The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) believes the centre’s “twee paths” are “more appropriate for an urban garden” and its “delicate roof” is unsuitable for the wind and rain that sweeps across the majestic Wiltshire plains where the stones stand.
Although the plans, by Australian architecture firm Denton Corker Marshall, have been approved by Wiltshire county council planners and are backed by local architects on the Wiltshire Design Forum, CABE said the “architectural approach” was wrong.
“We question whether, in this landscape of scale and huge horizons and with a very robust end point that has stood for centuries and centuries, this is the right design approach?” Diane Haigh, the watchdog’s director of design review, told The Guardian.
“You need to feel you are approaching Stonehenge. You want the sense you are walking over Salisbury Plain towards the stones.”
She said the intended location of the centre, at Airman’s Corner, is appropriate and that CABE was pleased that “something was happening at last” to enhance the appeal of the 5,000-year-old World Heritage site.
She said that she recognised the columns were meant to be “lots of trunks” holding up a “very delicate roof”, but added: “Is this the best approach on what is actually a very exposed site. In particular, if it’s a windy, rainy day, as it is quite often out there, it’s not going to give you shelter.
“We are concerned it’s very stylish nature will make it feel a bit dated in time, unlike the stones which have stood the test of time”.
The comments are the latest setback for long-running plans backed by English Heritage to make the site more suitable for visitors, 800,000 of whom make the journey to Stonehenge each year.
Traffic continues to rumble past the site today after the Government decided, two years ago, to scrap a highly-ambitious £65m scheme to build a tunnel to re-route traffic to protect the site on the grounds of cost.
English Heritage said it recognised that the visitor centre would prove controversial and divisive.
“Innovative architectural designs will always polarise opinion, and often nowhere more so that within the architectural world itself,” it said in a statement.
“The Stonehenge project has to overcome a unique set of challenges,” it said. “This has required a pragmatic approach and, following widespread consultation, we maintain the current plans offer the best solution”.
Stephen Quinlan, partner at Denton Corker Marshall, said the roof was meant to be a “sun canopy” and not meant to entirely keep out the elements since the visitor centre is part of the “an outdoor experience”.
“It’s not an iconic masterpiece. It’s a facility to help you appreciate the Stonehenge landscape. It’s intellectually deferential in a big, big way to Stonehenge as a monument,” he said.
“I wouldn’t even mind if you couldn’t remember what the building looked like when you left. The visitor centre is not the destination.”
But he said that his firm did not take criticism from CABE lightly. “We are crawling through their comments to see if there are any improvements we can make,” he said.
Denton Corker Marshall has previously designed the Manchester Civil Justice Centre, the Australian Embassies in Beijing and Tokyo and The Melbourne Museum.