Is it a museum that looks like a ship? A theme park that looks like an iceberg? Or a ship/iceberg/museum/ theme-park amalgam?
Two weeks before its opening, Mark Simpson on BBC1 described the £97m Titanic Belfast as a ‘new Titanic Visitor Centre’; odd considering of course there is no Titanic. A Visit Belfast staffer talked in hopeful terms of it being Belfast’s Guggenheim Bilbao, but it’s not a gallery or museum. And no-one would be so crass as to call it a mini theme-park – yet it includes a six-minute ride in suspended cars through three levels of sensory experiences driven by smells, sounds and temperature shifts in controlled environments and electrodes embedded in the glass that put you in the prow of the doomed vessel, á la Kate and Leo.
You suspect that concept and design architect CivicArts/Eric R Kuhne & Associates, working with Belfast-based Todd Architects as lead consultant and architect, must have had a pretty tough challenge on its hands when it first sketched out plans for the building back in 2003. Though perhaps it was not as tough as the one faced by content designer Event Communications, which had to somehow shift the world’s view of a tragedy into a story about the city and people who built the ship.
The building’s form has divided opinion in the city and beyond, with architect Jonathan Glancey (see page 44 for Glancey on John Madin) describing it as looking like the prow of a ship crashing into an iceberg, and local indie arts magazine Vacuum calling it a ‘paranoid, quartered replication of a ship’s hull’.
But in the watery Turneresque Belfast morning light, the building’s four-pronged facade, made up of 3,000 faceted, 3D aluminium shards (developed with specialist facade contractor Metallbau Frueh and manufactured by Spanwall), is exactly what Eric Kuhne had devised: ‘Eight blank surfaces turned into canvasses that reflect the character of Belfast, its light and its atmosphere.’
Such lyricism comes easy in this most resilient and charming of cities, so much so that you feel to criticise this venture, part of a wider one that is hoped will regenerate not just the huge Titanic quarter, but the whole city, is mean-spirited. Glancey’s observation is one view, but more compelling is Kuhne’s, who talks passionately of its form evolving across about half a dozen metaphors, among them ice crystals representing the island nature looking out to sea; the unusual shape of the iceberg; the prowsof ships ploughing their way through the North Atlantic swell; four prows representing the four materials inherent to the city and its industrial heritage – timber, iron, steel and aluminium. The eccentric quality of the interior form, with its earthy colours, refracted light and sharp angles ‘recreates the feeling of standing between the ship’s hull and dock,’ says Kuhne.
For both Kuhne and Steve Lumby, Event Communications’ senior designer on the project, Titanic Belfast is an emphatically a paean to the city’s shipbuilding heritage, the history of the shipyard and its workers driving a narrative in the form of nine episodic galleries leading from Boomtown Belfast through the shipyard and its workers to Titanic’s genesis, her demise and rediscovery.
To make all those stories compelling and engaging to a contemporary audience, Event Communications has kept information panels to a minimum and employed a dizzying range of interpretive techniques and interactive technology – among them a barrage of blue screens, large-scale wall and floor projections, audio and sensory tools, and interactive panels – in spaces and exhibits that shift from soaring to constraining, elegant to edgy, cheesy to classy, mournful to joyful.
Such an approach runs the risk of presenting a disjointed, fragmented whole, but it works, partly due to some intelligent connections forged by Event Communications and Lumby, who adapted existing technology to create multisensory spaces such as the 3D cave, which enables visitors to walk through the ship, and incorporated contemporary aspects such as elegant, large-scale animations by Graham English & Company, influenced by the 19th-century woodblock advertisements, appearing in the first gallery.
The result is an experience that is emotionally engaging and suitably dramatic, and should appeal to everyone; except perhaps Titan-oraks fixated on the ship’s myths and legends, and curmudgeons who will doubtless feel Titanic is not an appropriate subject for a ‘visitor experience’.
Remove our own associations with Titanic, shaped predominantly by the knowledge that a load of nutjobs obsess over her sinking thanks largely to one overblown film, and it’s easy to see Titanic Belfast as what the city and everyone involved planned it as ‘The story of 500 years of maritime history in Belfast, not just one tragic ship,’ says Kuhne.
At the time of writing, he was planning a sonnet for the building’s grand opening, ending ‘Where once we built ships, now we build cities’. In that sense, Titanic Belfast stands as a fine metaphor for a city that is sloughing off its troubled past and getting on with the business of becoming a world-class city. It deserves a building with an iconic skyline, ‘something even a child could describe or draw,’ as Kuhne puts it. And whatever people think of its emphatic form, Titanic Belfast is definitely that.