History at the helm

By Nick Wright

Novelis supplies aluminum for paneling of new Titanic exhibition center

December 2011 - Rising from the birthplace of the RMS Titanic in Belfast, Northern Ireland, is an aluminum-clad commemoration to the famed vessel that sank in the Atlantic Ocean in 1912. Although Titanic Belfast is slated to open March 31, 2012, marking 100 years to the day after the Titanic’s completion, crews are putting finishing touches on the 150,700-square-foot exhibition center, which anchors the waterfront redevelopment of Belfast’s Titanic Quarter.

Titanic Belfast is built on the site of the original slipway, plating works and plating yard where 1-inch-thick steel plates were bent, drilled and stored prior to being assembled on the Titanic’s hull, says Eric Kuhne, founder of CivicArts/Eric Kuhne & Associates, London, the concept and design architecture firm behind the project. Belfast-based Todd Architects acted as executive architects.

Although the original Titanic was constructed from steel, the 3,000 3-D aluminum panels covering the facade reflect “four inspirations for the architecture: water crystals, ice, ship cribbage and the ship hulls themselves,” says Kuhne. The building’s design borrows from the blueprint of the Titanic, with four 93-foot-tall, prow-shaped sections that appear arranged in a diamond or star shape if viewed from above. White Star Line’s logo also inspired the design as a tribute to the company that owned the Titanic.


“The permanence of aluminum ensures that the building will age gracefully with the phenomenal durability of aluminum against salt-spray from the [River] Lagan and Belfast Harbor and climate of Northern Ireland,” says Kuhne. He points out the building’s four wings represent the four ages of shipbuilding in Belfast: timber, iron, steel and aluminum.

Novelis Aluminum, Atlanta, supplied 120 tons of J57S rolled, anodizing quality aluminum sheet, which was produced at the company’s Nachsterstedt, Germany plant, says Joan Chesney, director of communications for Novelis Europe.

“Quality, cost effectiveness, exceptional protection and strength are all key reasons for using aluminium in construction projects,” Chesney says. “This light metal is also easy to work and features a brilliant metallic appearance—two features that make it ideal for a whole range of customized and modern design possibilities in facade cladding.”

EDM Spanwall, Belfast, Northern Ireland, fabricated the 3-millimeter-thick sheet into panels. EDM Spanwall created 10 geometric panel shapes resulting in an undulating, asymmetric effect, further accented by surrounding reflecting ponds, shadows created during daylight and flood lights at night. The panels’ intricate tucks, folds and angles echo the folding of metal plates in shipbuilding. The aluminum “is also durable and has excellent green credentials since it can be recycled with ease,” Chesney adds.

Behind the hull
From the building’s construction to the artifacts exhibited within, no detail went overlooked. No actual pieces of the Titanic are incorporated in the construction, rather architectural replicas for public viewing. Among other recreated elements, Kuhne says a full-size replica of a 7-meter-wide section of the Titanic’s hull will be put in the atrium to “dramatically illustrate the design, engineering and craftsmanship of the hull built here,” he says.

According to an EDM Spanwall press release, the company manufactured a wave-like, rusted steel panel system for the walls and ceiling—another throwback to the shipbuilding roots of Belfast.

Kuhne says the design team worked with Dr. Robert Ballard, the University of Rhode Island professor credited with discovering the Titanic’s wreckage in 1985, to evoke the ship’s historical nuances inside and out. “Dr. Ballard’s staggering photography inspired the astonishing character, the eerie reverie and the sheer scale of the Titanic both before and after the sinking,” Kuhne says. “Talking with him was an exchange of ideas, research and insight that supported the finishes, details and spirit of the building’s exterior and interior.”

Aluminum has no historical reflection with regard to the original Titanic’s construction, says Chesney. However, the design of the facade using anodized J57S brings “a modern dimension to the 100-year-old story.”

The metalworking methods, on the other hand, have evolved along with the advent of aluminum’s versatility for many applications. “The advances in aluminum milling, folding, plating and assembly have transformed the shipbuilding industry as much as Titanic Belfast will transform these hallowed shipyards,” Kuhne says. MM

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