Casting off

Origin story: Colin Transport Hub

Alastair Hall brings a sense of arrival to the end of the line in West Belfast

Colin is the kind of neighbourhood you could find on the outskirts of any UK city – waiting for investment. It’s got a reasonably large population but it’s just on the edge of the gravitational pull of the centre, and the money has never gone into creating decent places.

The public space lacks clear purpose or function, or use. A couple of years before the transport hub project, we had been involved in a masterplan for the area. Belfast was investing in the Glider, a new rapid bus route connecting the east and west of the city, terminating in Colin, so we always knew there would need to be a point of arrival that required some definition and identity. The east end of the route includes a park & ride, with just a small building that lacked any serious architectural ambition. 

What made a real difference in Colin was the fact the community were really motivated – they weren’t going to be short-changed. They didn’t just want a terminus, but also a building that could provide identity and generate a sense of place. Even though it’s just a single-storey building, we all saw it as an opportunity to put a stake in the ground, anticipating further investment. It was almost as if we were trying to build the oldest part of the community last: the people and the neighbourhood were already there, but without a sense of centre and focus. For us, that lack of existing context meant we almost had to invent one.

There was very little to latch onto by way of architectural character, and the site itself was just sprawling grassland. Early in the design we proposed two squares imposed onto an otherwise quite nebulous site: one for a public space and one for a building. It was a bit like priming a canvas before you begin to paint – it gave us something to engage with. From there, we began to carve and manipulate a building form: giving height to one corner, curving the two more publicfacing facades. We very deliberately avoided any sense of axes, or any of the architectural devices associated with formality.

The idea was to be civic but also somehow informal. We had initially explored more of an abstracted classical language, but it just wasn’t appropriate: this wasn’t a historic centre, but a much newer kind of environment. The materials, the character and geometry of the building all had to convey a sense of permanence and durability. The granite cladding and exposed-concrete structure were part of this language. The pigmented concrete evokes a sense of Belfast’s traditional red-brick streets, which reach out from the historic city but fail to reach Colin.

The housing here is often rendered or built in paler grey bricks. So the red concrete was both a connection to Belfast’s history and an assertion of something permanent and new. The walls were cast in situ and are boardmarked. It’s quite a gentle texture – the boards were sawn and planed, but unsanded. You get a wash of top light running down some of the surfaces from the rooflights. The soffits are left as-struck – there’s no boardmarking, but there’s a lot of patination. We enjoyed the contrast with the more controlled finish on the walls.

The main space has that acoustic character that feels like a public space, and it has been used for community events – I attended a concert there. When there are people inside, it tempers the reverberation time, and it has a really nice acoustic. Hopefully, people will be able to start using it more over the coming year, and further define it as a space at the centre of daily life.

Alastair Hall is a partner at Hall McKnight

Photos Donal McCann / Hall McKnight