Edward Cullinan Architects will no longer work at Stonehenge, but we still have high hopes for the visitor centre
We at Edward Cullinan Architects won the first competition to design the Stonehenge visitor centre in 1992. At the time, we said to Jocelyn Stephens, then chairman of English Heritage (EH), that the right context for a visit to the great circle would only be restored when it again sat at the centre of its surrounding ring of barrow cemeteries, rescued from the suffocating crotch of the A344 and the A303. But the roads and current facilities still scream against the subtle traces of antiquity in the gentle folds of this ancient landscape and the intervisibility of its monuments.
Seventeen years, three EH chairmen and three competitions later, we were newly enthused by the Fargo plantation site (AJ 19.02.09), where a new building might nestle in a woodland screen, offering a single framed view to the stones and setting visitors off on circular walks. We thought Stonehenge could be at its most intelligible here, as a distant silhouette seen from the rim of the bowl defined by the barrow ridges. We reacquainted ourselves with the gentle valleys that could be used to create such a dramatic approach walk.
Stonehenge could be at its most intelligible here
At last, an artificial Olympic deadline might actually see a ‘temporary’ solution to the existing temporary solution. Nothing with any permanence ever seems possible here. Perhaps the 2012 London Olympics offers a shared ambition that will unite divisions among stakeholders – or perhaps calling it ‘temporary’ means differences will be set aside so something is actually built this time. This temporary scheme will be a shift from the heavyweight in-the-land solutions proposed by us and Denton Corker Marshall, which will work on the project from now on, in previous rounds. It will be an on-the-land visitor building that touches the ground lightly; a temporary, removable, reusable building pitched on the downland until the A303 is diverted. We are disappointed not to be working on the project anymore, but we still have great hopes for it.
Our first hope is that it will be a great journey. The way visitors discover Stonehenge in the landscape will be the most powerful change that could take place, regardless of how temporary this solution is intended to be. The building itself will simply be a small part of the frame to the visitors’ journey.
We also hope for a great building. The quality of the facility and the role it plays as a gateway to the Stonehenge landscape may well be the legacy of this project, rather than the elegance of its planned removal and eventual reuse. For example, the ‘temporary’ London Eye has taken a permanent grip on its site through a rigorous approach to quality and expression. So might a contemporary building on the Salisbury plain.
Roddy Langmuir is a senior director at Edward Cullinan Architects
Stonehenge deserves a landmark building