Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich is an Irish language cultural centre founded in 1991 and named after Robert 'Shipboy' McAdam, a Presbyterian gaelic revivalist from the mid 19th century and Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, another gaelic scholar. The building is a red brick church built in a gothic style. It was the Broadway Presbyterian Church in Belfast from its construction in 1882 until 1982 and had subsequently been renovated to make workshop and educational space though conversion and insertion of floors and circulation. In that process the internal sense of the church was lost.
Our design approach was informed by both the immediate physical contexts of the building and its use and the broader context of regeneration through culture.
Conceptually the shape of the extension was generated from mapping the golden section across the existing elevation and the site on the main Falls Road entrance side. This generated an overall form which clearly defers to the church tower allowing a unified asymmetric elevation. The resulting glazing to the extension makes reference to the main gothic window of the original church.
Materials were chosen to reflect the church and the history of Belfast, the brick skin of the extension clearly references the brick of the church building and the adjacent terraced streets. The copper refers to the copper clad church tower which was unfortunately reduced in height many years ago.
We sought to expose elements of the older church hitherto covered while also ensuring that as much of the sense of the original building was retained. Most notably the church tower which had fallen into use as a store, could be returned to use as circulation space; the side wall of the church could be used to add character to the internal spaces of the extension; the church trusses could become a part of the character of the office mezzanines.
* Belfast has seen a major revival in the Irish Language from the late 1960's, initially in ad hoc and back street facilities. This design was to make a statement of engagement with the language as a public and visible cultural activity with a confident future.
The glazed extension makes visible the activity within, even right up to the second floor conference room. External shuttering has been kept to a minimum and the gallery extension has been detailed with acoustics in mind to allow lectures, talks and poetry readings at this publicly visible location. The full height glazing is right at the back of the footpath and exhibitions have been erected with this in mind to allow display boards within to be read from the public footpath. The activity previously hidden within is now truly public.
* The external space is now clearly structured to define a public role. We have taken advantage of the gradient in the street to provide level access while introducing steps which must have formed part of the original building. A widening of the footpath at the steps marks a public welcome. A low retaining wall provides a public seat to those awaiting a bus. The continuing gradient has allowed a raised area set sufficiently above the footpath to define it as a separate place while sufficiently low that it does not dominate. This has been used for external festivities, the Christmas tree, street ceilidh and outside of winter is used as an external dining area.
* The extension provided the opportunity to redefine the terminus of the axis the building sits on when approached from along the Falls Road. Prior to the construction of the extension the terminus 'leaked' into the adjacent Nansen Street. By taking the extension out to the back of the footpath the new role of the building became visible and the axis could be more satisfactorily closed. The extension and its play of solid and void together with illuminated signage allow it to contribute to the life of the street both day and night.
This building is the focal point in a regeneration strategy for this part of the city, the 'Gaeltacht Quarter'. The building needed to strongly define this landmark role. In reinforcing the existing landmark of the church the form of the extension makes a statement of modernity and confidence; continual themes in the current development of the Irish Language.