For architecture students in the North of Ireland, the opportunity to visit the site of the new Lyric Theatre was a significant one. Doubly so for students at Queen’s University, as the site is less than 300m from the architecture studios where such designs are always aspired to, but maybe only seldom approached. Also of great significance was to have the tour led by Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey, with John providing a wealth of information, anecdotes and insights into the building’s conception and construction.
For Queen’s students the construction process has been a continuous, and constantly elaborated, tutorial on building technology. The daily identification of changes, the puzzling over form & detail and the appreciation of how such things are constructed have been valuable and free lessons carried out on our doorstep. But what had maybe been a mainly technical appreciation of the building changed very markedly during the site visit, with the real character and subtlety of its design coming into clear focus.
Following a route dictated by the necessary continuation of construction works the visit was nevertheless able to cover all of the significant areas of the building. In the spring of 2011 it will be possible to experience the processional route from street to auditorium in the way that the architects intend, but even mid-construction the powerful spatial qualities of this route are quite striking and appropriately theatrical.
It would be wrong of course to assume the design only presents its qualities on this large scale – at each level of inspection it reveals an attention to detail that highlights great care and much thought. John Tuomey spoke about the choice and detailing of the brickwork in the building, making reference to the rich heritage that Belfast possesses in this area. The student’s eye will no doubt be drawn to this aspect of the detail design, learning much as it focusses closer and closer on the design.
Back at the macroscopic level the continuation of the tour illustrated how the building’s brickwork is as defining an element of its interior as its exterior. Never oppressive, it manages to simultaneously divide the bulk of the building into human scaled elements whilst drawing the whole architectural composition closer together. For those of us students at Queen’s who are strong advocates of traditional Belfast materials and construction methods it is a powerful lesson, and one that loses none of its strength by virtue of being delivered from a Dublin-based office.
Moving through the Directors’ boardroom, bar and upper foyer we arrive at the main auditorium itself. Described by John Tuomey as being almost like another full design project in its own right due to the complexities involved, it is still in the throes of construction. Yet, its essential qualities are evident at this stage. For a venue with a 450 seat capacity it is surprisingly intimate – an impression only reinforced when we later reach the stage and view the auditorium from the perspective of the performer. With the careful positioning of audience access routes, the auditorium presents no unoccupied axes of view to the performer, and will surely be as pleasant a space to perform in as to spectate.
Of further interest to the architecture student was the ability of the architects to engage with the client on the definition of the building programme, and the obviously collaborative relationship that allowed them to introduce and exploit new concepts. The first of these described by John Tuomey was the visual connection provided between the performers’ rehearsal space and the auditorium lobby. A previously unthinkable connection, it is handled with a discretion that will no doubt permit both performers and audience to value it greatly. Similarly surprising, though in hindsight eminently sensible, is the introduction of a substantial picture-window to the studio space. Capable of being quickly and seamlessly shuttered to create a black-box environment, when opened it creates a space of very different character and utility. It will surely become an important venue in its own right.
If the architects had to work hard for these changes to the programme, then for the upper meeting room that overlooks Ridgeway Street and beyond they were eclipsed by their client. Perhaps unremarkable in its dimensions, its positioning and the outlook it provides over the local and greater environment of South Belfast make it a very significant space in the building. To paraphrase John Tuomey – when they experienced it the client dismissed their preconceptions of its use and were seized with a new imagination of what might and could happen there. That, perhaps, is the most succinct analysis of the whole building – that ultimately it is a product of and supporter of great imagination and creativity.