Curatorial Endeavour: A Review of Hall McKnight

The following article appeared in the March-April edition of Architecture Ireland. The full journal edition is available here.

For almost twenty years, Hall McKnight has cultivated an architecture founded on principles of geometry and tactile curatorship. Through celebrated pieces such as the MAC Arts Centre in Belfast, Vartov Square in Copenhagen, and an installation at the 2018 Venice Biennale, the firm is a testament to how a small, Belfast-based operation can leave a lasting impact on the global architectural discourse. The intrigue generated by their work, which has previously been recognised by the AAI’s Downes Medal and an EU Mies Van der Rohe Award nomination, was recently manifested once again at Trinity College Dublin, by a sold-out public lecture on a brisk January winter’s evening.

Speaking on the firm’s behalf was founding partner Alastair Hall, who began by referencing the packed theatre as a manifestation of Dublin’s rich architectural culture; one that, in his eyes, Belfast is yet to match. Though the location, scale, and context of each project in the lecture varied widely, the underlying theme was consistent. The evening unfolded as a showcase of a design process driven by “curatorial endeavour”; the act of managing and arranging tactile objects, be it a collection of bricks for a pavilion in London, models for an exhibition in Venice, or ceramics for a university in Washington D.C. 

The opening act of curation centred on a collection of salvaged bricks from a demolished terrace house in Belfast. The bricks were acquired to form part of a pavilion for the 2015 London Architecture Festival, where Hall McKnight were invited to occupy a public space near King’s Cross with a month-long installation. Reflecting on the potential of the bricks to bring the identity of Belfast to a distant setting, Hall evoked the late Belfast poet Ciaran Carson, who compared bricks to letters and words, forming stories and sentences as permanent facades in the city. Inside Hall McKnight’s Yellow Pavilion, the bricks were not letters or words, but individual books adorned with unique messages and markings, laid on shelves to create a London library of Belfast fired clay.

The next project of the evening sat at the opposite side of the River Thames, with a radically opposing brief. As part of the now-withdrawn Allies and Morrison masterplan for the Greenwich Peninsula, Hall McKnight was commissioned to design a collection of high-rise apartment towers which, by Hall’s admission, was unchartered territory for the practice. An underlying curatorial endeavour nonetheless endured through the narrative, from the steady manipulation of architectural forms, to a vast collection of methodical digital “paintings” reminiscent of Giorgio Morandi’s still life works.

In keeping with a lecture that spoke as much to the underlying processes behind Hall McKnight as it did to the resulting architecture, Hall used the opposing London schemes to reflect on the role of geometry in the firm’s work. Referencing Lorenzetti’s “Allegory of Good Government”, Hall put forward the firm’s vision of the city as a “collection of spatial variants”, forever changing and evolving in response to social and cultural needs. The firm’s work therefore seeks to support future activities that they cannot yet imagine or predict. Hall identified geometry as the underlying vehicle for achieving this, suggesting that spaces adherent to a geometric value, rather than shaped exclusively for their present function, offer a liberation for future adaption that overcomes the perceived restrictive nature of a geometric grid. In the context of the evening’s two London-based projects, geometry also offered a tool to guide the design process where sites offer little or no contextual foothold, with Hall comparing the application of geometry to a painter priming a canvas.

The culmination of Hall’s reflections on process came in the firm’s contribution to the 2018 Venice Biennale. Giving new life to their unbuilt Greenwich project, the firm created a gallery structure inspired by the scheme’s geometric plan. The structure comprised four vessels each containing a model from Hall McKnight’s portfolio, including the Yellow Pavilion, and St Mary’s Convent in Oxfordshire, whose design and construction was also a subject of Hall’s lecture. In contrast to the boundless digital image production used in the Greenwich scheme, and in wider architectural culture, the underlying message of the Venice pavilion was the laborious though satisfying process of creating a bespoke “analog” image. Here, a curatorial process of physical mirrors and models worked in harmony to create a series of single, unduplicatable images, each of its own time and place.

For the final study of the evening, Hall crossed the Atlantic to Washington D.C., where Hall McKnight were appointed to design a new forum for Gallaudet University, a school catering for deaf students. In perhaps the most impressive example of the firm’s adherence to curatorship and tactile processes, Hall described how the competition interview included a set of ceramic objects by Belfast artist Derek Wilson arranged on a table, representing the existing and proposed buildings huddled around the university’s famous central green by Frederick Law Olmsted. This metaphor endured throughout the design process, where the existing buildings surrounding Olmsted Green were enlivened with unique personalities that informed the contemporary addition. As well as a reflection on the firm’s curatorial process, Hall’s narrative of Gallaudet offered an intriguing insight into the paradigm of designing for predominantly deaf inhabitants, where light, distance, and even corridor widths form part of a considered approach. Taken in its entirety, the inclusion of the project was an indication of Hall McKnight’s international reach, and the ability of a process dependent on physical, tactile objects to translate across vast geographical boundaries.

From an intricate exhibition in Venice to a soaring tower in London, Hall McKnight are evidentially equipped with an architectural talent that can adapt to whatever brief awaits them next. With a procurement structure heavily dependent on competition success, which by Hall’s admission can result in periods less generous than others, the lecture was also a reflection on the rigorous, engaging process needed to attain international success against leading contemporaries. The variety of scales, locations, and contexts on display left us in no doubt that Hall McKnight’s office, at a former spinning mill in East Belfast, will continue as a valuable reference for the dissemination of architectural ideas large and small, digital and physical. “We have a huge blackboard in the office,” Hall concluded. “It is always full. Our problem is cleaning the blackboard.”

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