• Fiona

Belfast's Titanic Quarter is so impressive - even during the pandemic

Updated: Oct 28, 2020




Spring and Summer 2020 by the Titanic Slipways


After two weeks in the Cathedral Quarter, we moved to a new apartment in the Titanic Quarter (which is still) our home for the next 3 months. With a beautiful view over the marina in the Abercorn Basin of the Lagan River, the new apartment is modern and spacious.


The Titanic Quarter is named after the largest ocean liner of the time that was designed and built here in the early 20th century - the ill-fated RMS Titanic. The Quarter is spread over 185 acres, previously occupied by the iconic Harland and Wolff shipyard (designers and builders of the Titanic) and currently includes film studios, a technical college, a branch of Queens University, residential apartments, two hotels (more about the beautiful historic Titanic Hotel below) and an entertainment district.


While the area is currently being developed as a 21st century urban neighbourhood, it is steeped in memories of a bygone era when Belfast was supreme in maritime trade, ship-building and commerce, and it is rather special to be living here and be walking on these historic cobbles every day.


The Developers have done a fabulous job of maintaining the historical integrity of the area with the sensitive restoration of historic buildings, thoughtful landscaping and information boards and pillars placed along a Titanic walking trail. The slipways, where the Titanic and her sister ship the Olympic were built, have become a plaza with a memorial to all those that perished when the Titanic sank. The plaza is full of symbolism and I will talk a little bit more about it below - with accompanying photographs of course!


The dry dock where the ship was fitted out, is at the end of the trail; but the pièce de résistance of the area is the Titanic Belfast visitor attraction, a focal point that unites the heritage elements of the site. It was designed by American-born, British-raised architect Eric Kuhne. While the building is currently closed due to Covid -19 restrictions, we have been able to admire it from the outside. The symbolism in the design is quite extraordinary and knowing what inspired the architect only adds to our appreciation of this imposing piece of architecture. What amazes me is that while the building is so striking in its modernity, it also manages to transport you back in time through its incredible size and scale as well as its location on the exact site where the ship was built, and by being on the opposite side of the river from the port where huge modern day container ships dock to unload and load their cargo.


We hope to eventually be able to look inside the Titanic Belfast to see both the interior architecture and learn more about the history of Belfast’s shipbuilding heritage and the story of the Titanic from the dream to the tragedy.


Images

  1. The area in its hay-day - Shipyard workers swarm down Queen’s Road in May 1911 at the end of a work shift. At this period about 14,000 men were employed by Harland & Wolff at Queens Island. Photograph by Peter Lavery.

  2. And today, June 2020 - the exact location, part way through the regeneration project (note that this photo was taken in the evening during the Covid-19 pandemic, hence there is no one about!) - the same view on Queens Road - we stood here in 2020 but transported ourselves back to 1911, imagining the human wave approaching us, wondering about the myriad of conversations, thoughts and emotions after a tough day of shipbuilding.

  3. Queens Road May 1911 (The 1911 photos are presented as murals at different places around the Titanic Quarter.)



The Belfast Titanic


Under big Belfast skies and some spectacular cloudscapes stands the exceptional Belfast Titanic!


The design of the building’s form and its shimmering crystalline façade was inspired by a blend of the ideas of water crystals just as they begin to freeze and the way they come together to form icebergs. The building has four projecting ships hulls, that are the exact height and depth of the Titanic’s hull, and a five-storey central atrium that is inspired by the gangways, gantries and cranes that filled the void between the Titanic & Olympic ships when they were built side-by-side on the slipways. There are also glass balconies that overlook the shipyard, the drawing offices, the slipways, and Belfast city centre; and reflection pools at its base that mirror the stunning cloudscapes during the day as well as extending the building's nocturnal illuminations.


In front of the building is Titanica, a sculpture by Rowan Gillespie, depicting a diving female figure/mermaid. Made of bronze, it is mounted on a brass base, evoking the design of figureheads on ships' prows, and is meant to represent hope and positivity.


Also on display in the Titanic Quarter is the SS Nomadic. This ship was one of two vessels commissioned by the White Star Line and designed and built by Harland and Wolff, in 1910 to tender for their new ocean liners RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic, which were too large to dock in Cherbourg harbour, in France. The two ships would ferry passengers, their baggage, mail and ship's supplies to and from the large ocean liners moored offshore.


Images


1 The crystalline facade as the sunsets after the rain - clouds and facade reflecting in the pool at the base

2 Sculpture Titanica silhouetted in the setting sun

3 Close up of the facade

4 The buildings with the blue lights are the former drawing offices of Harland and Wolff where the ships were designed. It is now the Titanic hotel (a bit more about this below)

5-6 The Titanic stencilled sign and it’s reflection - photo by Alan

7-8 The building under the daytime Belfast skies - note the iconic Harland and Wolf gantry cranes in the background of image 7.

9-10 The SS Nomadic




 


The Plaza


Behind the Belfast Titanic, you can walk along the historic slipways where the Titanic and Olympic were built and launched over 100 years ago. This area has been landscaped into a public plaza which is currently used for public outdoor concerts and other events.


The plaza pays homage to the Titanic in its layout, which includes a thin strip embedded into the ground that outlines the actual shape and size of the ships (at night-time this illuminates in a striking blue colour). It also includes a white stone inlay which outlines a life size plan of the Titanic’s Promenade Deck and has shapes that indicate the positions of the ship's lifeboats and funnels as well as benches that are positioned exactly as they would have been on board the deck. The vertical steel street lights reference the position of the construction gantries.


In the outline of the Olympic, there are turfed and decked areas which denote the proportions of people that survived (the decked) and died (grassed) as a result of the Titanic disaster. Over 1,500 people died, while 705 individuals survived. Each area indicates first class, second class, third class and the crew. Sadly, but not surprisingly, proportionately, there were more people from third class and the crew that perished than there were from first and second class.


The plaza incorporates parts of the original slipways to show the continuous gradient of the slipways down towards the sea as well as two concrete wedges that are protected with glass. These wedges are what the prows of the ships were supported on as they were built. As a memorial, etched onto glass protecting the wedges are the names of those who perished in the disaster.


The ships were constructed on the slipways and then launched from there to test their sea worthiness. They were then put into the dry dock about 400 metres from the slipways to be fitted out.


Images

1-2 The illuminated blue lines show the actual size and location of the Titanic and the Olympic as they were built on these two slipways.

3 A photo of the diagram that shows the white granite markings on the pavement of the square and what they represent as well as the memorial on within the outline of the Olympic which indicates the proportion of survivors to those that died ass well as what class they were in and also the crew that survived or died.

4-6 The white stone markings indicate various parts of the ship, for example, the large circles are the ship's funnels, the oval-like shapes represent the lifeboats.

7-8 The grassed and decked areas stand for the proportions of people that survived (the decked) and died (grassed) as a result of the Titanic disaster. Each area indicates first class(at the top of the picture), second class, third class and finally crew.

9 Picture taken from Google Earth - to show the proportions more clearly.

10--12 Memorial with the names of those that perished etched on the glass protecting the original slipway wedges where the prows of the ships rested during construction.




The Titanic Hotel


Beginning over 150 years ago in the 1880s as the headquarters and offices of the ship builders Harland and Wolff; this was where over 1000 ships were designed including the RMS Titanic. After years of neglect and abandonment, this historically listed building has in recent years been beautifully restored and is now operating as a boutique hotel situated right next to the Belfast Titanic. The hotel contributes to the preservation of the legacy of the Titanic and ship building in Belfast through its architectural detail and its inclusion of many artefacts and memorabilia that tell the story of ship building in Belfast and that are displayed in display cases and in drawers in the meeting rooms of the hotel.


This legacy of the Titanic is immediately evident in the drawing offices (that are now at the centre of the hotel and are the oldest sections of the building) that were purpose-built in their day to allow maximum natural light for the ship designers to do their jobs. Drawing Office No.1 now houses the hotel ballroom and Drawing Office Two, with its spectacular three-storey high barrel-vaulted ceiling, is now the vibrant heart of the hotel, and is where you will find the lounge bar. As I write, the Northern Ireland Government has announced that Hotels and Pubs are able to open from the 03 July and so we will be there for the reopening or very soon thereafter...



Some of the historic features include

  • the curved, etched glass telephone exchange where on April 14 1912 the operators were paid an extra guinea each to stay all night and not leak the news of the Titanic’s sinking to the press.

  • Villeroy & Boch tiles that encircle the main bar are the same as the ones used for the Titanic's swimming pool and First Class bathrooms.

  • Advertising posters by White Star Line. The Company sought out some of Britain’s finest 20th Century artists to illustrate the speed, size and service of their ships.


The transformation...

Images

1 Drawing office how it was used in the day

2 Drawing office before restoration

3 Drawing office after restoration

4-5 Stairwell before and after restoration

6-7 Telephone Exchange before and after restoration


All images from

https://www.rmi.uk.com/our_projects/titanic-hotel-and-drawing-offices-belfast/



I love both the look of this hotel from the outside which prompted me to research its history (as above), and the happenstance that this building where floating hotels were designed has been transformed into a beautiful boutique hotel.


To make it viable as a hotel, the architects made additions that were in accord with both the history of the building and the buildings in the area - an additional bedroom floor on top of the existing building echos the top floor of the nearby Arc apartment complex; a new modern 5 storey bedroom wing to the north has dark brick cladding and weathering steel; the brick references the brick buildings in the complex and the weathering steel, both the colour of the brick and the street lamps in the adjacent plaza that resemble the steel gantries that were a part of the ship building process on the slipways; the three glass infill pavilions between the existing buildings at ground floor level, echo the roof line of the drawing rooms and of course the glass front allows for maximum natural light as is the case of the glass panels in the roof of the drawing offices.


I like the way the old and the new marry; I love the way the orange/red brick and the glass and the former drawing offices are all different types of cladding but they complement each other; and I love the way the entire hotel complex contrasts with the Belfast sky, whether it is a fine cloudless blue sky or leaden grey storm-cloudy as in the pictures below.


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