18 December 2013
Stonehenge unveils its new visitor centre
After a three-decade, multimillion-pound struggle to build a visitor centre at Stonehenge, which has seen several proposals come and go, architects hired and released, public inquiries held, budgets promised and slashed, and locations proposed and discarded, the most famous ancient site in Britain does have a new visitor centre.
The previous 1960s facilities, designed for 100,000 visitors a year, huddled close to the stones, and were insufficient for the job. The site's atmosphere was also slashed by two roads - the busy A303 and the smaller A360. The new visitor centre, on the other hand, is about a mile away and over a hill, putting the paraphernalia of visiting out of sight of the most essential parts of the landscape. The A344 is now closed to all traffic except a land train to get people direct from the visitor centre to the stone circle.
Alternatively, you have the option of walking, or getting off the train halfway and walking the rest, such that the trilithons slowly come into view. That part of the road that is no longer needed is being grassed over, and the 1960s structures will be removed.
The architects are Denton Corker Marshall, an Australian practice with an office in London, whose design makes intelligent choices. The coach part is split from the car park, which reduces their combined effect on the landscape, and back-of-house facilities are put in a separate building, a discreet chestnut-clad box, a little distance from the public structure.
The latter is, deliberately, as light as the old stones are heavy, with an undulating parasol of a roof propped on skinny steel sticks. Its style is plainly modern - there was some debate whether it should somehow be more 'traditional', but in this context it is moot what traditional construction is. Beneath the parasol are two boxes, a glass one containing the cafe, shop and education spaces, and a wooden one containing an interpretation and exhibition space. Between them is a broad open passage for ticketing and entry.
It is an achievement not only of architecture, but above all of cultural diplomacy, led by the unassuming, patient director of the site, Loraine Knowles. It required negotiation with funders, local authorities, landowners and politicians. Also trail-riding motorcyclists, who like to ride along local byways, and druid groups, some of whom insist on being able to drive to the stones to celebrate solstices. There is no place like Stonehenge for attracting people with strong views on what it is and what should happen there, combined with the complete conviction that these views must be taken into account.
It's not over yet. The A303 is still there, droning into the ancient peace. Fixing it - a tunnel? A bypass? - will cost more than the £27m required for the visitor centre and associated works. But, please, may it take less than another 30 years to sort it out.
Edited from The Guardian (15 December 2013)