Exploring Stonehenge is not the hands-on experience it once was. Only a few decades ago, visitors could drive their cars within a few metres of the prehistoric stone circle and actually run their fingers over history dating back to 3000 BC. When tourist traffic became too much, the monument was fenced off and the whole journey became a bit of a shambles.
After several decades of political wrangling, a new visitor centre finally emerged last December, 2.4 kilometres west of the historic site. Visitors now reach the monoliths on foot, or via a slow land train that allows them to greet the circle with an appropriate sense of arrival and awe. Only an unobtrusive rope separates them from the powerful presence and mystery of Stonehenge.
In the morning light, the new centre appears to float like a wave across the rolling landscape, 145 kilometres southeast of London. Angela Dapper, a senior associate at Denton Corker Marshall, the Australian firm that won the competition to design the centre, explains that the curves reflect the hills of Salisbury Plain: “There are no cold angles, because that is not what you find in nature.”
A simple composition, the single-storey structure is mostly defined by the canopy, which is supported by a forest of over 200 narrow columns, with many set off kilter. The roof sails over three rectangular pods, one of which is largely glazed and dedicated to food, information displays and a gift shop. Another pod, clad in sweet chestnut, houses public washrooms and an exhibition space. The central and smallest one contains the ticket office and an audio guide rental station.
At 1,515 square metres, the facility seems too small to cater to one million tourists a year. Now that the destination has been improved, that number is expected to increase to 1.25 million by the end of this year. But most of the circulation happens on the building’s exterior, where sheltered decks absorb overflow while providing an ideal venue for taking in the surroundings. Dapper sees these outdoor theatres as the best way to get as close as possible to the natural experience, which is what people have come here to see.
“It was difficult to build in an open site,” she concedes. Her firm therefore decided to take the idea of a landscape as far as it could. “We wanted people to be able to see right through the building to the views beyond,” she says, pointing out the perforations along the roofline, a pixelated pattern based on a canopy of trees, which filters sunlight into pleasing dapples. The chestnut timber that was left to weather for a year in a field nearby has already turned a beautiful shade of silver-grey.
One of the wisest moves was separating the centre and the parking for cars from bus parking. “Coaches nowadays are reflective and very big,” says Dapper, laughing. An annex for storage and offices, along with the planting of a long row of beech trees (the only established trees on the site), makes the hulking buses largely invisible, even when the centre is viewed from a distance. What is most appealing though, is that Stonehenge, situated beyond a hill, is not immediately visible. The journey begins, as any pilgrimage should, with not knowing what lies ahead.