Stonehenge’s visitor’s centre is finally open. What’s three decades of planning compared to the 5,000-year-old site it supports?
Following a gestation period that seemed as drawn-out as a Viking Saga, the new visitor’s centre at Stonehenge is finally open. When a building takes 30 years to complete, it is almost inevitable that the finished article is met with a general feeling of “Is that it?” In some ways architects Denton Corker Marshall must have felt they were in an impossible situation. Competing with a 5,000-year-old Neolithic monument would be at best a folly and at worst insulting.
This is the second time that the Australian practice has won the job. In 2007 it won an open competition as part of a wider scheme that involved sinking the A303 underground; it was torpedoed when English Heritage and the National Trust, just two of the myriad parties involved, reached an impasse on where the road should go. The practice came back with a priming station before the big show, 1.5 miles down the road. The most pressing challenges were therefore perfunctory – how to manage the impact, not just of the building itself, but of the one million visitors who engulf Stonehenge every year.
To lighten the load, the architects wisely stripped out as much as they could from the main building – storage for the cafe, M&E plant, administration offices, the coach park – and housed it behind a row of trees on the A303 in what project architect Stephen Quinlan calls “the world’s largest garden shed”. With no coaches, the main car park became a more manageable proposition – the landscape’s natural contours cajoling visitors towards the building. In front, a brown patch of soil is heavily seeded with the intention to create a picnic area; likewise, planters between the parking bays will eventually help disguise the car park.
The structure is separated into two distinct volumes – a chestnut-clad box containing the permanent exhibition and a glass one for the cafe, shop and classrooms. In between is a thoroughfare where the ticket booth and site entrance is: “There was no sense in bringing everyone inside while they buy tickets, only to kick them out five minutes later,” says Quinlan. With full height glazing, the cafe is a bright and airy space, a pleasant haven from the elements.
So persuasive are the landscape’s aesthetic cues it would be wilfully obtuse to quarrel with them. Correspondingly, the architects opted for an undulating steel canopy attached to a forest of 211 leaning columns. The roof is chamfered at the edges and perforated with clusters of square holes to reduce the glare of reflected sunlight and create a dappled effect on the stone path that lines the site perimeter. The detail is repeated in the timber heads of the doorways. Though these little motifs seem perfectly plausible, some modernist zealots have accused the architects of frivolity.
So far the building is acquitting itself well, withstanding a fiery baptism thanks to a testing alliance of high winds and unusually large visitor numbers over Christmas. Furthermore, a canvas of opinion during onoffice’s visit found the public united in their praise – providing a balm, should one be needed, for the critics’ lingering sting.