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Urban Monastery in Belfast

Part 1 Project 1999
Andrei Serbescu
Laura O Hagan
Queen's University Belfast UK
The warehouse architecture and the distinctive grid-iron street pattern set the conservation area apart from surrounding districts. At present several sites within the area lie vacant leaving holes in the building framework.

The concept of an urban monastery is to provide retreat and refuge within the busyness of the city centre. The apparently opposing requirement of seclusion and the ability to interact and relate with a city centre community had implications for the choice of site.

My chosen site is adjacent to a nineteenth century church and close to other religious buildings, helps reinforce the church setting and establishes that strip of the conservation area as the 'Ecclesiastical Band'. It also helps restore the distinctive grid-iron pattern which was lost at this point and whose survival is very important.

The strategy adopted to plan the spaces of the monastery involves two wings, public and private, whose forms strengthen the definition of the internal space as the distinct monastic enclosure and allows the building to be zoned for degrees of privacy.

A formal row of trees serves as a soft threshold to reinforce the idea of 'passing through' into the monastic setting. The public wing acts as a sort of screen to the outside world. A zone of landscaped enclosure is 'shared' - passers-by catch a glimpse. A 'sacred' space is fully enclosed for the monks only for contemplation by a second row of planting, a threshold into the private monastic setting. The private wing of the building is inward-looking, protective and sheltering.

Andrei Serbescu
Laura O Hagan

Both Ambrose Tohill and Laura O’Hagan chose to design an urban monastery for Belfast - one of four building types offered in the final design programme. The general area was identified by the School of Architecture with individual students seeking out their preferred locations.

Laura decided to consider a strip of ecclesiastical buildings weakened by a small scale residential development and surface car parking - set along the edge of larger scale commercial building.

Located next to the large St Malachy’s Chapel the strategic splitting of the brief and the forming of a central garden space ensured the proposal had a generous urban contribution. Forming a frame for the distant views of the chapel, the central garden gave possibilities for layering the privacy of accommodation through the depth of the site - with narrow views at ground level giving a welcome link between the enclosed monastery space and the world outside.

Laura explored the building in depth - through consideration of the palette and quality of materials and natural and artificial light through detailed drawings and models showing the sensitivity she applies to the creation of her architecture.


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