After a tortuous 21-year process Stonehenge, the stone circle that is one of the world's most important neolithic artifacts, finally has the visitor centre it deserves. Denton Corker Marshall's design, situated 2.5 km (1.5 miles) to the west of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, has opened its doors and is preparing to deal with the site's nearly 1 million annual visitors.
The new design features a museum, educational facilities, a cafe, shop and a ticket office. These spaces are brought together by a perforated oversailing roof supported on 211 narrow angled columns.
Read on for more about the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre
The new building forms the primary feature of a wider plan to improve the Stonehenge site, including covering the adjacent road which passes so close as to almost touch the stones, and removing the 1968 concrete facilities nearby. The whole plan is due to be completed next year, and will return the site to something resembling its original state, a philosophy that extends to the new building: it is situated out of sight from the stones, and designed with the principles of "reversibility" in mind - that is, it could easily be removed leaving almost no trace of its existence.
This has been achieved using a concrete raft, sat on top of a fill of soil - building up from the ground instead of digging foundations. This approach was further enabled by the lightweight construction and the maximization of outdoor space, with circulation areas left exposed.
This exposure of external space was also a part of Denton Corker Marshall's plan to prepare visitors for the experience of seeing the stones. The design "should in no way diminish their visual impact, sense of timeless strength and powerful sculptural composition", says Barrie Marshall, director of Denton Corker Marshall. Not being enclosed prepares them for the windswept plain on which the stones stand, the centre is lightweight in order not to detract from the massive solidity of the stones, and at 8 metres at its highest point, the new building is not taller than the ancient monument.
Underneath the canopy, the building's facilities are housed in three pods: the largest is clad in sweet chestnut timber and houses the museum; the educational facilities, shop and cafe are housed in a glass-clad space; and the smallest, clad in zinc, houses the ticket office.
The visitor centre with its museum means that for the first time, visitors to Stonehenge will have an opportunity to learn about and understand the era in which it was built. Dr Simon Thurley, chief executive of the building's client English Heritage, said of the new building: "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."