A short guide.
The Verbal Arts Centre is a Registered Educational Charity.
The formal object of the Verbal Arts Centre is-
“(a) to advance the education of adults and young people in the areas of the language arts and to enable them to engage and participate in all aspects of the creation and appreciation of the verbal arts and in associated activities, and (b) to advance public appreciation of the imaginative, creative and practical verbal arts as heritage and as practice, and to promote excellence and awareness of excellence in these areas within and through education.”
HISTORY OF THE BUILDING
In 1995 the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society and the Historic Monuments and Buildings branch of the Environment Service in their publication Buildings at Risk in Northern Ireland recorded the former school as ‘a difficult problem, there being no concrete ideas for its reuse’. However, The Buildings at Risk publication of 2000 noted with approval that the building had been saved. The school, formerly known as the First Derry National School was built to the designs of W E Pinkerton in 1892 and opened in 1894.
The Queen Anne revival style was very popular in the late Victorian period and this two storey school was very much of its time. The familiar repertoire of high roofs, Dutch gables, tall chimney stacks and mullioned windows is set in an asymmetrical red-brick composition. It is an exuberant style that relishes in whimsical detail and the naive use of classical forms such as pediments perched on top of Dutch gables. There is too an appropriately musical antecedent in that the school originally founded in 1733 as the Blue Coat School, had choristers as pupils who lead the singing in church.
The ground floor of this listed building is built against the walls at the top of Bishop Street and the new mezzanine level can be entered from the great double bastion beside Bishop Gate. The main entrance is from Stable Lane which skirts the walled garden of the former Bishop’s Palace, once the home of Mrs C F Alexander, author of the hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful’.
In converting the building to its new use, a partial extension was required and the two parallel roofs of the double pile format were extended to the south end and a new pair of asymmetrical gables greet the visitor. These have been carried out in the original style and the new accommodation includes service and ancillary space, two new staircases and a roof level studio flat for the writer in residence.
Throughout the project a narrative thread is emphasised in the redesign which progresses from dark to light, rising through the various levels of the building to reveal the expressive range of the spoken word and the song word and the written word, (that is, the whole range of the verbal arts) – by this the design of the building hopes to convey something of the power of education and creative endeavour in the development of civilisation.
The ground floor starts off the architectural narrative with reference to the beginnings of language, with Ulster mythology, with children’s fairy tales and stories and culminates on the top floor in public speaking, rhetoric, debate and with the printed word.
Commissioned works by leading Irish artists, sculptors, designers and craftsmen provide a visual counterpoint to each floor.
Starting at the ground level, the reception and entrance hall is a high arcaded area which originally served as the covered play-space. Here the ground level has been reduced by some 450mm which allowed a new mezzanine level to be inserted. The reception hall floor features an exact representation of a Louis le Brocquy drawing executed in ceramic tiles. The children’s workshop adjoining this space is screened by an electronically controlled glass wall which can change from opaque to translucent.
The children’s staircase carries a series of panels by the Belfast artist Rita Duffy illustrating stories taken from all over Ireland and reflecting the diversity of our language culture.
The Coffee House at mezzanine level, intended to recall the political gossip and street life of 18th century forerunners, gives direct access to the double bastion on one side; on the other side a new balcony presides over the double height reception area. The style of this has been influenced by the simplicity of Quaker furniture and homes. The key and defining piece in the Coffee House is a commissioned sculpture byCarolyn Mulholland RHA: her two bronze figures are set in relationship that explores the nature of communication between individual human beings.
At first floor level the high and luminous spaces of the two former classrooms with their decorative Queen-post trusses survive almost intact. The debating chamber occupies the first floor and it can serve as a stage for the adjacent performance space in the second former classroom. The opening between these spaces, which can be closed by the original sliding doors, is framed in the Queen Anne classical style and readily suggests a proscenium arch. Among the art works are two counterbalanced and flexible lecterns suitable for performers of all sizes and wheel-chair users and also two very handsome and resplendent bardic chairs, crafted from maple and walnut. These were handmade by the craftsman, Michael Bell.
The library honours Ireland’s contribution to world literature in etched glass panels bearing the names of the four Nobel prize winners, together with their citations, 24 notable writers associated with North West Ulster are also listed. These include Seamus Heaney, Seamus Deane, Jennifer Johnston, Brian Friel, Frank McGuinness, and Matthew Sweeney, among others.
The curvilinear forms of Michael Bell’s conference table and chairs evokes maritime associations and the wandering scholars and saints of early Christian Ireland. Over the chimney piece hangs Martin Mooney’s painting of the building, commissioned by the Centre with the support of The Honourable The Irish Society. The Society helped with the original building in 1894.
Other artists whose work was commissioned include John Behan RHA whose twin figures depicting the act of communication set off the spacious new staircase and landing and, Deirdre Rogers' glass in the library.
Inside the roof space above, a writer’s flat has been inserted, this can be approached from the city walls by a poetically winding stair. A small half circle balcony, by Gerald Pullman, high on the new gable wall affords the writer an elevated prospect of the world around, in particular, a unique view of Bishop's Gate, the Courthouse and the Gothic spire of St Columb's Cathedral. The jaunty style of Pullman's ironwork is carried through to and maintained in other parts of the building where ironwork has been replaced and reflects something of the light-hearted side of the building's Queen Anne style.
This project could only have reached fruition through the financial support of a wide range of public bodies and the enthusiasm and generosity of private individuals and artists.