Where many have failed, Denton Corker Marshall has adeptly handled the longstanding challenge of building near Stonehenge, writes Tom Ravenscroft. Photography by Anthony Coleman
Replacing the facilities described by former architecture minister John Penrose as ‘woefully inadequate’ at Stonehenge was a task that has occupied English Heritage since its formation in 1984. Now, after three architectural competitions, numerous funding and planning setbacks, and years of negotiations, Stonehenge finally has a visitor centre that is fit for purpose. Located 1.5 miles west of the stone circle but, crucially, still within the bounds of the UNESCO World Heritage site, which limits the capacity for expression, the new visitor centre is a response to English Heritage’s long-held desire to create a building with as little visual impact on the site as possible.
Following the first competition at the site in 1992, Jocelyn Stevens, then chairman of English Heritage, complemented Edward Cullinan’s winning scheme for ‘its timeless quality, which was devoid of mannerism, and its minimal impact on the landscape’.
The second competition, held in 2001, was won by Australian practice Denton Corker Marshall (DCM)with a partially subterranean building that can trace its origins to founding partner Barrie Marshall’s own hidden home, Phillip Island House. Unfortunately, planning permission for what on paper looked like a spectacular piece of architecture was tied to English Heritage’s long-term goal of removing the nearby A303. Project architect Angela Dapper (who is shortlisted for AJ Emerging Woman Architect of the Year) explains that this was ‘like having a house extension reliant on building a tunnel under the Thames’. And sure enough, when the A303 tunnel was abandoned due to its £500 million price tag, so too was the £67 million visitor centre.
The visitor centre we now have is the result of a third competition for a building on a much-reduced scale and at a tenth of the budget, that was again won by DCM. At first sight, the long-awaited building is underwhelming - a modest, lightweight entrance pavilion that provides tickets, food, drink, gifts and a little interpretation for the 1 million annual visitors to the UK’s most famous monument. Yet despite its low-key aesthetic, it is a building that operates extremely well.
First we should dispense with the ‘Moanhenge’ tag. Yes, the ticket price has almost doubled (from £8 to £14.90) to align admission with English Heritage’s other leading attractions (entry to Osborne House costs £13.40). Yes, there have been ‘operational’ teething problems as unprecedented numbers have descended on the centre. And finally, yes, Stonehenge does get cold, it is outdoors and in the UK: use your common sense and bring a coat.
The small building is organised simply with two rectangular pods placed on either side of a broad entrance passage containing a zinc ticket booth, all sheltered under a lightweight steel canopy. It reads as a gateway, and as intended feels like a stopping-off point on the way to the attraction. DCM have made a building that will not itself become an attraction.
Although driven by the desire to reduce cost by removing internal circulation, the outdoor arrangement gives visitors freedom of choice; you do not have to visit the museum or exit through the gift shop, which in a modern visitor centre is both surprising and refreshing.
The internal spaces are well thought out. The bright, welcoming café, complete with DCM-designed furniture, equally bright gift shop and the education centre are grouped in the largely glazed pod. The other pod, which is clad with sweet chestnut, contains toilets and the interpretation centre. The highlight is a 360º projection that allows you to virtually stand in centre of the stones, which leads to the permanent collection. Many previously unseen artefacts from the site are on display, with a temporary exhibition on the history of Stonehenge contained in a climate-controlled corner gallery. However, for Britain’s most important ancient monument, the amount of space allocated for the permanent collection is extremely small.
There are also some moments of uncertainty. The roof is extremely refined and supported by 211 irregularly placed sloping columns that try to look casual. However, the edges of the canopy are punctuated by pixellated holes that take away from the roof’s clarity. The same can be said for the ‘randomly’ cut timber around the entrances to the interpretation block, which verge on Disneyesque.
Still, these details do not take away from the fact that the visitor centre functions exactly as intended. English Heritage wanted a building that could be removed from the site if necessary, a light touch on the landscape, something that would not compete with the stones. And this is exactly what the architect has created. The centre is the start of a journey to the stones, which can be reached either in a posh version of a land train pulled by a Land Rover or by walking for 20 minutes.
The centre’s location is a strength. Far from being detrimental to the experience, the distance to the stones builds a sense of anticipation. At the previous 1960s facilities, the stones were in sight as soon as you stepped out of the car, and the purpose of the trip was essentially complete. It is the visual and mental separation between Stonehenge and the new visitor centre that is the greatest improvement to a visit.
Along with the removal of the original facilities, a huge step towards returning Stonehenge to its original setting has been taken with the closure and covering over of the road closest to the ancient site, the A344. This act has completely changed the feel of the site, and added weight to English Heritage’s campaign to remove the larger A303, that also passes close by. For now, one of the greatest ancient monuments will continue to stand next to modern invention: the highway.
DCM has faithfully fulfilled its brief, and Stonehenge finally has high-quality visitor facilities. However, we need only to look jealously across the Irish Sea to Heneghan Peng Architects’ Stirling Prize-nominated Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre (AJ 04.10.12) for an example of what might have been. For all its quality, the Stonehenge pavilion could be anywhere - an exemplar of how to build on a sensitive site, but not how to relate to that site.
It would be unfair to say that English Heritage had a lack of ambition. Rather, after years of failed schemes, it may have acquired a hard-earned view of what it is possible on this highly sensitive, 5,000-year-old site. This knowledge may be called upon sooner than expected, as in what seems like an oversight, the new building is only designed to cope with current visitor numbers.
However, since opening, the number of visitors has risen by more than 25 per cent. Perhaps a new competition will soon be needed to expand the facilities, before they once again become ‘woefully inadequate’.