How the £29.5m Belfast Waterfront Hall extension could have looked
The debate over the Waterfront Hall extension has taken a new twist with the publication of alternative designs from the building's original architects - who then released a statement to this newspaper revealing how disappointed they were at being overlooked for the project.
Robinson McIlwaine, who designed the original building but lost out to Todd Architects for the controversial extension, posted pictures on their Facebook site of how it would have shaped up had they won the contract.
They followed that up with the statement to the Belfast Telegraph that claimed they had been turned down by Belfast City Council despite submitting the most economically competitive bid.
It read: "Robinson McIlwaine Architects were very disappointed not to be the chosen architects for the new extension having been both the architects for the multi-award winning original building and also the retained architects for the feasibility study for the project.
"The feasibility study included a sensitive and sympathetic initial design concept, which was used by Belfast City Council in the marketing for the project.
"This was even more difficult as RMI are understood to have submitted the most economically competitive bid at the time."
The statement added: "The practice was particularly interested in the retained visibility of the original building in the Belfast streetscape as well a sympathetic contextual design. The practice refused to comment on the current uncompleted extension."
The spurned architects' reaction is guaranteed to add fuel to the burning issue over whether the £29.5m building - which has already attracted unflattering nicknames including the Box on the Docks and the Sore on the Shore - is an ugly addition to the Belfast skyline. The new conference centre, which is due to open early next year, has rendered the original building invisible to anyone on the east bank of the Lagan, but Todd Architects, the firm behind the stunning Titanic Belfast building across the river, defended their design, calling it a "contemporary, active and dynamic frontage to the waterfront".
Company director Paul Crowe said the new extension was being unfairly and prematurely judged, and added that his firm would happily discuss their approach to the design once the project was finished.
The one major criticism of the original building was that it was too small - an issue the integrated extension will address through doubling the size of the conference and exhibition facilities at the hall and offering an additional 4,000sq metres of space, including a 2,000sq metre major hall and 750sq metre minor hall.
The project created 400 new jobs in the construction trade during development, and dozens more will follow after it opens.
The Belfast Telegraph understands that architects bidding for the contract were asked for a written submission - rather than a design.
Robinson McIlwaine are believed to have lost out to Todd Architects on this basis - despite putting in a particularly competitive fee for the job.
The news came as Belfast City Council released pictures of how the extension will look upon completion.
Councillors also recommended the creation of a council-owned company to run the conference facility when it opens next May.
The council, which is providing £11m towards the Waterfront extension, estimates that it will contribute £39m a year to the local economy and facilitate the city's burgeoning business and tourism market.
The rest of the money is coming from the Tourist Board (£4m) and the European Regional Development Fund (£14.5m).