable elements like counters and benches.

The silence and emptiness evoked by the horizontal and rising lines created an air of expectation and charged the ridgeline and the entry to the space of the coastal landscape with a special emotional impact

The assessors cited heneghan peng’s entry as ‘exuding a simple and quiet monumentality that evoked a strong sense of drama and expectation…the design responded to the elemental power within the geological formation of the site with scale and grandeur…The silence and emptiness evoked by the horizontal and rising lines created an air of expectation and charged the ridgeline and the entry to the space of the coastal landscape with a special emotional impact. The site arrangement appropriately offers the visitor a view up along the grass-covered ramp to the ridge and the sky above at the very point of entering the site.’ Following a public display of the winning and shortlisted entries, the architects were appointed to design the building and the project progressed towards planning until 2007 when a rival scheme on private land adjoining the site was announced and submitted for planning approval. This rival scheme appeared to be given political support by members of the Northern Ireland Executive and its promoter was reported to be a member of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). There was considerable criticism of this move and, after a period of hiatus, the National Trust emerged as the promoter of the visitor centre project with heneghan peng’s scheme reinstated as the preferred design. Detailed design was developed during 2009 with construction beginning in 2010 and the building was completed in July 2012.

The Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre is a remarkable building for many reasons. As opposed to considering the building as an object in the landscape, it integrates the qualities of landscape and architecture into a synthesised whole, an unusual approach in contemporary Irish architecture. The green fields of the causeway coast literally cloak the roof of the centre which lies buried below the ground like the basalt columns. Grass continues down the ramp connecting roof and entry levels so that the building’s only façades emerge from the ground facing south and west. Thanks to this the building has no visual impact on the causeway itself and cannot be seen from the causeway coast to the north or east. The fold of the carpark dips down on the southeast side revealing a retaining wall of polished black basalt reminiscent of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War memorial in Washington. This retaining wall is clearly visible from the road approaching the site from Portrush, where a screen of elongated lozenge shaped columns of polished basalt rises out of the ground and supports the grass platform of the visitor centre’s roof (Fig 1). The centre is entered through these columns and the space inside beneath the hillside is like a large roomy cave punctuated with linear rooflights cut out of the sloping roof. The floor is made of polished concrete with an exposed basalt aggregate suggestive of the gravels lying above the solid basalt strata below. The telluric nature of the building is evocative of ancient architectures and this is part of the subtle power of the project.

The columns holding up the cave are made of basalt, a ‘weak stone’, which means that though it is strong in compression, it has little tensile strength, and is liable to crack. Because of this it is usually ground down to gravel and used in road building. The architects developed a structural solution based on keeping the material in permanent tension by passing steel rods through the stones and tightening them so that the basalt is always compressed. This method of construction is usually used in engineering high-performance concrete structures such as bridges. The result is that the visitor centre is held up by slender columns of basalt which create a visual screen between inside and outside. It is a beautiful structural solution and is uniquely suited to a context of rock strata.

The Causeway Visitor Centre is immaculately made. The architects have deployed a restrained language of concrete, glass, steel, oak and basalt to frame a simple sequence of spaces. The order is logical and clear leading from ticket desk past the café, shop and exhibition, and then out through a cleft in the hillside that opens onto the pathway down to the causeway itself. The precision of design and fabrication is exemplary and the handling of details has a purity that means that visitors are easily orientated throughout the spaces. The floor of the centre – cooly handled with shallow steps and ramps along the route – slopes gently up as you ascend towards the ridge of the coast. Though the architecture has a power it is never overpowering, thanks to a lightness of touch and an elegance of detail; you are delivered out into the space of the shore in a calm and restrained manner.

The architects have deployed a restrained language of concrete, glass, steel, oak and basalt to frame a simple sequence of spaces

The National Trust places a high value on sustainability and wanted to use materials that were locally sourced. Unlike many contemporary buildings the stone used is actual local stone, quarried in nearby Kilrea, Co Derry. They have also incorporated an ambitious suite of environmental measures into the servicing of the building including a geothermal heating system and a rainwater harvesting system which is used to supply toilets and wash hand basins. All of this is seamlessly incorporated into the overall design so that these measures are quietly working in the background. The National Trust’s commitment to sustainable design is highly commendable. A building of this quality is rare anywhere and it is hard to overstate the importance of the bodies involved – the leadership shown by UNESCO, and especially the National Trust in making a project like this happen. It is a great credit to Graham Thompson, the Project Director whose enthusiasm for the work has been critical to its realization. It is a great achievement by heneghan peng architects who have delivered on the promise of a compelling architecture born of a deep sense of place which, unusually, is even better in reality than in the design drawings.

heneghan peng are also designing an extensive refurbishment of the National Gallery in Dublin which is due to reopen next year. They have been selected to represent Ireland at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale this autumn. The exhibition, titled ‘Shifting Ground’, will embody elements of the Causeway Centre design in a site specific installation in the Arsenale making connections between the two sites.

Photography by Marie-Louise Halpenny except for Figs 2 and 5.
The 13th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice continues until 25 November 2012.
John McLaughlin is the curator of the Irish Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2012 which explores the theme of architecture and globalization under the title ‘Shifting Ground’.

From the IAR Archive
First published in the Irish Arts Review Vol 29, No 3, 2012

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