Another icon of the new Belfast

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The new Lyric Theatre in Belfast is an angular marvel that is hugely innovative in its use of space, design and materials. Better yet, when this new facility opens next month it will be carrying no debt, writes FRANK McDONALD

THE PEACE process has produced many good things in Northern Ireland. Who can forget the uplifting impact of Belfast’s Waterfront Hall after it was completed on the Lagan in 1997? And now, further upriver, the new Lyric Theatre is set to capture the public imagination when it opens on May 1st with The Crucible.

Designed by acclaimed Dublin-based architects O’Donnell + Tuomey, the Lyric takes theatre design to new heights of ingenuity, refinement and sophistication. Three times as large as the old theatre, yet on exactly the same site, it makes a dramatic and highly sculpted architectural statement on the Stranmillis embankment.

Yet because of the sloping ground, there is no sense of the two-storey housing in the vicinity being overwhelmed by a cultural behemoth. Local people have long lived with a theatre in their midst; it gave Stranmillis a certain cachet. What they have next door is a building that’s already another icon of the new Belfast.

The old Lyric was basic, a cut above the parish hall, with very poor facilities. Rehearsals were held in a Portakabin plonked in the yard while dressing rooms were housed in a shipping container. What it had, however, was a “homely character” – as project director Richard Wakely put it – and Belfast people liked that.

From 1968 onwards, even in the worst of times, they kept the Lyric going. The fact that it was in the university area of the city, a short walk down Ridgeway Street from Stranmillis Road, made this attachment possible. Had the theatre been located within the city centre security zone, it wouldn’t have survived.

So when the Lyric launched its Time to Rebuild fund-raising campaign, only scant consideration was given to relocating to the Cathedral Quarter as an anchor for its rejuvenation. Instead, it is getting the Old Museum Arts Centre designed by the talented Hackett and Hall, who were finalists in the 2003 Lyric competition.

O’Donnell + Tuomey are more garlanded with awards than any other architects in Ireland. The design they proposed was seen as most successful in responding to the tight constraints of the site, sandwiched between Belfast’s grid of back-to-back housing and the serpentine river.

“We hadn’t done a theatre before,” John Tuomey admits. “We had done a few designs for Garry Hynes and others for Limavady and Navan that didn’t win [architectural competitions].” The last time they had worked in the North was in 1992, on the well-regarded Blackwood Golf Centre in Clandeboye, Co Down.

They decided to remake the Lyric as a “house for living”, where all of its functions would overlap and nobody would feel excluded. Internal windows almost everywhere and a web of different routes link the various spaces. Thus, office staff not only have views out over the park, but also over the soaring angular staircase.

“The site is so tight that even in the re-drafted brief [following the 2003 competition] the configuration and dimensions of its three main elements were set – stage, rehearsal room and studio – so we lifted up the rehearsal room and slid the bar under it,” Tuomey explains. “It’s a volumetric design, not a plan design.”

The building is defined by its playful angles, both inside and out. There is no module to be repeated endlessly. Everything is asymmetrical, including the main auditorium. This is breathtaking: a complex geometrical, iroko-clad cavern with 389 seats, none more than 15 metres from the stage to replicate the old intimacy.

Externally expressed as an angular brick box that also contains its fly-tower – the “Belfast brick” actually came from Leicester – the auditorium was modelled in a 1:20 scale to get it right. Nothing is symmetrical, apart from the stage, with its minimalist proscenium arch. The thin balconies on each side are also not a pair.

Lighting rigs above are not only concealed by faceted timber arches, but these also double as acoustic springboards.

The seating layout is creased along one line, “folding slightly like an open hand to hold the audience”, as Tuomey says. Its parabolic rake was also computer-modelled to ensure the best possible sight lines.

Another brick box contains the Lyric’s second performance space, the Studio, with a large, nearly flush single-pane window looking out into Ridgeway Street. It is a flexible space for up to 150 that can be used in any configuration; internal brick walls, tall black drapes and a wire-mesh “ceiling” give it an edgy warehouse-like feel.

A large rehearsal room occupies an enviable position on the upper levels, with a long window overlooking the Lagan. Like the main auditorium and the studio, it is acoustically sealed and the actors love it. Other backstage facilities are top-notch, from the fly tower with 40 full-width bars to the pleasant green room and functional dressing rooms.

Right from its entrance under a red oxide painted steel canopy that incorporates one of three nameplates at different levels, you know everything has been designed down to the last detail. Angular windows at street level make room for sandstone slabs on which theatregoers can sit if they get tired in the queue.

Sandstone, one of the materials used for Belfast’s great Victorian buildings, is employed here as a formal introduction to the new Lyric. It provides the surface in the entrance foyer, staircase and upper-level foyer with its huge window over the Lagan and brightly-lit bar, which has a sculpted concrete counter topped by terrazzo.

The toilets (angular inevitably) are floored in terrazzo, which is also used for the attractive trough that functions as a continuous hand basin. To cut costs, according to Tuomey, “all the teak for kitchen units in Northern Ireland” was bought as a job-lot to provide cabinets, including those in the Lyric’s fine boardroom.

Even the red oxide painted steel balusters on the staircase are playful, recalling the legs of matchstick men. The lighting rigs in the upper foyer add more fun to this space; from here, a flight of external steps – also at an angle, naturally – lead patrons down to the road level and a car park beyond the woods.

The iroko used externally has been left untreated, so it will grow lighter in colour as it weathers. That includes the timber louvres on the two floors of offices above the main entrance and all of the windows. A building management system also provides natural ventilation, in keeping with best environmental practice.

The Lyric was fortunate to be able to acquire from Belfast City Council, for just £42,000 (€47,700), the triangular strip of land in front, on the sloping Stranmillis embankment. Part of this is being laid out as an external performance space, echoing the shape of the main auditorium, officially, the Northern Bank Theatre.

Although 72 per cent of the £18.1 million project cost came from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the UK National Lottery through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Belfast City Council, more than £5 million had to be raised from wealthy individuals, corporate sources and foundations.

O’Donnell + Tuomey’s design provided an inspiring brochure for the fundraising campaign, which was headed by the formidable actor Liam Neeson as the Lyric’s patron. Businessman Martin Naughton chipped in a million and got the Studio named after him. The Northern Bank’s contribution must have been larger, to bag “naming rights” for the auditorium.

As a result of the combination of public and private funding, the new Lyric will open debt-free, as did the Sydney Opera House in 1973. And like the Waterfront Hall, it represents “a new openness to using the city again for cultural activity and getting people to come out at night”, as Wakely says.

Long may it continue.

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