I am not an architect nor skilled in the vernacular of the profession, I am though a user of buildings and have a reasonable sense of what I like and don’t like, though often it is a gut or instinctive reaction rather than one I can necessarily rationalise.
I am also a community worker who has spent decades at work in conflicted communities which are shaped by the violent and brutal architecture of a securitised Belfast. Communities who are surveilled at every opportunity and have learned to live with a sense of being mistrusted. Communities which learn through architecture where they are welcome and where they are not. Communities which understand in a visceral way the political fault lines that run beneath all of Northern Irish society but which erupt with violent force in the interface areas, which therefore need to be policed.
These communities can be insular and self-referential. They are often not porous in the sense that healthier communities may be, by which I mean people move freely in and out and strangers are welcome to enter.
All of this came to mind standing outside the Mac. If it is genuinely a public building to house the creative arts then why is it so foreboding?
Sandwiched between Exchange Street, Exchange Street West and St Anne’s Square the building is imagined as a collision of two different structures within which are housed the public spaces. Small wonder then that the interface of these buildings is marshalled by a tolkienesque black basalt elevation and a watchtower, complete with unscalable wall, for all the world echoing the security towers that were a common feature of the city scape during our darker past.
It all makes for a forbidding entrance from St Anne’s Square. It suggests we’re watching you, we’re not sure you’re one of us, and rather than us inviting you in for a cup of tea and a chat you need to establish your credentials before you cross our doors.
Even the sign over the door suggests something restricted. The name of the building appears partially submerged, as if unwilling to fully reveal itself to the onlooker or perhaps camouflaging itself in case it is found out by undesirables.
The unwelcoming impression is strengthened on the alternative entrance from Exchange Street West which takes the inquisitive, brave and persistent art lover to a blind wall, then sharp left before entering a lacuna at an oblique angle.
Maybe I’m being unfair and perhaps it was the day itself, a wet and cold January day, with the promise of snow in the forecast. The black facade, the black oak, the dark leather-covered hand rails, the matt covered steel bars in the stairwells like a prison cage, all combined to create an impression at once oppressive but also secretive.
Do they really want me here? This does not suggest to me a building that goes out of its way to welcome me. It requires deliberate intent, and not a little courage, to enter unbidden.
Once inside, round the sharply edged corners of exposed concrete there are cubby holes and rendezvous points which cry out for discreet meetings. The great internal void, one whole wall of which is solid red brick and whose glazing opens to the Cathedral, enhances the ecclesiastical feel of the area. Booths and covered seating, like dark confessionals, lend a solemnity to the whole scene and encourage the visitor to hide away and nurse a coffee or a bottle of wine from the bar area. This area I actually liked and could enjoy whiling the time away there – if I could find my way in.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps I could view the strange black tower with it’s opaque light box at the top as a lighthouse, a beacon of creativity that shines it’s welcoming light over the city, drawing art lovers to its sanctuary. That’s fairer perhaps, and a legitimate narrative. Given Belfast’s recent history though it is not a narrative that readily suggests itself unless one’s life experience of the city has been relatively untouched by the Troubles.
And therein lies the problem for me. I’ve spent much of my working life in communities where so-called high cultural art is almost non-existent. Where the pursuit of beauty is a luxury that few can afford since most of the rest of life is dedicated to mere survival or just getting by. Where people have developed an instinct to know where they are welcome and where they’re not. And they have often learned that they are not welcome in places owned by ‘the other lot’ and in places owned by those who understand the language of the arts.
Without a doubt the MAC is a dramatic building, and there’s many elements of it I like, the large exhibition spaces, the invitation to explore, the retro display cabinets, but I find that tower so out of place in Belfast with our history. And maybe at the end, bizarrely in 21st Century Belfast, the language of the Mac architecture is classist.