Stonehenge Gets A New Visitor Center That’s Almost Not There

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One of the tricky problems that sometimes faces architects is figuring out how to design a building that neighbors a historic building. So imagine the challenge of designing a visitor center next to one of humankind’s most venerated and ancient creations: Stonehenge.

Stonehenge seeming huge

One of the tasks facing architects sometimes is figuring out how to design a building that neighbors a historic one. Solutions tend to the transparent — as if trying to do a disappearing act out of courtesy to the older edifice — or the vaguely similar or, occasionally, extreme contrast.

So imagine the challenge of designing a visitor center next to one of humankind’s most venerated and ancient creations: Stonehenge.

This was the thorny problem presented to Australian architects Denton Corker Marshall, and the building opened end of last year. DnA was in the UK over the holidays and visited it, on the winter solstice no less (though mist and rain put the kibosh on the full effect of the sun’s rays through the stones on the shortest day of the year.) Bennett Stein, aka the Good4Nothing Connoisseur, delivered this report from the Salisbury Plain.

It was a face-slapping wind, icy bullets of rain pelting down, the perfect way to see the henge for the first time, and on December 21, the winter solstice, one of the four times of the year when sorcerers are most active. The prospect of seeing the stone sentinels in their horseshoe parade up close and in person was on an epic par with being knighted by Henry V or King Ethelred or Richard The Lionhearted (I could only imagine).

But before getting to the ancient stones, we had to purchase tickets, from the new visitors centre (photo above), 1.5 miles from the henge (but hard to hide in the open, exposed plain) from where we took a shuttle. While waiting, I found myself intrigued by the building, as light on the ground as the henge is heavy.

First off, my eyes kept going skyward, to the roof, or should I say, wafer thin canopy overhead, gracefully perched like a large benevolent butterfly wing, gently flapping. It hovers over a podplex of ticket booth, museum, gift shop and café.

Perf RoofI was particularly taken with the zinc canopy with mysteriously perforated edges, which were designed, it turns out, to cast sunlight dapples–as if through leaves upon the ground on a sunny day (close up above, wider view below). It must have been cut by laser and it puts one in mind of a player piano scroll, which had the effect of suggesting the possibility that Stonehenge may have been an ephemeris or Neolithic iPod to play back the music of the spheres.

Perf Roof w:peeps

Roughly on a par with the dimensions of a football field, it is supported on 211 chestnut wood poles, no two the same exact same height but averaging 18-feet tall. But are they poles or are they stilts? No matter, they’re planted into a shallow limestone platform, or pad. It’s all designed not to penetrate too deeply into the earth, lest any yet to be discovered Neolithic structures be tainted.

It turns out the architects, Denton Corker Marshall, were aiming overall for a light touch upon the land. They had intended it to be a sort of weigh station with modest canopy undulating in a graduated wave whooshing overhead, clad in zinc, a silver grey that almost vanishes into the overcast sky.

Dark and Stormy Journey

But the journey to get this center built was a dark and stormy one. As reported in the Guardian, it has been 24 years since the “parliamentary public accounts committee denounced the visitor facilities at one of the world’s most famous ancient monuments as “a national disgrace”, and “85 years after the idea (for a visitor’s center) was first mooted.”

ArthurPendragonStonehengeSummerSolstice2010Along the way it has pitted druids, like Arthur Pendragon, who reportedly calls himself “battle chieftain of the council of British druid orders,” against the establishment. Pendragon, right, former head of a biker gang, who now believes himself the incarnation of the once and future king, was furious when the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government pulled 10 million pounds in promised funding for the 25 million plus scheme (English Heritage later stepped in with funds.)

Once the current scheme had been proposed England’s CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) pushed back. CABE accused Denton & Co of designing footpaths that were “tortuous.” They said the roof that I was so intrigued by, with it’s computer punch card perforations along the edges, would “likely channel wind and rain.” Then they said the spindly columns, meant to evoke a forest, were “incongruous with the vast surrounding landscape.” They further said the plan was too futuristic and would do little to enhance the monument.

Oh, CABE, do please let me make you a cup of tea and thaw you out and warm you up just a little. The visitor center does nothing of the sort. It is an enchanting and perfect aperitif to the meal that is Stonehenge.

Eventually the scheme was approved by the Wiltshire county council. Still Diane Haigh, CABE’s director of design review, was not shy about questioning whether this was the right design approach. It seems she wanted something more momentous, bold or regal to telegraph the profound importance of the stony greatness visitors would soon be humbled by. She wanted a monument to suggest the monument.

The Art of Architectural Seduction

Glass podsI find that not only heartbreaking, but frightfully hubristic. Does she know nothing of the art of seduction? Ms. Haigh went on to suggest the “twee little winding paths around the visitors centre were more appropriate for an urban garden than the big scale open air setting the stones have.” She accused the chestnut poles of being “lots of trunks holding up a delicate roof” that would offer no protection from the omnipresent wind and rain.

She’s right about that; my family and I were getting a wind and rain lashing of near biblical proportions. But I rather enjoyed that, made me feel like a hearty pilgrim getting baptized, ready to earn and own my transcendental experience.

Stephen Quinlan, the design director of DCM, said this was by design, that the structure overall is meant to be “intellectually deferential” and that the modest roof was intended only as a “sun canopy” that should decidedly not act as a deterrent to “an outdoor experience.” Mr. Quinlan also said, “I wouldn’t mind if you couldn’t remember what the building looked like when you left. The visitor centre is not the destination.”

cafe w:peepsMs. Haigh further fretted that the facility would feel dated with time. (Did the Bronze Age Celts ever wonder that about their ring of stones?) It seems there was no shortage of bickering and back and forth on the plains of Salisbury. CABE did issue a statement saying, “innovative architectural designs will always polarize opinion.” And finally, after considering other options, CABE gave the Denton Corker Marshall plan its blessing.

I must say I was so anxious to get to the stones I could not fully absorb the facility at first. After returning from the henge, where on that high exposed bluff it felt to be 30 degrees colder with the wind speed tripled, I was grateful for the woodsy ambience, and the toasty cafe (above) but also charmed that it and the gift shop let you see right through them to the sky and rain- and wind-whipped grassy plains unfurling beyond the other side.

So Well Under-designed It’s Barely There

It’s so well under-designed as to be utterly unobtrusive. It lets you hold onto and focus on the inner glow you caught at having come fact-to-face with “the Henge,” which decidedly imparts a soulfully wired state of mind, if not a secret power one may or may not discover years hence. The centre serves as a blank slate upon which to project all the mindfulness and wonderment teased out of you by the grand sarsens and bluestones down the road.

Travelors’ Advisory: If you haven’t been to Stonehenge, it may be time to load the Floyd’s ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ into your playlist, or Mahler’s 9th or Alice Coltrane’s ‘Om Supreme,’ or better yet, ditch the gadgets; just put this English Heritage site to the top of your bucket list and come as you are–strong chance you might ever so slightly get your argyles blown off.

But when you do visit Stonehenge keep your wits about you. As the site is such a mythologized, shrouded in mystery, and deemed sacred demarcation point by various and sundry practitioners of the arts of spellcraft, astrology and pagan worship, do not be surprised if you sense associates of Harry Potter, Bilbo Baggins, Merlin or Tenacious D scurrying about. Of course you’ll need to set off with an open mind to not miss anything.

As my sister-in-law said, beware the drohgies and diggers. Leaving, we spotted in the visitors parking lot the below proudly claimed yellow mobile Druid lab. Didn’t expect to find tinted windows on a Druid chariot, no doubt for our own protection. It’s probably best to mind your own business when playing in such company, brush up on your spell casting and hex removing–but by all means, feel free to gaze wistfully upon those vintage 70s flower power decals.

Druids All photos (except Battle Chieftain Pendragon with Druids) by Bennett Stein, The Good4Nothing Connoiseur.