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Photo © Hufton + Crow

Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre

Heneghan Peng Architects

County Antrim, Northern Ireland

Below The Fold: An entryway to a surreal seaside landscape nods to the natural rock formations there while not overshadowing them.

By Chris Foges

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Mass Tourism has a paradoxical effect: The infrastructure for access and interpretation it demands can obscure the very thing visitors come to see. Wilderness is mediated and culture commodified. Tour buses block the postcard view.

Sightseers have flocked to the Giant's Causeway on the coast of Northern Ireland since the 19th century, and today half a million people a year travel to this craggy formation of volcanic basalt columns lining a string of steep-sided bays. For the last 12 years they have been greeted by a dreary range of timber sheds, installed after a permanent visitor center was destroyed by fire. In 2005 the government organized an international design competition for a replacement befitting a UNESCO World Heritage site. The newly complete $30 million building, by Dublin-based Heneghan Peng, is exemplary in its balance of competing demands, making space for commercial and transport requirements while recognizing that these should not intrude on visitors' experience of the place.

Many competition entrants exploited the prominence of the cliff-top site above the western end of the causeway, proposing flamboyant structures that would dominate views from inland as well as from the water's edge. Heneghan Peng took a different approach, folding its building into a remade landscape in a careful choreography of concealment and revelation.

From the shore the center is essentially invisible; it fills a gap in the existing ridgeline, but is screened by man-made berms that read as part of the natural landscape. From cliff-top trails, too, the accessible grass roof hides the building below. To the south, however, architecture emerges from the manipulated topography. “It was important not to bury the building—that seems too easy—but to work with both the building and landscape form,” says architect Róisín Heneghan, who runs the office with husband and former Harvard GSD classmate Shih-Fu Peng.

Approaching the center from the nearest town, Bushmills, the road brings visitors to the foot of a green ramp leading up to the ridge. To the west, the main body of the 19,375-square-foot building pushes upward as if subject to the same eruptive force as the stones of the causeway. Its two principal facades, composed of close-spaced rows of sharp-angled black basalt columns, taper off into the distance. The first diminishes as the ramp alongside it ascends to meet the ridge, while the roofline of the second drops gradually until it meets the ground next to an existing hotel to the west.

East of the grassy slope, the building's angular volume is echoed by a void—the negative to its positive—where the ground has been excavated to make a parking lot, crisply defined by the center's columnar facade and a smooth basalt retaining wall.

The stone is beautifully reflective of the ever-changing weather, shining like a mirror in sunlight and jet black in the rain. The choice and deployment of material make a direct, almost literal reference to the causeway, but the apparent simplicity of the idea belies the complexity of its execution. Basalt cannot be cut thin enough for cladding, so the 208 columns are formed from over 14,000 stacked stone blocks, in a variety of shapes and sizes, that fit together with extraordinary precision—a tribute to the architects' digital model and the stonemason's craft.

Visitors can choose from three routes to the head of the causeway trail: over the ramp, via a tunnel from the parking lot, or—for those willing to pay—through the visitor center. The interior arrangement underscores the sense that the center is a “passage” through the ridge, not the final destination: From the entrance portico at the southern corner, a bright splash of daylight at the back of the cavernous room draws the eye along a broad promenade toward the exit.

To the left, the main components of the program—a café, gift shop, and exhibition area—jostle uncomfortably in the single volume. A more emphatic partitioning of the space envisaged by the competition scheme was dropped to increase flexibility, and retail now dominates. Nevertheless, the room's fundamental quality remains evident: Daylight spills in from high windows and lofty skylights, and the finely detailed folded concrete roof and steel-plate columns lend elegance to material robustness. The stepped section of the basalt-flecked polished concrete floor presages the fractured pavement of the causeway.

There is not a right angle anywhere. Heneghan Peng established four axes through the site as an organizing principle, and the logic of this somewhat arbitrary grid is followed with maniacal consistency—from the massing of the terrain and placement of the structure to the shapes of trash cans and ticket machines. This discipline might have produced sterile or incommodious spaces, but the imagination and effort with which the concept has been translated into built fabric gives the whole project a rich internal coherence and another connection to the causeway, whose polygonal stones hint at the variety within nature's underlying geometric order. This is truly a building in and of its place.

Chris Foges is the editor of the London-based journal Architecture Today.

Completion Date: May 2012

Size: 19,375 square feet

Cost: $17.7 million

Architect:
Heneghan Peng Architects
14-16 Lord Edward St, Flr 2
Dublin 2, Ireland
t +353 (0)1 633 9000
f +353 (0)1 633 9010

November 2012
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