Stonehenge lays out the welcome mat

Tortuous battle to agree design for visitor centre is finally resolved

Jay Merrick,Architecture Correspondent
Tuesday 13 October 2009 00:00
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Stonehenge, Britain's most mysteriously resonant World Heritage Site, is finally going to get a visitor centre fit for the 21st century.

The fight to create it has been tortuous, but from the wreckage of the £0.5bn plans finally dumped in 2007 comes something that will settle, feather-light, in a shallow, grassy swale at Airman's Corner, a mile and a half west of the neolithic stones near Amesbury, Wiltshire.

The new visitor centre's thin undulating roof, held up with slim and occasionally crooked columns, recalls the current temporary Serpentine Pavilion in London. The scheme, designed by Denton Corker Marshall, will cost £26m – one-twentieth of the original project by the same architects. "Sir Philip Green probably spent more than that on his son's bar mitzvah," commented one leading British architect.

The centre will not be visible from the stones, and an existing line of mature beech trees will screen a new coach park from view. By siting functions such as catering and offices next to the coach park, two pavilions beneath the centre's canopy can be used solely for exhibitions, retail and education.

The design was developed by Barrie Marshall and Stephen Quinlan, who won't mind if the building is forgettable. "Our proposal seeks not to compromise the solidity and timelessness of the stones," Mr Quinlan told The Independent. "If a visitor can remember their visit to the stones but can't remember the visitor centre they passed through, we will be happy.

"We've tried to satisfy the brief with a design which is universally accessible, environmentally sensitive, and at the same time appears almost transitory in nature."

The design of the building steers a fine – if not literally wavering – line between permanence and transience. A source said: "The new visitor centre is meant to last several years until a permanent one can be built, but it's bound to become permanent because we don't, as a country, always commit enough money to projects like this."

The scheme will restore Stonehenge's immediate natural surroundings by upgrading the Longbarrow roundabout, creating a new one north of it at the current junction of the A360 and A344 – and then restoring most of the latter to open land as it passes north of the stones. The destruction of the existing, rather grungy visitor centre will be heartily cheered by anyone with any aesthetic or environmental sensitivity; as will the fact that the new structure will draw its water from an aquifer beneath it, generate internal warmth using a ground heat-source pump, be approached on natural rather than paved paths, and transport non-walkers to the megaliths in a Tellytubby-ish "trundler" train similar to that used at Kew Gardens.

There remains a nominal threat that the new design will be called in for a public inquiry by the Government. Bearing in mind the costly shambles created by previous implacable disagreements between the project's key players, this seems inconceivable.

Indeed, a carefully brokered peace seems to have broken out: the South West Regional Development Agency, the National Trust, and Natural England have all endorsed the scheme in principle. Wiltshire County Council will now filter the scheme through a formal public consultation process, the final act in a cultural saga that will bear its architectural fruit just in time to welcome a surge in visitor numbers to Stonehenge during the 2012 Olympics.

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