I drove passed the new Stonehenge visitor centre on Saturday and, having lived near to Amesbury for many years, am keen to visit it properly and see what a difference it may make to this historic site.
Located 1.5 miles to the west of the stone circle at Airman’s Corner, just within the World Heritage Site but out of sight of the monument, the new visitor centre is designed with a light touch on the landscape – a low key building sensitive to its environment.
Sited within the rolling landforms of Salisbury Plain, the design consists of a subtle group of simple enclosures resting on a limestone platform, all sheltered by a fine, perforated, undulating canopy.
Barrie Marshall, director at Denton Corker Marshall, said: “The design of the centre is based on the idea that it is a prelude to the stones, and its architectural form and character should in no way diminish their visual impact, sense of timeless strength and powerful sculptural composition. Where the stones are exposed, massive and purposefully positioned, the centre is sheltered, lightweight and informal. And where the stones seem embedded into the earth, the centre rests on its surface.”
Three pods, finished in different materials, provide the principal accommodation. The largest, clad in sweet chestnut timber, houses the museum displays and service facilities. The second largest, clad in glass, houses the educational base, a stylish café and retail facilities. Located between these is the third, by far the smallest and clad in zinc, which provides ticketing and guide facilities.
Oversailing them all, and resting on 211 irregularly placed sloping columns, is a steel canopy clad on the underside with zinc metal panels and shaped with a complex geometry reflecting the local landforms.
Local, recyclable and renewable materials have been used wherever possible. The material palette includes locally grown sweet chestnut timber cladding and Salisbury limestone.
Stephen Quinlan, partner at Denton Corker Marshall, said: “Various strategies have been adopted in the design to ensure that the centre is environmentally sensitive and uses natural resources in a responsible way. These range from the natural sun shading qualities of the canopy which promotes natural ventilation and reduces the need for cooling in the pods, through to more technical solutions such as heat pumps and high efficiency insulation.”
The new building allows Stonehenge to have dedicated facilities on site for education and interpretation for the first time, with museum-quality exhibits that tell the story of the 5,000 year- old monument.
From the new centre, visitors can either walk to the monument or take a ten-minute shuttle ride. During the trip the henge emerges slowly over the horizon to the East.
Dr Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage, said: “For too long, people’s appreciation of Stonehenge is this mysterious, impressive but anonymous monument. The Neolithic period itself is pretty much a murky expanse of time, shrouded by many outdated notions. We want people to come here and take away a fresh view.”
There will also be an outdoor gallery including the reconstruction of three early Neolithic houses, based on rare forensic evidence found near Stonehenge. These houses will be built by skilled volunteers and are due to be complete by Easter 2014.”