Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Romancing the Salisbury stones
An Australian design bows to British history, but not to its conservatism, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
What a delight, in an age when architecture seems doomed to connive at its own descent into consumer slick, to find a first-rate building that deliberately directs attention elsewhere. In this regard and others, Denton Corker Marshall’s winning proposal for the Stonehenge Visitor Centre displays a subtlety and sophistication that are sadly atypical of Australian design.
The henge itself a mysterious colloquium of erect rocks sprouts from an exposed patch of the Salisbury Plain that is, to the naked eye, all but featureless. Plain, as in plain. Flat fields, residential clumps, slow river, motorway interchange, filling station; it is less the bare and boundless heath described by painter Constable in 1836, than a backdrop from Godot.
Through the camera lucida of the fabled Ordnance Survey Map, however, the Plain is revealed as an intricate lacework of landscape events, a pattern articulated with near-aboriginal tenderness for significant detail of natural and man-made, ancient and modern: Halfmoon Clump, Woodhenge, Old King Barrows, Lords Walk, Stonehenge Bottom, Totterdown Clump, Tumulus, Aqueduct, Benedictine Abbey (founded 980).
The reality might be crawling with online stockbrokers and their four-wheel wives, but the fiction somewhere between Tolkien and A. A. Milne is enchanting. And Stonehenge, after all, is nothing if not fiction.
The jury is still out on why the stones are there. It wasn’t the druids. Sandstone sarsens from 30 kilometres away and bluestone megaliths from Wales, up to 10 metres long and 25 tonnes, arrived on the Salisbury Plain at the start of the Bronze Age, around 2500BC, well pre-druid. It wasn’t the glaciers, judging by the crude mortice-and-tenons linking the giant stone lintels to their bearers, with dovetails between. But they are there, these mysterious standing trilithons, they are precious, and they are deeply, deeply English.
Which lends an enjoyable tang of reverse colonialism to Denton Corker Marshall’s win. From 80-odd submissions, the group beat a shortlist of six, including high-profile Brits like Michael and Patty Hopkins, through the European Community’s standard procurement process (more expressions of interest than competition proper). Even the short shortlist stage required an approach, not a design; DCM’s Barrie Marshall and John Denton attended the interview with “a single, scrappy A4 drawing” Denton’s description enlarged to 2.5m.
Scrappy, perhaps, but you can see why they went for this thoroughly beguiling sketch. Vague yet succinct, mossy as a long-still rock, and sparsely etched with the essentials fast road, slow river, magic circle it puts the design proposal far downstage right, rucked between contour lines like pleats in the landscape. And the idea is quite as enchanting as the drawing.
Stonehenge’s problem, to which its owners, English Heritage, had already devoted years without avail, relates to the business of being a relatively small ancient monument slap-bang in a modern world. So that experience of the stones, already compromised by roping-off, is further undermined by a conspicuously careless context.
Big-picture problem, and a big-picture solution. Which, over the next six years, will involve putting underground the most intrusive two kilometres of the A303 and removing the A344 roads which run a couple of hundred metres either side of the circle; re-conceptualising the henge to include the 600-hectare World Heritage precinct; and rebuilding the visitor centre well beyond even that, out of sight of Stonehenge at three kilometres away on the far side of the little village of Countess East, near Amesbury (home of rock star Sting).
This required purchase of the new site and, more difficult still, wholehearted co-operation between two fiercely scholarly bureaucracies: English Heritage, which controls the circle, and the National Trust, which owns the 587ha around it. Which is why we are seeing the results only now, almost a year after the design was effectively complete.
English Heritage was surprisingly open to suggestion, imposing no particular direction on its architectural pretenders but responding instead to proffered philosophy. It clearly preferred DCM’s stylish self-effacement to another firm’s (rumoured) tower proposal, from which to view the sacred stones.
There was nothing fainthearted about it, though. English Heritage, former bastion of conservatism, is now chaired by architect Piers Gough, known for his articulate intelligence as much as his wacky buildings and loud Hawaiian shirts. DCM’s proposal, which Gough and his colleagues have unanimously approved, is singularly determined to tug no forelock, despite a uniquely intimidating context.
The tallest trilithon stands at 7.4m. This is not a lot, on an open landscape. And the new building, however distant from the old, would cover five times the area of the henge’s outer circle. The architects were determined their design should do nothing to diminish the henge’s apparent stature. Clearly, landscape format was the go the visitor centre needed to hunker down into the terrain. It also needed, thought DCM, to eschew all signals by which buildings habitually declare themselves impressive architecture.
The architects were also concerned that the new took no visual cues from the old, avoiding any suggestion of stone or of trabeated, post-and-lintel construction. They argued that “any direct visual reference would only serve to subvert and demean the whole experience of Stonehenge”.
The new structure will therefore be steel recycled steel, framed and clad with grass on the roof. It’s earth-sheltered at the back and naturally ventilated (with heating). Nine steel walls, 4.7m high and up to 1.5m thick, erupt from the Salisbury Plain’s gentle incline in bunched, near-parallel arcs. Inside, the spaces are interconnnected and end-glazed. Daylight washing down each of the ribbon-walls expresses them as discrete, freestanding elements and gives the space an airy subterranean feel, at once primitive and hip. Moving through the layers, you progress from the indoor-outdoor pergola space of the visitor centre through the usual cafe, retail, and exhibition areas to the transit station, to be ferried just over half the way to the stones, and walk the rest.
Sounds simple. Looks simple. But it’s not easy finding just the right, but terrifyingly simple idea that solves problems of site, program and symbolism while thrilling media, mollifying opponents, while maintaining a grainily stylish presence that owes more to sculpture than utility.
This is what DCM does so well. For, intimately job-suited as this proposal is, it relates just as closely to the group’s other work; recalling the linearity of its Federation Square scheme (1997), the planar-wall motif of its Scottish Parliament proposal (1998), and the serenity-in-landscape of its neolithic houses at Philip Island and Kyneton, Victoria.
Comparable in grace and subtlety to early works by Argentinian-New York architects Emilio Ambasz and Rodolfo Machado, this habitable landscape-sculpture uses form in a manner all the more powerful for being understated. It nests comfortably, offering succour in a bleak landscape and rendering complexity richly simple. Isn’t that what architecture is for?
TWO ILLUS: Stonehenge, and left, Australian firm, Denton Corker Marshall’s winning design, with nine steel walls, for the visitor centre.
Photo: Alastair Grant/ AP