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Beyond the city limits

Awards and accolades pay tribute to Hall McKnight’s undisputed talents, but will the price of success require a move beyond Belfast to the wider world?

Alastair Hall and Ian McKnight look at home in their Belfast studio, but the world is beckoning.
Alastair Hall and Ian McKnight look at home in their Belfast studio, but the world is beckoning. · Credit: Aidan Monaghan

‘Come to Belfast… we still feel very rooted in our home environment,’ says Ian McKnight. So I come, my first time in the city, despite years of writing about architecture. The Mac arts centre, completed in 2012, was one building I’d desperately wanted to see. Now I got to be taken around it by the architects themselves, Ian McKnight and Alastair Hall, Hall McKnight. But before that – the Troubles and being part of Belfast and history.

The first stop is Hall McKnight’s RIBA national award winning police service memorial garden. As we wait, a bitter shower looming, for security and our escort through the wires into the police HQ to see it, it is inevitable that McKnight and Hall reflect on the Troubles that defined their upbringing in seventies Belfast. Of course it was normal to them, though they hardly felt it touched them as middle class boys of the suburbs. You had to drive to see relatives in homes where partisan views were strongly argued. It was when he left to study in Newcastle that McKnight was surprised, here there were no body and bag searches, nor barriers at the head of the high street. ‘You notice the difference in other places,’ he says.

We pause to gaze up the long drive to Stormont where the Northern Ireland Assembly has sat since the Good Friday Agreement 17 years ago. The Police Memorial Garden is a result of the same peace, next door to its politically charged antecedent the Royal Ulster Constabulary with its lengthy roll call of Troubles’ deaths. Hall McKnight’s simple structure has only 10 name plaques for those who died on active duty. Underfoot, the fossil rich Irish limestone lends the winter garden and its stark black-mirrored canopy depth and interest. Hornbeam-lined geometry turns a scrap of space into a logical and thoughtful place for those who died. The pavilion, even with the constraints of the simple building, conveys a sense of a chapel enclosure. It is achieved without drama; there is to be no sobbing brought on by architecture.

This seems indicative of the work of Hall McKnight, which is underpinned by serious thought but does not demand you understand it fully to experience the space – unlike the work of some storytelling architects. Of course, that may sometimes be because they offer explicit clues. In the practice’s Mies van der Rohe Award shortlisted Vartov Square in Copenhagen they unearthed a little known story by Hans Christian Andersen set around the windows of the almshouse, the oldest building on site. As well as paving those window shapes into the ground, the words were engraved on a plinth. ‘The act of inscribing allows the narrative,’ says McKnight. The pair prefer their buildings without authorial arrogance. Hall is keen to suppress a sense of ego, guided by Rafael Moneo’s construct of an architect as servant to the site and history. ‘It’s about fulfilling a role,’ he says.

· Credit: Aidan Monaghan

Meath to Mac
In 2008 that role looked like a lot to step into. With then partner, now Belfast city campaigner, Mark Hackett, they won a competition to design the £43 million Meath County Council offices, had just been awarded the Young Architect of the Year and already had the Mac under way. It was a long way from their first collaborations, working at Belfast’s Kennedy FitzGerald Architects. As we drive along protestant Shankhill Road, through the oversized gates splitting streets along the peace line and into the nationalist Falls Road, we look out for Falls Leisure Centre (2005) that McKnight worked on in the Kennedy FitzGerald days not long after meeting Hall: a giant light box by night, though suffering from a certain greyness today.

The practice’s first new building, Dowling House, was shortlisted for the RIBA Manser Medal in 2007. Since then the practice, with Ian McKnight joining seven years ago, has built a surprising amount for its age, including a good crop of new build houses. With most work within an hour’s drive it is often easier to get in the car and explain on site rather than email, says Hall. ‘There is a close connection between drawn and built, drawing very quickly becomes material construction,’ he says. Of course this also has a downside. ‘On the Mac we were on site most days, it was such an enormous package of work to explain, you do get dependent contractors.’ But any spoon feeding paid off in fewer fights to fix details later – and in results.

Unknown to the pair, the Meath project was being cancelled even as the firm completed its stage two submissions. Then Belfast was hit with the double blow of recession, both as a UK regional city and as part of Ireland – many banks were heavily exposed to property in the Republic and suffered from its far more dramatic crash. There is no sense of entitlement or tragic disappointment here, merely a restatement of the facts. The project that kept Hall McKnight’s  spirits up was the Mac, nearby in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, and won in an RIBA international competition.

Comfortably coffeed in the canyon at the heart of the Mac I see textural and visual delight everywhere, from the very particular patterning of the boarded concrete to delicate raking supports of the interval drinks ledge. The light falls softly, galleries flow, conversations weave around the building. We talk of permanence – the awkwardness of defining it despite its importance in relating to a very particular way a building can be valued. Is it about something social – as seen in the suburbs suggests Hall – or heavy buildings perhaps? ‘It’s related to physical strength,’ says McKnight firmly. ‘To become a place in people’s minds it has to be in good condition and easy to look after.’ The Mac is far more than that – assured, articulate and nuanced with a great spatial generosity, though geometries of the plan might suggest otherwise.

· Credit: Aidan Monaghan

Playing with time
Perhaps it was an interest in permanence and time that led the practice to cheat a little with chronology using the Mac’s campanile as a historic marker, although it joined its small city square as the last addition to a very ordinary noughties development with its ‘faux history’. The architects imagine the basalt tower being read as an older piece of the city. ‘It felt honest to us, streets change, facts become less relevant,’ says Hall. In fact the aloof way it sits in its square, despite being butted up to it, is one reason why it didn’t quite make it past the Stirling Prize midlist in 2013. But it is no explanation for why, after completion of the Mac, Hall McKnight returned to architectural duties on house extensions. Is their location holding them back? They miss a critical culture in Belfast and the clients and architectural peers that go with it. But working in London and Dublin has not previously held the attention of the two of them. They are trying again, with McKnight spending much of his week in London, building a new office with some critical mass. After all, it was London that offered Hall McKnight its next meaty project. ‘Not until King’s [College London] could we look forward to working at scale again,’ says McKnight.

At its simplest, the Quadrangle project at King’s, awarded by a jury advised by Niall McLaughlin, reimagined the slim rectangle that sits between the college’s brutalist block and Somerset House. Hall McKnight’s proposals took the college further to rework the brutalist core and make a small insertion on the Strand itself, a carved solid with stone base and diminishing cornice. Just through planning, it is now all systems go in both the Belfast and London offices. Meanwhile the firm has student housing, a new town centre masterplan, 40 social flats in Derry and an ambitious design-driven residential development in the Czech Republic.

King’s will not be its London calling card: that will be much smaller and sooner, in the form of a pavilion at the London Festival of Architecture this summer (though I wish the Serpentine Gallery had invited it to design its annual pavilion). Hall McKnight is representing northern Ireland for the Irish Design Year. The standard lightweight materials of a summer pavilion have been eschewed. McKnight had just picked up a carful of Belfast bricks from a demolition site – early samples for its arched brick design to be shipped over to King’s Cross. Is there a London pitch to go along with for a design hungry university client? Not really: that’s not how Hall and McKnight think – except that they believe they’re different, the culture of the city gives them more time to work on a design, and a degree of modesty. They are appealing traits.