Despite being one of the world’s most valued heritage sites Stonehenge has never been treated with the respect that it deserves. A new visitor centre will change the way we view this national treasure.
Four hundred years later much the same questions are still being asked about Stonehenge. Who built it? What was it for? But in more recent years the focus has been how best to preserve the stones and protect them from the modern-day savagery of the motor-car and mass tourism.
Stonehenge is perhaps the most famous Neolithic site in the world, drawing thousands of visitors each day. A Unesco World Heritage Site, it is a ‘must-see’ monument, part of the identity of Britain itself. But as the site’s fame has grown over the centuries, the question of how to deal with all these visitors while protecting the stones themselves, and their surroundings, has become ever more taxing.
The current visitor centre – little more than a collection of portable buildings and lavatories arranged around a car-park – was built in 1968 and was barely adequate even then. ‘Stonehenge has been a national humiliation,’ Simon Thurley, the chief executive of English Heritage, guardians of the stones since 1984, says. ‘I think it’s really extraordinary that the only man-made structure in Britain that is instantly recognisable, from Patagonia to Serbia and beyond, has been treated as though it was a motorway service station.’ But now, after decades of controversy and failure to find an answer to the ‘Stonehenge problem’, it looks as if a solution, or at least a partial solution, has been found.
In December a new visitor centre and museum opens within a fresh and thoughtful building designed by the Anglo-Australian architectural practice Denton Corker Marshall (DCM). It is part of a whole package of measures that will also see the A344 roadway to one side of the stones removed, although the busy A303 trunk road to the West Country on the other side, which many campaigners have wanted to see put in a tunnel, remains, for now. Thurley sums up what has been achieved. ‘It has been an incredibly controversial saga and has involved three or four different schemes along the way. The most important thing has been the removal of the 1960s car-park and the closing of the road, and clearly getting rid of the terribly outdated stuff requires us to replace it with something new. So the corollary to the ambition to get rid of the road and the existing facilities has been the very long quest to decide where to put the new stuff.’
The ambition has long been to leave the stones themselves in splendid isolation, clearing the old visitor centre away and building something new well out of sight of the monument itself. After looking at a range of locations, English Heritage finally opted for a site at Airman’s Corner – one and a half miles from the stones themselves, within a natural dip in the landscape. ‘One of the key issues over the years has been where we should locate the new facilities,’ Lorraine Knowles, English Heritage’s Stonehenge director, says. ‘There was no disagreement that we needed to do something and close the road and that we needed to improve the setting around the stones. But the big question has been about where we should put the new centre.’
Having settled on the new site, the question became how to deliver a sensitively conceived building that responded to the open farmland setting, with scarcely another building in sight apart from an occasional barn. That includes the stones themselves, which will be accessed either by foot or by transit vehicles from the visitor centre. It is clear that the experience of visiting and understanding Stonehenge will be completely transformed.
The finished centre is a considered and respectful design, but also distinctly modern in approach, which may not please everyone. While the stones are all about mass and weight, the new building is purposefully light, low slung and partially transparent, allowing the eye to pass through and connect with the landscape beyond. It is a subtle presence in the landscape, with a sweeping roof supported by a small forest of slim supporting columns. The canopy shelters a cafe and shop to one side, within a more transparent section, while a museum sits at the other side protected by a facade of weathered chestnut. Between the two there is a sheltered courtyard and a ticket pod.
Stephen Quinlan, the director of DCM’s British office, has been involved in a substantial part of the story himself. Quite soon after establishing the British branch of a practice that was founded in Melbourne in the 1970s, Quinlan entered a 1992 competition for a new Stonehenge visitor centre that was eventually won by the architect Edward Cullinan, but later dropped. In 2001 DCM won a competition for a visitor centre at Countess East – about two miles from the stones – with its design for a building partly burrowed into the side of a sloping valley. In 2004 English Heritage gained Government backing for the idea of rerouting the A303 trunk road into a new tunnel out of view of the stones. It even got as far as getting planning permission in 2007, only for the whole scheme to be shelved when the Government decided that the new tunnel would be too expensive after all. Nevertheless, when English Heritage announced a new competition, for a £27 million building at Airman’s Corner, Quinlan decided it was worth having another go.
‘I know Stonehenge really, really well,’ Quinlan says. ‘It’s been a long time and a big part of my professional life. We had always hoped that we would get bounced on to the new project but it wasn’t like that at all and the new scheme had to go back out again into the market. So it was by no means a certainty that we would reapply to do it. We thought long and hard and in the end, because we are eternal optimists, we thought we might as well throw our hat in the ring, even though we didn’t rate our chances particularly highly. But the shortlist started getting smaller and smaller and we were incredibly excited when it happened again. We couldn’t believe our luck. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity.’
‘Quite early on we came up with this idea of an undulating roof with eccentric, irregular columns, which would fit well in this rolling countryside,’ continues Quinlan, who collaborated on the design with his colleagues in Melbourne, including the founding partners Barrie Marshall and John Denton. ‘It is quite a big building, with a million visitors going through it every year, so if you had a pitched roof it would become massive, like a cathedral, which didn’t fit in with our approach. We wanted the building to sit lightly in the landscape.’ Quinlan compares the supporting columns to reeds, or slim tree trunks, with a feeling of lightness. It looks as if they are supporting the roof, although they are actually holding it down, as the wind could catch the canopy and turn it into a giant sail without all of these vertical anchors.
‘With the buildings and sites that English Heritage owns itself we generally build in a way that’s very traditional,’ Thurley says. ‘Most of the buildings we have done over the past 10 years have been essentially timber framed and timber clad – out of oak normally – and silver down to get the same sort of colour register as the stone buildings that are often close by. So with our own estate we haven’t been champions of ultra-modern stuctures, although in our wider work we have supported many such buildings. But Stonehenge is completely different and in this case we think a traditional response would have been wrong and would have ended up looking far too solid. This building has a degree of permeability that makes it a lighter proposition. The aim was always to have something that felt like a leaf lying on the land, and hopefully it will feel something like that.’
For Quinlan the building will be a success only if it is seen as quiet and discreet. It forms the polar opposite to so much modern urban architecture, where drama and eye-catching, sculptural forms are so often seen as vital, within the aim of creating statement buildings. Purposefully the Stonehenge visitor centre makes no attempt to reference the stones themselves in its design language and never tries to compete with them in any way. The palette of materials – glass, limestone, chestnut, zinc for the roof – is also tempered and calm. ‘It is quite a big building, because of the job it has to do,’ Quinlan says. ‘But when you approach it, the building doesn’t seem that big at all, largely because there is a lot of landscape going on with the building placed within it. It almost disappears from some perspectives, which is fantastic. Although as an architect I probably shouldn’t be saying that.’
The museum is a key part of the development project, creating dedicated exhibition space for the first time and drawing on pieces lent by the Wiltshire Heritage Museum and the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. ‘Between us we have agreed that we can tell the whole story of Stonehenge with thousands of objects on display,’ Thurley says. ‘It means that the million-plus people who come and see the stones every year will, for the first time, be able to come face to face with some of the actual artefacts that have been excavated on the site. We are building a major museum in the middle of Salisbury Plain, which is a quite extraordinary thing to do.’
An outdoor gallery alongside the new building will play host to three reconstructed Neolithic houses, made with walls of chalk cob over a willow framework and topped by thatched roofs. ‘They are based on some houses excavated at the nearby henge of Durrington Walls,’ Susan Greaney, an archaeologist and the museum’s curator, says. ‘They date from 2500bc, the same time as the large sarsen stones were being raised at Stonehenge and probably where the builders of Stonehenge lived. It will be a real hands-on, immersive experience. We hope the exhibition will show that the prehistoric people who built and used Stonehenge were sophisticated and clever. They were able to pool together vast resources to construct this extraordinary monument using only simple tools.’
The museum helps put Stonehenge into context for visitors, including a 360-degree film showing the henge in its various stages as it evolved over the centuries. But just as importantly the new building sits within a strategy of slowing down the experience of visiting the stones, with the aim of building a sense of anticipation by the time you reach Stonehenge itself. Visitors have the option of walking all the way or the final half of the way, adding to the idea of a journey along a path of discovery.
English Heritage is continuing to push for the A303 to go into a tunnel eventually. But for the time being the road has been resurfaced with a noise-reduction coating in the hope that the sound of constant traffic might be less intrusive when the visitor is contemplating the stones and asking the big questions of how and why they were put here in the first place.
The Stonehenge News Blog