This building characterises the causeway; a zone of transition where natural meanings are brought together in a new way,’ writes Stephen Best
A far projecting, firm, basaltic way
Of clustering columns wedged in dense array;
With skill so like, yet so surpassing art,
With such design, so just in every part,
That reason pauses, doubtful if it stand
The work of mortal, or immortal hand.
From The Giant’s Causeway: a Poem (1811),
by William Hamilton Drummond
The Giant’s Causeway, on Antrim’s rugged northern shore, has always inspired and challenged our imagination. Just as Fingal’s Cave roused composer Felix Mendelssohn, the Irish poet William Hamilton Drummond was compelled by wonder at the genius of Fionn mac Cumhaill’s hexagonal pavement. But as childhood enchantment fades, scientific knowledge diminishes myth and legend. We now know all about crystal formation in fast cooling lava, and that giants don’t really exist. Yet there remains a yearning for the mystery of an enigma. Heneghan Peng Architects’ new visitor centre may have just returned a little of the magic.
Atop the cliff, overlooking Northern Ireland’s only World Heritage site, the partially buried building has a sculptural form that is sewn neatly into the landscape. Its 1,800m² footprint is concealed under a grassy cloak, which from afar melds seamlessly into the agrarian setting. Hidden from view, building and car park form a new topological terrain that presents a serrated and tousled silhouette against the 19th-century white-rendered Causeway Hotel. This clever trick accentuates the hotel’s pavilion-like nature.
Heneghan Peng has eschewed the temptation for excess and instead made an unpretentious yet thought-provoking threshold.
The line of the roof, which rises in a severed zig-zag from the ground to the ridgeline, becomes a symbol of force and dynamism. It is supported on an orthogonal system of vertical, manmade basalt spars that echo the ones on the shore below. This is, of course, more conceit than archaeology. But when, in typical style, it is done with an artistic intensity and rigour that might be found in a Gesamkunstwerk by Joseph Beuys, it transcends parody and creates a romantic scene, where the power of the earth is intensified and the mystery of the natural forces resound in harmony.
The patterning of the stone joint on the facade, which went to represent the best of Irish architecture at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, reflects the architects’ interest in surface decoration. It is a passion that can be seen in their work elsewhere. In this building, simple repetitive elements create an apparently random array on the facade that is an echo of the rhythm of fractures in the Giant’s Organ set into the cliff face below. Its effect symbolises, through formal articulation, the reciprocal relationship between the natural and the manmade place.
The entrance, veiled behind the corner columns, leads to a single, cavernous room. Stepping gently from front to back, it comprises a sequence of café, shop, exhibition and orientation centre, rimmed by unseen support spaces and facilities. The outside-inside relationship is complex. To one side, supporting the pale grey exposed concrete soffit, the basalt columns form an attenuating black phalanx, through which light is carefully filtered.
Like the descent into a cave, where imagination blossoms with allegorical resonance, the space becomes ever darker and the atmosphere more intimate. At its end there is a narrow, illuminated exit that leads down to the shore. This bright spot acts as a beacon that draws the visitor through. Above, the dark ceiling is punctuated by glazed fissures in the concrete that mark each step.
This building characterises the causeway; it is a zone of transition where natural meanings are brought together in a new way, each abstracted from its original context and composed anew to form a fresh, complex meaning, which illuminates nature as well as man’s role within it.
As in music, poetry and sculpture, the architecture is at times irrational and subjective. This is its strength. The nature, clearly defined, is emphasised. Heneghan Peng’s building demonstrates the loving care of man and allows visitors to bring their own imagination to bear.
Stephen Best is a senior lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology