Saint Anne's Square

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Location: Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK. The heart of Northern Ireland's capital city, in its historic core, a designated Conservation Area

General. The Project is located in the heart of the province’s capital city, in its historic core, a designated Conservation Area. The development is mixed-use comprising a new public square surrounded at ground floor level by cafes, restaurants and hotel bar/restaurant/front-of-house. The new buildings defining the piazza also include, on the upper floors, offices and apartments, a gymnasium and hotel bedrooms. A new multi-storey car park also forms part of the overall project..

Construction on the Project began November 2007 and was completed in January 2010, with an arts centre element to be completed by Autumn 2011. Programme: 24 months construction period (excluding the arts centre). Cost (excluding retail and office fit-outs and arts centre) £50m Sterling.

Background. The traditional urban fabric of the City underwent extensive erosion for a period of circa 30 years due in large part to civil conflict which saw one of the largest population shifts in Western Europe since the Second World War - from the inner urban core to the suburbs, surrounding satellite settlements and beyond. The recent onset of political stability has highlighted a considerable regeneration need and the City Centre site in question (cleared of buildings in the 1970’s for use as a surface car park) was earmarked, by the Government department tasked with urban renewal as central to the future of the City’s historic core, especially in terms of the its tourist and arts offers.

Site Masterplan. The Project designer was tasked firstly with developing a masterplan for the site as a whole to accommodate: firstly, a mixed-use scheme of restaurants/ offices/ residential units/ hotel and multi-storey car park (which covers most of the site) and secondly an arts centre which will be delivered by the Government department responsible for the developments of the arts (cf. Figure 1 under “Illustratiions” below. The whole masterplan was designed around the creation of a new public piazza to align symmetrically with the major axis of the adjacent Cathedral, the main set-piece building in the area..The Project. The Project, defines four sides of a brand new urban square. This square provides a new focus or heart for the quarter. It is a much-needed urban space in what was originally a Victorian warehouse quarter containing no planned squares. Linkages to the piazza are important and the existing network of streets immediately surrounding the development site all converge on the new piazza via the development of three new linking streets/lanes. The piazza is surrounded by commercial frontage at ground level and the space has been kept largely unobstructed to accommodate street theatre activity - including cultural events such as what is now a very popular annual street festival. A new piece of public art has been designed to terminate the axial view into the square from the Cathedral.

Addressing Context. The architectural language of the greater part of the Project was based closely on the existing visio-structural language of the surrounding Victorian building stock which dominates and defines the character of the area. This approach also complies with the Conservation Area design guidelines – i.e. that all new additions or interventions must add to or strengthen the existing and distinctive urban character of a place. The historic buildings in the area are all load-bearing in nature and share the same general palette of materials (hand-made clay brickwork, Portland stone, painted timber and slate). The common visio-structural language is characterized in all of these buildings by the overt expression of the specific structural abilities of the traditional materials of which they consist – e.g. windows have a vertical emphasis due to limited spanning ability of stone and brick voussoired lintels, maximizing the admission of daylight by extending window height rather than width, etc. Similarly, the building elevations of which The Project consists all attempt to reinforce the existing character of their unique setting by adopting for their finishes the existing palette of materials of the area, and by ensuring that these materials, when applied to the design of the facades, acted in accordance with their natural structural and constructional characteristics. In this manner, the architectural traditions typical of the area have been respected and continued, and a seamless addition to the area has been created.

Wider Masterplan. The Project was envisaged as a piece in a much larger masterplan which could in the future realize a whole series of new urban spaces surrounding the Cathedral – see Figure 6 Context Plan and Masterplan Vision under “Illustratiions” below.

Response to Charter Principles

Key Design Concept: To produce a major mixed-use urban block on an under-used site within an existing area of townscape character, ‘healing’ the torn and lost traditional urban fabric of the area, whilst defining a new urban space for the City.

Charter Principle: The Block, the Street and the Building: “1. A primary task of all urban architecture and landscape design is the physical definition of streets and public spaces as places of shared use”. !

The Project creates, out of an unattractive surface car park, a new strongly rectilinear public space, connected to the existing urban network by new, clearly-defined streets. The new square and its linking streets are finished in high quality granite paving setts and are used by pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles servicing the restaurants, cafes and new arts centre which surround the new public space. No element of the Project acts as building-as-object set in undefined, free-flowing space – rather every element acts to define external spaces.

The Project advances the Charter principles through the successful execution of the scheme (excepting the arts centre element which is currently under construction), showing the public, developers and policy- makers a real example of how the new urbanism approach can enrich the urban experience for all.

Charter Principle: The Block, the Street and the Building: “2. Individual architectural projects should be seamlessly linked to their surroundings. This issue transcends style.”

The Project re-establishes street-lines at the edges of the development site which were lost due to a 1970’s urban clearance programme, thus reuniting the entire site with the remaining existing urban fabric.

Both without and within the development site, the Project acts as an extension and gathering of the existing pedestrian flow patterns in the area and, with this, an extension of the existing continuous ground floor active frontages in the area. See Figure 2. This ‘live’ edge treatment consists of glazed restaurant/café frontages, entrance points to residential units, hotel front-of-house (bar seating, hotel restaurant andconference rooms), own-door commercial units and arts centre entrance/exhibition areas.

The transcendence of style is illustrated by the façade treatments of the buildings surrounding the new space – new traditional and modernist designs co-exist side by side.

Charter Principle: The Block, the Street and the Building: “3. The revitalization of urban places depends on safety and security. The design of streets and buildings should reinforce safe environments, but not at the expense of accessibility and openness.”

Since the completion of the new square, the Project has been praised by the local community, in particular by the local arts community. After the first year, the organizer of the city’s largest annual street festival declared the new public space to be ‘the best public space in the City for street festival and arts events’. This was due in large part, he explained, by the fact that the new space has been designed to be uncluttered and therefore flexible and also, because it is enclosed and, with pedestrian priority designation, it is safe for families to come to and relax and partake in activities. In addition, the new space is privately managed with discreet 24hr security provision. Private management ensures that events organizers receive fast responses re. specific requirements such as access to lighting and power and maintenance and repair issues.

Charter Principle: The Block, the Street and the Building: “4. In the contemporary metropolis, development must adequately accommodate automobiles. It should do so in ways that respect the pedestrian and the form of public space.”

The Project includes a multi-storey car park housing 500 spaces. (Care and attention was taken to ensure that the ground floor interface of this element with the street consisted of continuous active frontage – in this case in the form of commercial unit glazed frontages, with the parking levels housed above). The car park helped to remove surface spaces and circulating traffic (searching for parking spaces) from the surrounding streets, thus making the area safer and more pedestrian-friendly. A pedestrian link from the new multi-storey car park directly into the new square ensured the capture of parkers’ footfall, contributing to the animation and commercial activity of the space.

Charter Principle: The Block, the Street and the Building: “5. Streets and squares should be safe, comfortable, and interesting to the pedestrian. Properly configured, they encourage walking and enable neighbors to know each other and protect their communities.”

As well as maximizing active frontage at ground floor level, the Project sought to locate as much living accommodation as possible to overlook the new public space and surrounding streets in the interests of security and engendering a feeling of safety. Surrounding the new square and along the streets, office space and a 15,000sqft gym were sited at first flloor level, and residential units and hotel bedroom windows on all other levels. Quality paving finishes and good street-lighting have been incorporated to encourage pedestrians.

Variety is achieved through the diverse mix of uses, as well as the mix of architectural compositions and styles. Interest is also added by the axial orientation of the new space with the existing symmetrical Cathedral, and in particular by the view from the square towards the Cathedral through the colonnaded opening.

 

Canons

The Building and Infrastructure: “Architectural design shall derive from local, time- honored building typologies. Building shells must be designed to be enduring parts of the public realm. Yet internal building configurations must be designed to be flexible and easily adaptable over the years”.

The Project defines a new public space using a common traditional building type to be found in the area: namely, residential over retail, locally known as LOTS (Living over the Shop). This maximises active usage at street level, and provides a sustainable mixed-use arrangement whereby the residential element services the retail element. The building shells have been designed to be enduring parts of the public realm – the elevations have followed the design principles of Firmness, Commodity and Delight – Firmness reflected in the robust and solid detailing. Internal building configurations have been designed to be flexible by using steel frame construction enabling internal partitions to be flexibly located.

The Street, Block and Network “The pattern of blocks and streets shall be compact and designed in a well-connected network for easy, safe and secure walkability. This will reduce overall vehicular usage by decreasing travel time and trip length. Design shall strive to minimize material and utility infrastructure.”

The Project has been based on a building density which is reflective of the block scale of the area and, due to the tight layout and convenient mix of uses, encourages the user to stay within the area. Great care has been taken to ensure that there is no SLOAP (Space Left Over After Planning) within the masterplanned site – all public space consists of either (i) efficient street space for connectivity, with a strong building line or (ii) a clearly designated and identifiable and memorable public space. All new buildings serve to define the public realm, with no gratuitous setbacks or unloved pockets.

Lessons learned: The importance of good public consultation – listening to local people. For The Project in question, interim public consultations were staged at outline, detailed and final design stages, with feedback logged, considered and acted upon by the design team. The local arts umbrella organization, the local civic trust and other organizations concerned with the bullt environment were consulted individually. This resulted in broad local support for the scheme, with letters of support (e.g. several from the civic trust) being sent to the planning department urging approval. One important suggestion from the community was that a 3-D scaled model was constructed. This was done and proved invaluable in helping local people understand the nature of the proposed spaces, uses, heights and massing. Computer cgi’s also assisted the public to envisage the proposals. Lesson learned: early community involvement in design development proved vital in community ‘ownership’ of the scheme, providing valuable feedback, at key design stages, based on a detailed and intimate local knowledge of the area. The importance of active frontages. This may seem an obvious design consideration, but great effort is needed to ensure at each design stage that ‘live’ frontages onto the public realm are maximized. Actual linear measurement of active frontage being achieved was carried out at each design review stage of this Project and results were compared to those achieved for the previous stage. It is surprising how good frontage can reduce as other design issues are addressed, and discipline is essential to maintain what can be achieved in this area. Also, design reviews can act as an opportunity to fundamentally challenge the layout of building elements to arrive at a higher percentage of active street use.

Transect Zone(s): T6 core.
Status: 76-99% Built
Project or Plan's Scale: Neighborhood
Total built area (in sq. ft.):
Total project cost (in local currency): 5e+07
Retail area (in sq. ft.):
Office area (in sq. ft.):
Industrial area (in sq. ft.):
Number of hotel units:
Number of residential units (include live/work): 103
Parks & green space (in acres):
Project team designers: WDR & RT Taggart
Project team developers: N/A

Previous site status:

Starting/Ending date of construction/implementation: - 2011