Unsinkable city

Architect Eric Kuhne ’73 tells the story of Belfast’s maritime majesty with the new Titanic museum

By Steven Thomson
Photos courtesy of Eric Kuhne, CivicArts and the Titanic Belfast

For a century following the sinking of the RMS Titanic, the tragedy was nary whispered within the Northern Ireland capital that saw the ship’s design and construction. Even in Great Britain, few are privy to the fact that in the early 20th century, nearly half of the tonnage on the seas took its maiden voyage from Belfast’s shipyards. When the Titanic embarked in 1912, Belfast laid claim to the largest shipyard in the world. Yet a sense of self-imposed ignominy after the disaster shrouded the city’s pride as a locus of maritime innovation. With the post-World War II growth of deep port container shipping and surge in air travel, the once robust image of Belfast’s shipyards descended into that of a postindustrial wasteland.

Today, following decades of internal political strife and a recent crippling double-dip recession, Belfast is poised once again to embrace its heritage as one of the world’s shipbuilding epicenters. Enter Eric Kuhne ’73, who is leveraging a belief in architecture as diplomacy to help restore the grandeur of the city’s long-abandoned docks.

Architect Eric Kuhne stands in front of a map of the Titanic Quarter, the 185-acre waterfront redevelopment project now underway in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Kuhne’s firm, CivicArts, designed the project’s urban master plan, which combines residential, business, recreational and cultural elements, as well as parks and gardens.

Sitting in the library of his firm, CivicArts, in the architectural hub of Clerkenwell in east central London, Kuhne explained the gradual realization of his vision for a 185-acre urban revitalization of the wrench-shaped peninsula, Queen’s Island — renamed the Titanic Quarter — and its centerpiece, the monumental Titanic Belfast museum. Although the waterfront development will be years in the making, the museum opened in March 2012, just in time to mark the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. The visceral appeal of the Titanic in the public imagination endures, as evidenced by the museum’s more than 500,000 visitors in its first six months of operation.

“We have worked on buildings all around the world, but nothing has gone viral like this,” Kuhne said.

Drawing upon the water imagery that haunts the Titanic’s history, Kuhne studied the geometric process of ice crystal formation to conceive the museum’s faceted exterior, which resembles at once jutting icebergs and ships’ prows. The façade mimics the scales of the gigantic gantries system of timber and steel scaffolding built for the construction of the Titanic’s massive hull 100 years ago. When viewed from above, the building takes the form of a compass rose.

The building plan also alludes to the trajectory of four centuries of shipbuilding innovation in Belfast: from timber and sail to iron and steam, followed by steel and turbine and culminating in aluminum and diesel. Most poignantly, the building’s height matches that of the storied cruise liner, allowing tourists and Belfast locals to consider head-on the optimism and opulence that the Titanic embodied. Even beneath Belfast’s mercurial skies, the museum’s marine-grade aluminum cladding sparkles.

“Most contemporary museums have lost that sense of wonder when you enter,” Kuhne said. Inside the Titanic Belfast, the hum of the 28,000 builders that once occupied the hoists and gangplanks of the Belfast shipyards is restored in an ecclesiastically scaled six-story atrium, crisscrossed by balconies, terraces and overlooks.

An architectural rendering of the exterior of the Titanic Belfast museum, which opened to the public March 31, 2012.

Above, nine galleries provide the social context of shipbuilding in Belfast, house a ride through a reconstructed shipyard and detail the construction of the RMS Titanic. The project’s monumentality is tempered by documents of individual crew and passengers’ stories, while another gallery offers a critical eye toward the myths and legends that surround the disaster. Hard science finds its place in an exhibit on Robert Ballard’s 1985 Atlantic expedition to record and recover the ship’s ruins, with a special focus on deep-sea microbiology.

The museum, which cost $152 million to build, was funded through a partnership that included Belfast City Council, Belfast Harbour Commissioners, Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Titanic Quarter Limited (a company of Dublin-based Harcourt Developments Ltd.).

“I think it’s a human story,” said Tim Husbands, CEO of Titanic Belfast. “The sinking was a disaster, but the ship itself was a fantastic feat of engineering and construction. The Titanic Belfast is about recovering the city’s roots, but it also presents a story that resonates internationally.” No doubt, the museum will far surpass the initial annual target of 425,000 visitors. Almost 70 percent of visitors are from outside of Northern Ireland.

While the consensus is that it’s a crowd pleaser, the Titanic Belfast has faced criticism in the architectural press. It recently garnered a nomination for Building Design magazine’s Carbuncle Cup, a reader-nominated award for the ugliest building completed in the U.K. in the last 12 months. On the plus side, the museum also is a finalist for the International Interior Design of the Year award at the Leading European Architects Forum. Unfazed, Kuhne remains confident that the building is succeeding at telling the Titanic story to legions of visitors. “It was a huge backhanded compliment,” Kuhne said. “Very English.”

Keep in mind that the museum is merely a cornerstone of the estimated $10 billion–$15 billion Titanic Quarter mixed-use development that will occupy the Queen’s Island area of Belfast.

“The local authorities thought we were dreaming at the time,” said Pat Doherty, the chairman and founder of Harcourt Developments, recalling the process of acquiring the vast site nine years ago. “It was a clear site almost in the center of the city with the opportunity to do something very special, and Eric has a magical way of doing things.” Kuhne and Doherty worked with myriad government departments, harbor authorities and investors to make way for the development that’s changing the face of Belfast.

Profit-driven inner-city revitalization schemes too often fall victim to blank banality. To break this trend, Kuhne, in his role as the lead concept architect on the project, consulted directly with the very people who had abandoned central Belfast’s blight and violent legacy for surrounding suburban hamlets.

“We interviewed almost 100 people and asked them one simple thing: ‘What would it take for you to come back home?’ And they asked for me to build something like their villages in the center of Belfast,” Kuhne said.

The Titanic Quarter was then conceived around the idea of seven “villages,” each with their own Georgian square, in which courtyard gardens imbue a sense of safety to public space. When complete, the development will complement new condo blocks with an expanded campus of Belfast Metropolitan College and a bevy of retail distractions. Plans are afoot to incubate a new financial center for Europe, and new media is staking a claim via a cluster of budding film industry studios. Strung together by grand boulevards and a new tramline, each of the villages stands no more than two blocks away from the fresh air of water or park space.

“Waterfronts all over Europe and North America are being transformed,” Kuhne said, “but none of them has this level of complexity of mixing new economies with housing, parks and gardens.” Northern Ireland still suffers from a shaky real estate market, so the Titanic Quarter developers are thinking long-term, with a projected completion date of 2030 or beyond.

For all of the Titanic Quarter’s beguiling ambition, Kuhne understands the importance of historical context in design.

“Eric always had a humanistic commitment that has allowed him to abstract his project designs in such a striking way,” said former classmate Stephen Fox ’73, architectural historian and lecturer at the Rice School of Architecture. A dedicated Renaissance man, Kuhne penned a Shakespearean sonnet for the real estate venture to pay homage to the city’s shipbuilding roots:

Titanic Belfast:
We were the best who worked these hallowed slips
Bending iron, timber and steel ’to ships
’Neath gantries and cranes with Biblical names
Our sweat, our tears, and sweet salt air did raise
Fleets for trade, exploration and mail,
Liners, warships, and immigrants set sail —
Navigating charts on rhumb-lined seas with
Optimism! Opulence! at Godspeed!
Four centuries measure our balancing
Our will and Nature’s equanimity.
Time once again to lead the charge: Belfast’s
Sons and Daughters sing songs of these shipyards;
Choirs of workers shout across the seas:
Once where we built ships, now we build cities!

This penchant for storytelling through architecture has brought Kuhne’s pedigree from Houston to 32 current projects spanning five continents, all informed by their local context. A new tower complex rising in Kuala Lumpur is ensconced in seven gardens representing the seven civilizations that have characterized Malaysia’s history, while a Buddhist pilgrimage site in Nepal takes its form from the three strands of the pocket of rice that Buddha wore.

Kuhne’s studio walls showcase blueprints for a skyscraper in Kuwait that will top off at 1,001 meters — a nod to the region’s lionized collection of folk tales, “1001 Arabian Nights.”

While these projects reach for the sky, the story on the ground of the Titanic Quarter is a narrative with big themes — resilience, rebirth and pride in a lost heritage. Eschewing a focus on urban trauma to honor innovation, the Titanic Belfast museum invites visitors to consider the pinnacle of human achievement — as well as hubris — and to launch a new story in Belfast’s history.

More stories from Rice Magazine

Four times each year Rice Magazine brings stories about the research, teaching and creative pursuits going on at Rice to more than 55,000 readers — alumni, staff, faculty and friends of this great university. Every issue includes news about campus life and activities — paying particular attention to our residential communities, which have defined the Rice experience for several generations. We also cover Rice’s involvement in the community, at home and abroad.

In addition to the story above on the Titanic Belfast, the Winter 2012, No. 15 issue includes a roundup of key centennial activities, a remembrance of a young alumnus who lost his life in a mountain-climbing accident, as well as coverage of some athletics (Bowl win!), arts and theatrical happenings. To read the full issue, click here. To read the PDF on an iBooks app (iPhone or iPad), simply click here in Safari and then click “open in iBooks.” You’ll be able to view those files on any iOS device later.

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