Belfast’s own big MAC set to become a unique cultural and public space in the heart of the city. Click Play Video for an online exhibition

'We see this building as changing the city by creating a new map of the Cathedral Quarter,’ enthuses architect Alastair Hall at an exhibition in the Old Museum Arts Centre of the design and practical operations for their new home, The MAC.

Due to open in May 2011 at a projected cost of £18.69 million, The MAC promises to both provide Northern Ireland with a flagship contemporary visual and performing arts venue and to contribute to the creation of a new public space, St Anne’s Square, adjacent to the cathedral.

As the exhibition of architects plans and project ambitions shows, in both style and scale The MAC is quite unlike anything that has gone before it in Belfast. 

At 5,500 square metres, The MAC will be over eight times the size of the current Old Museum Arts Centre and will contain two performance spaces (350- and 120-seat respectively), a dance studio, a rehearsal space, visual art space, office accommodation and state-of-the-art back of house facilities.

Project manager Anne McReynolds is particularly attracted by the 1,000 square metre, close controlled visual art gallery. ‘We will be able to bring in work to Northern Ireland that can’t currently be seen. We will be able to borrow the kinds of priceless art works that require heat and light and humidity controls,’ she says.

As if its contents are not impressive enough, the building looks like it will be something special. Designed by top Belfast architects Hackett, Hall and McKnight – who won an international competition organised by the RIBA – the six-storey arts centre is made up of two brick blocks joined by a lantern shaped tower.

The brick structure is intended to ‘evoke the tradition of warehouse type buildings in the city,’ explains Hall. The lantern, reaching a height of 32 metres (105 feet), will be a visual landmark on Belfast’s skyline, joining the Albert Clock, the Harland & Wolff cranes and the St Anne’s spire to create a new iconic image of the city.

The MAC will make up the fourth side of the new St Anne’s Square – the other three sides are taken up by a neo-Victorian commercial development that will include bars, cafés and restaurants.

The architectural styles are clearly at odds but neither McReynolds nor Hall envisages any clash between commerce and culture. ‘It’s great for the commercial building to have The MAC and it’s great for The MAC to have the square,’ argues McReynolds.

With two proposed entrances - one onto the square, the other facing the rear of the Art College – Hall envisages the building being open to the city and becoming ‘a new public space in the city’. ‘It is saying ‘come in, walk through, use this space, engage’,’ the architect explains.

‘We are used to buildings plugging gaps in the street that we are already familiar with, but this building overlooks a new space that we have never seen in Belfast and it’s exciting to be part of this kind of regeneration,’ he continues.

A firm MAC evangelist, MacReynolds believes that the development has the potential to radically change the cultural landscape of both Belfast and Northern Ireland – ‘This means that Belfast will have become a topflight city that will be able to offer visiting cultural tourists as well as local inhabitants the kinds of opportunities to consume top class international work that they currently need to travel to Dublin or London to see.’

Bold, innovative and architecturally significant, if the plans for Belfast’s big MAC are anything to go by then culture vultures of every hue are in for a major treat in three years’ time. 

Peter Geoghegan