For two centuries, the Nord-Pas de Calais region was a mining hub. Populated by sprawling coal mines and steel mills, the French region saw 204 billion tonnes of coal extracted from the ground before operations ceased in the late 20th century. Attention then gradually turned to conservation, and attempts to repair the landscape from the destruction caused by aggressive industrialization. Douai, a town on the Scarpe River near Lille, is a case in point. In 2020, the Scarpe wetlands were designed a protected site, and the municipality is working to protect — and promote — local ecology. Already home to a biodiverse riverside housing the Archeological Arkeos Museum, Snøhetta’s newly built Orionis Planetarium introduces a cultural destination that sits lightly on the land.
Designed by the international studio’s Paris office, the two-story building is meant to celebrate both the field of astronomy and the Nord-Pas de Calais region. Orionis is the first project to be conceived, managed, and built exclusively by the Paris office. “We wanted to propose an extraordinary meeting place and a new destination for the inhabitants of Douai,” says Snøhetta co-founder Kjetil Trædal Thorsen. The studio sought to express the idea of continuous movement, referring both to the starry night and the river running alongside it. “Being continuous, fluid and perpetual are notions that we have reinterpreted in the project,” explains Thorsen.
Snøhetta sought to seamlessly integrate Orionis with both the nearby Arkeos museum as well as the nearby residential community. To that end, the two cultural buildings are connected by a shared green space, with paths allowing visitors to easily transition between them. They also share a parking lot — its presence minimized by strategic placement of plants and trees. Additional vegetation is placed on the lower roof to blend the building in with the landscape. Cyclist- and pedestrian-friendly paths connect Orionis to the city centre as well as the immediate surroundings.
The building’s sinuously curved exterior evokes the winding Scarpe river. Hinting at a historic gothic belfry in Douai’s city centre, the building’s two domes — housing a planetarium and observatory respectively — are potent visual signals of Orionis’ function. And although they draw the eye, they aren’t overwhelming; Snøhetta did not want to outright transform the area’s visual identity.
The colour palette is carefully attuned to reflect its surroundings. Snøhetta identified two principal inspirations: the Scarpe’s regional geography and the materials used in nearby buildings. Both the rust-coloured steel brise-soleils and the wood siding are informed by the adjacent Arkeos museum — their use helping merge the two buildings into one cohesive unit. Across the exterior, the use of poplar cladding is another notable tribute to the local tree canopy. The green roof, inner courtyard, and surrounding plantings all weave the complex into the region’s biodiversity.
Visible from building’s meandering oval hallways, the inner courtyard — designed in collaboration with Ateller Silva Landscape — creates a tranquil private retreat, outfitted with a contemplative footpath that surrounds the cultivated garden.
Inside, Orionis is simple, streamlined and light-filled. The interior is defined by crisp white walls and accented by the bright wooden stairs that lead visitors on a journey — first to the planetarium, then the gift shop, and finally down the ramp back outside. Meanwhile, the second-floor offices and the visitor centre each have dedicated entrances, making for easier circulation for both groups.
The 130-seat state-of-the-art planetarium offers visitors a 360-degree projection of the starry sky in 10k resolution, while the smaller observatory dome is equipped with a 433-millimetre CDK type telescope capable of returning exceptionally high quality imagery. And while Orionis is a destination in its own right, the real show is light years away.
In northeast France, the Orionis Planetarium celebrates astronomy and local biodiversity in equal measure.