A Titanic symbol of hope

Jonathan De Burca Butler gets an exclusive look inside Belfast’s £97m homage to the doomed ship, with a replica staircase and 60,000 tickets pre-booked

TURNING a corner and catching your first glimpse of the Titanic Building in Belfast’s new Titanic Quarter, is quite an unforgettable moment; unforgettable, because architecturally, nothing of this kind has ever been seen in Ireland before. The fact that it is in Belfast, a city once synonymous with destroyed buildings, makes the impact all the more potent. It is a stunning work of architecture and design. The shimmering glass and aluminium building dominates the area — much as the prow of the ill-fated ship it commemorates must have dominated for the four years that it was being built on this very spot.

“It’s the most iconic building on the whole of the island of Ireland,” says Tim Husbands, chief executive of Titanic Belfast. “No doubt about that. The most comparable building would be the Guggenheim in Bilbao. We believe it will have the same catalytic effect. The Guggenheim transformed that city.”

The building was designed by American architect, Eric Kuhne. Seen from above, it is shaped like a star, representing the symbol of The White Star Line company who commissioned and owned the Titanic. The four sides of the building are the same height and width as the Titanic’s prow.

Husbands says that the project, which cost £97m, is on time and on budget, and the hope is that 425,000 visitors will come to the attraction in its first year.

“We already have 60,000 tickets pre-booked,” says Husbands. “This is the birthplace of the Titanic. That’s the absolute critical point here. A lot of places, like Southampton, tell the story of Titanic but we’re the place where it was built, designed and launched.”

The company held its recruitment interviews back in January and utilised some rather unique methods.

“Each candidate was given a short piece on something relating to the Titanic,” says Husbands. “And they could go off and find out more, or they could do a mini play or if they wanted to dress up, they could dress up. They weren’t given any particular guidelines so it was a free flow thing. They were given three minutes to tell the story. It went terrifically well. There was some discussion in the media about whether it was a fair process but we wanted confident people who can tell our story.”

The company will employ 250 full-time and part-time staff in its first year and already some 1,000 construction workers have passed through the site. One interviewee travelled all the way from the United States.

“She wanted an opportunity to move to Northern Ireland,” says Husbands. “She had a huge knowledge of the ship. She was what we would call, very kindly, a Titanorak.”

Offaly-born Noel Molloy of Harcourt Construction is the site manager of the project. He seems very relaxed for a man who is just over a month from opening a project he started work on four years ago.

“I’m very happy that we’ve managed everything so well and everyone is enthused,” he says, in a manner that suggests he is reluctant to take any credit for the smooth construction of the building. “We’ve never had any fallings out with anybody. I’m just happy we were able to keep the guys motivated.”

The impact inside the building is just as impressive as that made on the outside. Walking into the atrium, which will act as a welcome centre with shops and restaurants, you are again struck by the scale of the building. A huge rustic wall of coloured aluminium climbs six floors above your head — a nod to Belfast’s industrial heritage. From the atrium you are brought through different aspects of the Titanic’s history.

In boom-time Belfast we learn that the population of the city rose from just over 87,000 people in 1851, to just under 350,000 by 1901. With the help of computer-generated imagery (CGI), we are brought back to the Belfast of the linen mills and Harland and Wolff.

“When White Star asked them to make the ships, it meant having to upscale from building ships of 18,000 tonnes to ships that weighed 46,000 tonnes,” says Molloy. “It meant they had to build the largest gantry in the world, the largest dry dock and the largest slipways. The jump was huge.”

In a slightly more orthodox fashion, we see how the ship was fitted out and what the cabins were actually like before being brought on a 3D tour of the ship’s interior. Perhaps the most enjoyable gallery for children is that involving a six-and-a-half minute virtual ride around the outside of the ship. Although Molloy is keen to stress that this is not Disneyland, he is aware that all groups will have to be catered for, and looking after the younger customers is key.

“We did a fair bit of market research on the attraction as we had planned it,” he says. “And we’re hitting all the demographics and social classes. It’s content-rich, it’s interactive, it’s image-rich. We’ve all been to exhibitions that we didn’t want to go to. What we’re trying to do is cater for everyone.” Without doubt, the most emotive gallery is that dealing with the sinking of the ship, and the estimated 1,517 passengers who perished. A blown-up photograph taken in Cobh by Father Frank Browne, can be seen before entering this room. It is the last known photograph of the Titanic afloat.

Some 100 years after its tragic end, the Titanic may well give its birthplace a much-deserved boost.

“There’s a terrible amount of pride in it,” says Husbands. “With the economy being the way it is it’s probably seen as a symbol of hope. The hotels and services sector are very excited about it. They’re seizing the opportunity.”

Getting married?

On the top floor of the building a series of function rooms with spectacular views over Belfast are being made available. The main hall, which seats 750, is home to a replica of the Titanic’s grand staircase. If you’re looking for that Kate Winslet moment on your wedding day, this might be worth bearing in mind.

“We brought the images of that to the wedding fair,” says Molloy pointing at the staircase. “The rest of them never stood a chance.”

Binoculars blunder

According to ceo of Titanic Belfast Tim Husbands (right), one of the reasons the Titanic crashed into the iceberg was because the crew didn’t see it early enough. “The guys in the crow’s nest didn’t have any binoculars because the guy who had the key to the case was replaced at Southampton.”

Husbands says the key has since been found and was bought by a Chinese diamond merchant. “He uses it as a management tool to ask ’what procedures would you have put in place to ensure that key was where it was meant to be?’”

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