A plan started in 1986 to give Stonehenge a worthwhile visitor center finally entered its end game last week when Melbourne firm Denton Corker Marshall’s second (that’s right, second) winning proposal was finally approved.
The planned building is a softly flowing roof propped up by dozens of stalks over two pods, one glass, one solid. Kind of like the Academy of Sciences filtered through Pole Dance. It looks okay, and it won’t block Stonehenge’s sight lines to the cosmos–a so-called “low-key” transit system will connect the visitor center to the stone circle, 1.5 miles away. Don’t know what that means yet, but they’ll have a little while to work it out: construction starts in 2011, and will finish up, hopefully, in time for the 2012 Olympics. The building is meant to be removable, though schematics currently available don’t show exactly how that’s going to work, nor when it will be removed.
There have been three contests for a Stonehenge visitor center. Edward Cullinan Architects won the first in 1992, but the plan was scrapped after much public outcry and planning snafus. Then DCM won in 2007 for a permanent, $105.5 million visitor’s center, but that too was canceled. Then last February, DCM won another competition for a $32.5 million temporary center, this time outside the World Heritage Site boundary. It was approved on the 20th by the county government.
The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, the British government’s advisor on architectural matters, raised serious doubts about the center’s aesthetics, calling the pedestrian routes to the center “torturous,” the support columns not “conceptually strong,” and the whole shebang “not…convincingly resolved technically.” I have to agree. The hole-punched canopy is half-assed and the columns are spindly and weak compared to the menacingly monolithic stones next door. If it’s meant to be subtle compared to Stonehenge’s power, then it should blend into the landscape–and no, timber siding on the solid “pod” doesn’t count.
In a comment that perfectly embodies the lowest-common-denominator, faux-avant-garde design of the center–and the middling politics behind it–DCM director Stephan Quinian, says:
Our proposal, above all, seeks not to compromise the solidity and timelessness of the Stones, but to satisfy the brief with a design which is universally accessible, environmentally sensitive, and at the same time appears almost transitory in nature. If once back at home, a visitor can remember their visit to the stones but can’t remember the visitor centre they passed through on the way, we will be happy.
Next door to Stonehenge, architecture designed to be forgotten–how far we’ve fallen.