Building on sacred ground

What do you do when you have a need for a new building within the context of a heritage site? What about when that heritage site is one of the most significant ancient sites anywhere in the world? That was exactly the dilemma of the English authorities when tasked with replacing tourist facilities at Stonehenge. Over the Australian summer, Atelier Red+Black Co-Director Sonia Sarangi visited to see the end result.

Stonehenge_sunset1

The dashboard thermometer read 2°C and the winter afternoon light was rapidly fading. The bleak setting instantly had me pondering the monumental human effort it must have taken to corral these ancient monoliths over vast terrain. How and why these stones were brought and assembled remains the subject of much mystery to this day.

The new Visitor’s Centre at Stonehenge seems to have had a fraught history during its inception and delivery.  And like many architectural design competitions for public sites, it appears that the brief and site parameters changed multiple times – as it is modest one by any measure. The resulting building however seems at ease with its wind-swept surroundings.

Arrival

Having previously visited the original in 1996, which was cheek-by-jowl with the monoliths, I am delighted that the project brief sought to create the new Visitor’s Centre at a much greater distance (almost 2.5km) from the Stones. Doing so enabled me to better envision Stonehenge as a place of ritual/death/healing and careful site planning ensures that the new building literally ‘disappears’ when you are near the stones.

The vagaries of architectural scale are numerous. It definitely feels like the architects of the excellent new Visitor’s Centre at Stonehenge – Denton Corker Marshall (DCM)- have thoroughly explored the notion of playing around with the sense of scale here.

For instance almost the first element of the building to be perceived is not the walls but the vast, billowing roof-plane. This tapers down to a razor edge, lending it the perception of being ‘afloat’ – masking the fact that it is nearly 3-storeys above the ground. This is again strangely at odds with that fact that the programmed spaces span only across a single level. The large tracts of clear grasslands around the Centre, further diminish ones ability to decipher the scale of the project. However, the hundred of slender tilted columns scattered within the building create artificial woodland.

Beyond these two flourishes, the built volumes housing the main programs (ticketing, café, gift-shop, exhibition & toilets) are placed in a very simple manner and with a pared-back aesthetic. The glass-clad volume in particular seems to often ‘disappear’ from certain angles due to the way it is carefully detailed. The other is clad in timber that is left exposed to the elements so that it has weathered to a wonderful soft-grey. The architects seem to intentionally avoid the use of stone on any of these volumes and I think it is all the better for it.

What was perhaps most delightful, as a visitor with a keen eye on everything architectural, was the way the circulation is organized. Many buildings with a similar program often fall into the pre-conceived notion that the visitor needs to be sucked in and led on a fixed circulation ‘route’ through the inner programs.

Here, DCM have inverted this cliché to startling effect. The circulation space here is disproportionately larger, encouraging you to instead linger between and around the enclosed volumes – as if to say ‘go on have a wander if you like’. This experience of a more porous boundary, also reflected in the edge detailing of the roof, was a breath of fresh air on many levels. Why must we expect that public buildings have an artificially climate-controlled environment?

I hope this act of defiance was inspired by the ancient, and similarly defiant, Stones nearby…

Stonehenge_sunset2

SoniaSonia Sarangi is co-founder of Atelier Red + Black, an emerging architecture practice in Fitzroy, Victoria. She has previously worked in both small practice (Melbourne) and a large international firm (Singapore). She has a Masters in Architecture from the University of Melbourne. Sonia can be found on Instagram @thesarangi

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About Michael Smith

Architect and Director of Atelier Red + Black based in Melbourne, Australia
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One Response to Building on sacred ground

  1. Nicely done, Sonia. Very keen to visit myself.

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