Belfast Drawing Visitors
As the Titanic's 100th anniversary approaches, the city is pulling out all the stops to ensure the celebrations are as lavish as the ship herself. A £100 million visitor attraction is in the works around the dockyards, once the largest shipyard in the United Kingdom. In all, 165 acres (67 hectares) are set to be transformed in Northern Ireland's biggest property development scheme ever.
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A museum incorporating the old drawing offices of shipbuilders Harland and Wolff will be part of the plan. A "skeleton" of the Titanic will be set in the Thompson dry dock much like a dinosaur in a museum.
Recent additions to Belfast's accommodations inventory are also expected to support tourism. The five-star Merchant Hotel, for instance, is housed in the former Ulster Bank headquarters in the city's cultural enclave, the Cathedral Quarter. Built in 1860, the building's four corners were the points from which all milestones out of Belfast were measured.
Now the building's renovation, by o donnell o neill design associates and Strong Construction, may be the standard by which all future deluxe renovations are measured. The highlight is the Great Room, in the bank's former banking hall. Here, plaster cherubs peak out from gold-leafed columns, and the impressive Tyrone Crystal chandelier — the largest in Ireland — hangs from an enameled glass dome.
Other new hotels display a more modern esthetic, like the chic Malmaison and the funky Ten Square with an air of Asian fusion. Both are located near trendy shopping areas.
The high-end retail sector has also benefited from the recent influx of cash. Royal Avenue, a mile-long shopping strip, is home to many popular shops, and other stores are opening up nearby, like the Spires mini-mall, built in a former church.
Unprecedented in scale, design, and diversity, the £320 million Victoria Square retail center currently under construction just off Royal Avenue is one of Europe's largest urban regeneration projects and a milestone in Belfast's revitalization. Multi Development UK, the Dutch firm behind the project, is aiming for an opening date in spring 2008.
Victoria Square will be composed of 17 buildings — a mix of contemporary and traditional £ creating a series of public spaces and streets. The complex will include approximately 800,000 square feet (74,000 square meters) of retail space (70 shops), plus restaurants, bars, 90 apartments, and gardens. Capping it off will be an impressive 115-foot- (35-meter-) diameter glass dome with a public viewing platform offering spectacular views of the city and surrounding hills.
Belfast's renowned Queen's University is also adding to its architectural portfolio. The university's physical estate is primarily located in south Belfast, approximately one mile from the city center. The campus consists of 250 buildings, of which 100 are historic.
A £200 million capital development program is underway at Queen's, including a new library in College Park East. Scheduled to open in 2009, the library was designed by Shepley Bullfinch Richardson and Abbot of Boston in association with the Robinson Patterson Partnership. It will accommodate 1.5 million volumes and 2,000 reader spaces.
The £9 million refurbishment of the 40-year-old Students' Union Building concentrated on the facade, designed by Todd Architects. The general contractor for the project was Felix O'Hare & Co.
The Health Sciences campuses are also under construction. The program includes refurbishment of medical school teaching facilities, upgrading of services and information technology infrastructure, and repairs to building exteriors. A new biomedical library and IT facility have also been added. A 50,000-square-foot (4,600-square-meter), four-story Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology is scheduled for completion in March 2007.
The Physical Education Centre, which opened in September 2006, is one of the biggest sporting facilities in Northern Ireland. The architecture firm FaulknerBrowns designed the new circular extension to link with the existing center and take advantage of its location in Botanic Gardens. Gilbert Ash N.I. Ltd. was the general contractor. The centerpiece of the new extension is a two-story-high climbing wall/ bouldering cave, which dominates the central interior.
Other major projects recently completed at Queen's University include the new Centre for Climate, the Environment and Chronology and refurbishment and expansion of the Institute of Lifelong Learning; the Postgraduate Centre for the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences; and the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work.
Not all of the Queen's University projects are located on the main campus. The new Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology (ECIT) is part of the 25-acre (10-hectare) Northern Ireland Science Park in the Titanic Quarter.
The £40 million ECIT brings together, in one building, internationally renowned research groups specializing in advanced digital and communications technology. The 40,000-square-foot (3700-square-meter), three-story building houses state-of-the-art laboratories, offices, and one of the largest microwave and millimeter-wave anechoic chambers in Europe.
This institute extends the important links Queen's had already developed with major industrial partners and research centers throughout the world. In addition, it provides "incubation" facilities to encourage and support the establishment and development of new companies.
The ECIT's 120-strong staff includes four research teams whose interests cover areas such as broadband wireless communications, electronic data security, video and image processing, telecommunications software, and antenna design for mobile communications.
Given the number, diversity, and value of these and other major projects in Belfast, it just could be that the only "clashes" the locals will see in the near future will be from other European centers clambering to keep pace. Belfast may well become an architectural gem of the Emerald Isle.
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Janet Collins is a freelance writer and editor based in British Columbia. She has written for Canadian Architect, Canadian Interiors, Canadian Facility Management & Design, and many other publications.