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Stonehenge Visitor Centre open to druids and others in time for 2013 winter solstice

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December 18, 2013

The new £27-million Stonehenge Visitor Centre that opened this week (Photo: Peter Cook)

The new £27-million Stonehenge Visitor Centre that opened this week (Photo: Peter Cook)

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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.

The Stonehenge virtual experience (Photo: English Heritage)

"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.

An aerial view of the site as it is today, with the road cutting through the ancient proce...

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.

The Stonehenge Visitor Centre includes a café and shop (Photo: Peter Cook)

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.

View from the Stonehenge Visitor Centre (Photo: Peter Cook)

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

About the Author
Phyllis Richardson Phyllis is an architecture and design writer based in London. She champions the small and sustainable and has published several books, including the XS series (XS, XS Green, XS Future) and Nano House. In her spare time she ponders the impact of the digital world on the literary.   All articles by Phyllis Richardson
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8 Comments

Hmmm, when I read that the architects were Australian (the visitor centre, not the stones), I realised where they got their inspiration from.

Clearly this structure, with its multiple poles, is inspired by the classic Australian-style 'cowboy' hat- with the poles replicating the strings from which corks are suspended to keep off the flies...

bergamot69
19th December, 2013 @ 08:28 am PST

There are so many worthwhile things to achieve and still it is the senseless things that make headway!

donwine
19th December, 2013 @ 08:35 am PST

A half century ago people opposed private ownership of historic sites because they feared high admission charges. They did not care that no public money was needed to develop. Now we see the result of public "ownership". Decades of politics, $44 million of tax money, and still high admission charges. The worst of both worlds.

For $44 million they should have restored Stonehenge.

Don Duncan
19th December, 2013 @ 09:50 am PST

I understood that DCM's winning entry was mainly underground, and therefore mainly grassy slopes like their Australian War Memorial Exhibition Building. What happened, why do we have this flimsy stick insect catastrophe?

Edward Houghton-Ward
19th December, 2013 @ 10:30 am PST

'Strings'? 'Insect catastrophe'? - Wood Henge came first and the building is an homage to the wood which preceded the stone.

AustraliaHouses
19th December, 2013 @ 09:37 pm PST

Apparently people want more bang for their buck. What about a replica site, near by, that is interactive and entertaining for the masses. At least it will reduce the traffic, and wear, and tear, and possibly lead to the original purpose it was meant to serve. It's incredible to think about the individual journeys the materials that made the circle took.

Charles Taylor
19th December, 2013 @ 10:31 pm PST

I liked the building and the displays look very good and aimed at children, the overall effect if very pleasing I thought, but the price means that we will never see it. A lot of people will be put off by the cost of entry and that I think will defeat the whole object of the idea. pity.

JSSFB
19th December, 2013 @ 11:51 pm PST

This place is a joke, right? It cost £27 million?! Absolutely unbelievable,and an utter waste of money.

I would like to see what happens after a stiff breeze blows across Salisbury Plain. It's not only the roof that got ripped off. I wonder who's paid for it. Hopefully not the taxpayer.

I remember the old days when you could actually walk around the stones and touch them, if you wanted to. And that didn't cost a single penny.

How far away is the visitor centre from the actual monument itself? I reckon at least half a mile

David Colton Clarke
20th December, 2013 @ 02:30 pm PST
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