Heneghan Peng Architects’ visitor centre for the Giant’s Causeway combines a raw simplicity with a generative grid to create a powerful sense of place
Irish legend has it that the Giant’s Causeway was built by a mythical hunter-warrior named Finn MacCool, as a way of reaching Scotland to fight other giants without getting his feet wet. He apparently tore great chunks of rock from the cliffs and fashioned them into neatly interlocking hexagonal pillars — of which about 40,000 remain, clinging to the north-east Antrim coast of Northern Ireland.
MacCool was blessed with many powers, including a magic thumb that he sucked to see into the future, but it is for his paving skills and landscaping prowess that he is best remembered. Many of Ireland’s geographical features are attributed to his fits of rage, including Lough Neagh, the hole left when he scooped up a chunk of land to sling at a rival (he missed and it landed in the sea — forming the Isle of Man). Rich in legend and a primal sense of place, there is a palpable feeling that this ragged coastline might once have been carved and sculpted by an almighty hand.
It is a sense that Heneghan Peng Architects has channelled and masterfully redeployed in its £18 million visitor centre for the Giant’s Causeway, which now lies 1km from the basalt formation, stealthily hunkered down into the brow of the hill above the coast.
It is composed simply from two great fissures in the ground, as if hewn by MacCool himself, one rising up 6m to form the angular entrance prow of the building, the other slipping down by an equal height to create a sunken car park. Each fissure is lined with marching pillars of polished black basalt, revealing a dark striated crust beneath the topsoil. Between these two cuts, a broad grassy bank slopes up to the ridgeline, signalling the beginning of a path that snakes off into the distance along the cliff tops.
“Interfering with the landscape was sacrilege,” says Julia Loughnane, the project architect who has steered this feat of geological engineering to completion. “We couldn’t compromise the ridgeline by putting a building on it.”
Instead, Heneghan Peng’s proposal — one of 800 entries to the international competition in 2005 — tried as far as possible to bury the scheme, to blend the 1,800sq m of shop, café and exhibition space, as well as parking for 200 cars, into the undulating topography of the place. Big buildings are difficult things to hide, and the popular planner-friendly approach of covering them with grass rarely works. Here, however, the architects have sculpted the landform in such a way as for the entire complex to be barely legible on the horizon, from any direction. Even approached from the south — the building’s most visible face — it is easily mistaken for a dark furrow in the ground, an exposed seam of peat or cliff face in shadow.
“It is not a destination building,” says Loughnane, refreshingly matter of fact about the project’s relatively humble role, playing second fiddle to the Unesco World Heritage Site beyond. “Its job is to frame a route. You should walk through it, not stay in it.”
The basalt pillars, syncopated into an irregular barcode pattern, break open at the southern corner to form a covered entrance portico through which visitors file. Entered through glazed revolving doors, the building is revealed as one great hall, covered by a thick concrete slab supported on slender steel fins, in which the various components of the National Trust formula are loosely arranged. It is big and echoey, and has something of the air of a departure hall: a riotous tableau of hyperactive children jostling shoulder-to-knee with huddles of day-tripping pensioners, patiently queuing for their tea.
It is easily mistaken for a dark furrow, an exposed seam of peat or cliff face in shadow
It is finished in a palette of simple, raw materials, giving the impression of entering a space that is the result of a momentous tectonic shift, of a void prised open by some great slippage of plates. A single scored fold runs the length of the exposed concrete soffit, as if the slab itself has been wrenched and twisted, tilting up along its length. It is sliced open at regular intervals to reveal wedges of sky and bring in ample natural daylight, allowing snatched views up to figures scampering across the grassy rooftop.
“We were keen that you should always be aware of the conditions outside, as the changing light and weather is such a feature of this area,” says Loughnane, just as the heavens open and torrential rain drives floods of visitors to the shelter of the portico. “We didn’t want it to feel like a black velvet-lined box.”
The floor, of polished concrete with basalt chips, also rises with the roof, stepping up in line with the slices of skylight to lead visitors through to the back of the building, where they eventually exit through a sculpted hollow in the landscape — which has the thrill of emerging from the Batcave. These changes in floor level are set out on a different axis to the roof, as if the ground is a separate layer in the mineral strata, a different seam with its own specific geometry.
Source: © Hufton and Crow
The importance of geometry and generative grids is an ongoing interest in the office of Heneghan Peng, particularly evident in its winning scheme for the Grand Egyptian Museum, currently on site in Giza, which is derived from a mysterious alignment with the Pyramids. There, as here, a powerful sense of geometry is instilled in the psyche of the place, and the architects appear to enjoy channelling these quasi-mystic qualities in their own work.
The stone here has that rare quality of being treated like stone, rather than a flimsy cladding
Loughnane tells me how the entire logic of the project springs from “point zero zero zero”, where all of the lines converge at the top of the ridgeline, and from which everything is measured in “clean numbers”. There is a notionally east-west axis, which controls the basalt pillars, steel columns, roof lights, benches and planters. Then there are the two primary cuts, each a variation on north-south (one of which is projected from the tip of the causeway), which dictate the longitudinal alignment of everything. These are then overlaid by a tertiary axis, which springs from the building’s southern elevation and determines the steps, shelving and other bits of furniture.
It is an elaborate set-up that belies the apparent simplicity of the initial moves, and one that no doubt entailed further expense in such details as the rhomboid shuttering of the slab and bespoke angular furniture. There are whiffs of Peter Eisenman and IM Pei in the dogma of the grid, which betrays the architects’ US training, although thankfully here it has not been pursued to the detriment of the useful functioning of the building. Instead, it brings a delightful layer of complexity: the basalt pillars on the southern elevation are so skewed by the grid as to make this facade seem almost opaque; the mild steel fins, composed of a seven-layer sandwich of 30mm plates, are so aligned as to appear staggered, the plates slipping past each other as if under tectonic stress. None of these details are overwrought, nor do they overwhelm. They are instead symptoms of an admirably obsessive practice.
“Heneghan Peng are masters in pragmatic perfectionism,” says Graham Thompson, project director for the National Trust, which runs the site and has managed the project since 2008. It is rare for a client to speak so highly of its architect, particularly after a protracted seven-year process — which saw a rival, privately backed scheme derail the plans for some time.
Thompson is equally full of praise for the stonemason, S McConnell & Sons, “the finest in the UK”, which has fashioned the basalt slabs (taken from the same lava flow as the causeway pillars, sourced from a nearby quarry) with a precision that Finn MacCool could only dream of. The stone here has that rare quality of being treated like stone, rather than a flimsy cladding, thanks to the architect’s specification of a minimum 75mm block thickness. In some ways, it is almost too slick — the sharp detailing and recessed steel balustrade are more reminiscent of Foster City plaza than the local Antrim vernacular of white render and grey pebble dash. The barcode pattern adds to this feeling, given it has become the knee-jerk response to livening up an elevation, employed in a glut of dreary projects since this scheme was designed.
But this matters little to the children who, on the day of visiting, have embraced every surface of the building as a new adventure landscape, occupying the nooks and crannies between columns, the shifting levels of its ramps and rooftops, the perches formed as the facade meets the ground. Whether peering in through the skylights to ambush their parents below, or playing hide and seek between the pillars, they seem to enjoy it as much as the stepping-stone terrain of the causeway itself. It is only let down occasionally by an over-sensitive building control officer, who has insisted on cumbersome glass fins to prevent overly enthusiastic climbers from scaling the parapet.
Being so much part of the natural landscape, refusing to differentiate between front and back, ground and roof, the building’s one weakness is in providing a coherent sense of circulation. This was always a slippery part of the brief, given that the causeway is an open site and a public right of way, and yet the National Trust must charge for parking and use of the facilities in order to maintain the site. As a result, the first part of the scheme you encounter is the broad grassy ramp, where the building generously ducks down, inviting forthright hikers to march over the roof and not pay the entrance fee.
It is rare for a client to speak so highly of its architect, particularly after a protracted seven-year process
Similarly, the car park is located next to the coach party entrance, through which many confused visitors first enter, before being sent around to the front. Once inside, the open nature of the hall is again at odds with being funnelled to one side to buy a ticket, and even finding the loos (surely the most used part of the building) is something of a challenge.
But the biggest elephant in the room, which was entirely out of the architect’s control, is the exhibition design itself. The product of Event, which also produced the displays for the nearby Titanic Belfast, it consists of a series of lacklustre interpretation boards and digital projections that require the blacking out of several roof lights. It is a black-box production for a building predicated on natural light.
Thankfully it might not prove to be permanent, the architect’s robust shell allowing for multiple versions of occupation over the building’s long lifespan. Having already received 170,000 visitors in its first seven weeks of opening, the project appears to have every intention of entering the popular imagination and lasting as long as the landscape of legend around it.
Client National Trust
Architecture, landscape concept and Interiors Heneghan Peng Architects
Building services Bennett Robertson
Quantity surveyor/project manager Edmond Shipway
Facade engineering Dewhurst MacFarlane
Planning Turley Associates
Civils White Young Green
Landscape implementation Mitchell & Associates
Exhibition design Event
Accessibility Buro Happold
Acoustics FR Mark
Breeam SDS Energy
Specialist lighting Bartenbach Lichtlabor
Specification Davis Langdon