The new £27-million (US $44 million) visitor centre for the world’s most famous Neolithic monuments has opened its doors just days before the winter solstice in Britain, offering a modern, but low-key and educational introduction to the 5,000-year-old stone circle. Cars are banished and visitors are offered a virtual "Stonehenge experience" before approaching the stones on foot or by shuttle.

The new visitor centre at Stonehenge, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was designed by Australian architects Denton Corker Marshall, and is the culmination of decades of political, financial and community wrangling. In addition to the construction of new, sustainable buildings, the project involved re-routing a major road, restoring the ancient path to the site and moving the centre and exhibition space 1.5 km (0.9 mi) from the actual stones.

Within the new structures the exhibitions now include the virtual "experience," a giant circular cinema screen that plays a three-minute video which uses state-of-the-art laser scans of the massive stones to allow visitors to "stand in the stones" and experience the summer and winter solstices as they would have appeared at the time the circle was erected.

"A more dignified setting"

There was never much dispute that the old entry structures, located just across the double-lane highway, were in need of replacement. Anyone who has visited the stones in the past will be aware of the spartan facilities on offer, (including the rustic toilets) and the fact that the A road ran so close to the site as to make a very incongruous intrusion on the experience of the majestic pillars of Salisbury Plain.

The new buildings offer what English Heritage say is "a more dignified setting." Denton Corker Marshall’s solution, working with English Heritage, replaces the old gift shop and ticket huts with more sustainable buildings that are also more subservient to the late-Neolithic monument and decidedly more elegant than what came before.

A three-way approach: A dramatic "prelude" to the stones

Barrie Marshall, director at Denton Corker Marshall, has described the new centre as "a prelude to the stones that should in no way diminish their visual impact, sense of timeless strength and powerful sculptural composition." Instead of a single, declarative architectural statement, the architects created three separate buildings, or "pods," of only a single storey.

The largest, faced in sweet chestnut, houses the museum, displays and service facilities. The second, glass-walled, building is a bit more stylish, and contains the education centre, café and shop. The smallest pod, a zinc-clad hut, is the ticket and information booth.

These all sit beneath a delicately undulating steel roof canopy, whose shape nicely mimics the gentle slope of the surrounding landscape. The canopy is supported on 211 sloping columns, all of which help to minimize the impact of the structure on the landscape and keep a low profile in anticipation of the main attraction, the massive stone circle, which was erected around 2,500 B.C. And where the previous entry was close up to the site, the new buildings are set back at a distance, making the site itself only reachable on foot or by shuttle, and only visible as you journey away from the visitor centre.

Sustainability, reversibility and restoring an ancient avenue

A major complication in this project was the decision to close part of the road running alongside the stones and to re-route traffic around the plain. The closure not only removed vehicles and pollutants from close proximity, but allowed the chance to overplant and to restore an ancient processional route to the stones, known as "the Avenue." In addition to diminishing the impact on the landscape by breaking up the building into three smaller volumes, the architects adhered to a sustainable agenda in materials and methods. The chestnut cladding is locally grown, and native Salisbury limestone was also used.

Perhaps inspired by the huge difficulties of trying to "undo" past wrongs, such as the road and the previous buildings, Denton Corker Marshal took steps to ensure that the new arrangement could be demountable should the need arise to remove it at some point in the future. The buildings sit on a concrete raft set over fill. This and the lightweight materials mean that the scheme required less intrusive fixings into the ground. Energy-saving measures have been employed in the heating, ventilation, and insulation systems, as well as in rainwater recycling.

Sitting lightly in the land but with purpose

The architects intended their structure to "sit lightly in the landscape," and visually, the buildings have a minimal impact on the view over the plain. The steel, zinc and glass, along with the gentle wave of the roof canopy, are designed to provide an elemental appeal that complements the natural setting and connects with the solid integrity of the stones.

However, English Heritage was determined that the visitor centre do more than replace the long-outmoded facilities and has included an ambitious program of education and museum-quality exhibitions, including the reconstruction of the head of an early Neolithic man, based on remains dated to about 3000 B.C, as well as the virtual Stonehenge experience. A group of reconstructed Neolithic houses will be completed as part of an external exhibition by Easter 2014.

Some visitors will no doubt balk at the increased price for admission of £13.90 (US$23) for adults and £8.30 (US$13.60) for children when pre-booked, (more if you pay at the gate), and at the attempts to earn more cash through café and retail enhancements. But monumental conservation does not come cheap. Even if the virtual "Stonehenge experience" might sound a bit hokey to some, it’s hard to argue against the benefits of wandering around the mighty trilithons without seeing cars whizz past, or of having the stones slowly revealed on a walk up a grassy slope. Skeptic or druid, you might find some ancient pleasure in it.

Sources: Denton Corker Marshall, English Heritage