Mac Belfast by Hackett Hall McKnight

Mac Belfast by Hackett Hall McKnight

Transcending its misconceived context, the Mac proves one of the best pieces of architecture built in Belfast for 50 years

The shortlist for the 2008 Young Architect of the Year Award was one of the more diverse in the prize’s history and at the end of a long day of interviews, the jury found itself struggling with how to assess the merits of a number of candidates who were seeking to extend the definition of architectural practice and others whose concerns remained focused squarely on building.

For one juror at least the issue was straightforward. Glenn Howells held up the submission from Belfast’s Hackett Hall McKnight and pointed to the drawings of the Mac — the city’s Metropolitan Arts Centre — which it had recently won in competition. “This building,” he assured us, “is going to be listed.” To which Liza Fior of Muf offered the whip-snap rejoinder: “That’s because someone’s going to think it was built in 1955.”

It was a good joke, and not entirely without foundation, but Howells’ enthusiasm won the day and, happily, the completed Mac, which opens to the public today, leaves no doubt that his listing prediction was sound. In fact, the building might confidently be claimed as the best piece of architecture to have been built in Belfast for 50 years, were it not for the recent completion of another contender for that title in the shape of O’Donnell & Tuomey’s Lyric Theatre. With Heneghan Peng’s Giant’s Causeway Visitors Centre due to open in the summer, a part of the country that has long maintained a perfectly dismal architectural track record suddenly looks set to deliver three first-rate public buildings in the course of just over a year.

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