Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


After decades of controversy and failure to find an answer to the infamous ‘Stonehenge problem’ it looks as though a solution has finally been found. ‘It has been a national humiliation,’ says Simon Thurley, Chairman of English Heritage guardians of the stones since 1984. ‘I think it’s really extraordinary that the only man made structure in Britain that is instantly recognisable from Patagonia to Serbia and beyond has been treated as though it was a motorway service station.’

The current visitor centre – little more than a collection of Portakabins and toilets arranged around a car park – was built in 1968 and was never adequate even then. But in December a new visitor centre and museum opens within a fresh and thoughtful building designed by the Anglo-Australian architectural practice Denton Corker Marshall (DCM). It’s part of a whole package of measures that will also see the A344 roadway to one side of the stones removed, although the busy A303 trunk road to the West Country on the other side – which many campaigners still want diverted into a tunnel - remains for now.

Stonehenge has always generated a global fascination. King James I commissioned his architect general, Inigo Jones, to examine the stones back in the early 17th century and Jones concluded that only the Romans could have built such a sophisticated structure. He backed up his case with crisp drawings of the stones in a pre-ruinous state, while dismissing the ancient Britons as savages incapable of building such ‘stately structures’.

We now know a lot more about Stonehenge than Inigo Jones could ever tell us, but the very same questions are still being asked. They have helped make Stonehenge one of the most famous Neolithic sites in the world and the numbers visiting the stones have steadily increased to around a million visitors a year. But as Stonehenge has grown in fame it has raised another big and taxing question over how to deal with all of these visitors while protecting the stones themselves and their surroundings, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This has long been the ‘Stonehenge problem’.

Thurley sums up what has been achieved: ‘It has been an incredibly controversial saga and has involved three or four different schemes along the way. The most important thing has been the removal of the 1960s car park and the closing of the road and clearly getting rid of the terribly outdated stuff requires us to replace it with something new. So the corollary to the ambition to get rid of the road and the existing facilities has been the very long quest to decide where to put the new stuff.’

The ambition has long been to leave the stones themselves in splendid isolation, while clearing the old visitor centre away and building something new well out of sight of the monument itself along with adequate parking for cars and coaches. After looking at a range of locations, English Heritage finally opted for a site at Airman’s Corner – one and half miles from the stones themselves, within a natural dip in the landscape.

‘One of the key issues over the years has been where we should locate the new facilities,’ says Lorraine Knowles, English Heritage’s Stonehenge director. ‘There was no disagreement that we needed to do something and close the road and that we needed to improve the setting around the stones. But the big question has been about where we should put the new centre. Over the years we have looked at Fargo, Larkhill and then Countess East. There have been a lot of hurdles but in the end Airman’s Corner was the preferred location.’ 

Having settled on the new site, the question became how to deliver a sensitively conceived building that responded to the open farmland setting with scarcely another building in sight, apart from an occasional barn. That includes the stones themselves, which will be accessed either by foot or transit vehicles from the visitor centre. It’s clear that the experience of visiting and understanding Stonehenge will be completely transformed.

The finished centre is a considered and respectful design, but also distinctly modern in approach, which may not please everyone. While the stones are all about mass and weight, the new building is purposefully light, low slung and partially transparent, allowing the eye to pass through and connect with the landscape beyond. It is a subtle presence in the landscape, with a sweeping roof supported by a small forest of slim supporting columns. The canopy shelters a café and shop to one side, within a more transparent section, while a museum sits at the other side protected by a façade of weathered chestnut. Between the two there is a sheltered courtyard and a ticket pod.

Stephen Quinlan, director of DCM’s UK office, has been involved in a substantial part of the story himself. Quite soon after establishing the UK branch of a practice that was founded in Melbourne in the 1970s, Quinlan entered a 1992 competition for a new Stonehenge visitor centre that was eventually won by architect Edward Cullinan, but later dropped. Undaunted he tried again in 2004 after English Heritage gained government backing for the idea of rerouting the A303 trunk road into a new tunnel and out of view of the stones. They won a design competition for a visitor centre at Countess East  - around two miles from the stones - with their building partly burrowed into the side of a sloping valley. They even got as far as planning permission in 2007, only for the whole scheme to be shelved when the government decided that the new tunnel would be too expensive after all. Nevertheless, when English Heritage announced a new competition for a £27m building at Airman’s Corner he decided it was worth having another go.

‘I know Stonehenge really, really well,’ says Quinlan. ‘It’s been a long time and a big part of my professional life. We had always hoped that we would get bounced onto the new project but it wasn’t like that at all and the new scheme had to go back out again into the market. So it was by no means a certainty that we would reapply to do it. We thought long and hard and in the end, because we are eternal optimists, we thought we might as well throw our hat in the ring, even though we didn’t rate our chances particularly highly. But the shortlist started getting smaller and smaller and we were incredibly excited when it happened again. We could hardly believe our luck. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity.’

‘Quite early on we came up with this idea of an undulating roof with eccentric, irregular columns, which would fit in well into this rolling countryside,’ says Quinlan, who collaborated on the design with his colleagues in Melbourne, including founding partners Barrie Marshall and John Denton. ‘It is quite a big building, with a million going through it every year, so if you had a pitched roof it would become massive, like a cathedral, which didn’t fit in with our approach. We wanted the building to sit lightly in the landscape.’

Quinlan compares the supporting columns to reeds, or slim tree trunks, with a feeling of lightness. It looks as though they are supporting the roof, although they are actually holding it down, as the wind could catch the canopy and turn it into a giant sail without all of these vertical anchors. 

‘With the buildings and sites that English Heritage owns itself we generally build in a way that’s very traditional,’ says Thurley. ‘Most of the buildings we have done over the last ten years have been essentially timber framed and timber clad, out of oak normally, and silver down to get the same sort of colour register as the stone buildings that are often close by.

‘So with our own estate we haven’t been champions of building ultra modern stuctures, although in our wider work we have supported many such buildings. But Stonehenge is completely different for us and in this case we think that a traditional response would have been wrong and would have ended up looking far too solid. This building has a degree of permeability that makes it a lighter proposition. The architectural brief was an extremely difficult one and I think DCM responded to it extremely well. There is a real desire to make the building, as much as any building can, fit in with the landscape. The aim was always to have something that felt like a leaf lying on the land and hopefully it will feel something like that.’

‘How a building sits in and relates to a landscape – scale, clarity, contrast or concealment – are ideas we have explored throughout the last 40 years,’ says Barrie Marshall, one of the founding partners of DCM. ‘I’d like to think that visitors will find the simplicity of the centre refreshing and its lightness to have a lyrical quality while also being respectful of Stonehenge.’

For Quinlan too the building will only be a success if it is seen as quiet and discreet. It forms the polar opposite to so much modern urban architecture, where drama and eye catching, sculptural forms are so often seen as vital, within the aim of creating statement buildings. Purposefully, the Stonehenge visitor centre makes no attempt to reference the stones themselves in its design language and never tries to compete with them in any way. The palette of materials – glass, limestone, chestnut, zinc for the roof – is also tempered and calm.

‘It is quite a big building, because of the job it has to do,’ says Quinlan. ‘But when you approaching it, the building doesn’t seem that big at all, largely because there is a lot of landscape going on with the building placed within it. It almost disappears from some perspectives, which is fantastic. Although as an architect I probably shouldn’t be saying that….’

The museum is a key part of the project, creating dedicated exhibition space for the first time and drawing on pieces leant by the Wiltshire Heritage Museum and the Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum. ‘Between us we have agreed that we can tell the whole story of Stonehenge with thousands of objects on display,’ says Simon Thurley. ‘It means that the million plus people who come and see the stones every year will, for the first time, be able to come face to face with the actual artefacts that have been excavated on the site. We are building a major museum in the middle of Salisbury Plain, which is an extraordinary thing to do.’

An outdoor gallery alongside the new building will play host to three reconstructed Neolithic houses, made with walls of chalk cob over a willow framework and topped by thatched roofs. ‘They are based on some houses excavated at the nearby henge of Durrington Walls,’ says archaeologist Susan Greaney, the museum’s curator. ‘They date from 2500BC, the same time as the large sarsen stones were being raised at Stonehenge and probably where the builders of Stonehenge lived. It will be a real hands-on, immersive experience. We hope the exhibition will show that the prehistoric people who built and used Stonehenge were sophisticated and clever – they were able to pool together vast resources to construct this extraordinary monument using only simple tools.’

The museum helps put Stonehenge into context for visitors, including a 360 degree film showing the henge in its various stages as it evolved over the centuries. But just as importantly the new building sits within a strategy of slowing down the whole experience of visiting the stones, with the aim of building a real sense of anticipation by the time you reach Stonehenge itself. Visitors have the option of walking all the way or the final half of the way, adding to the idea of a journey along a path of discovery.

‘People have said, won’t it be terribly boring travelling by transit vehicle from the new building to the stones, but actually I don’t think it will be at all,’ says Simon Thurley. ‘It’s all part of the excitement and the build up of getting there. It’s a very positive step.’

Although the new building opens in December work to remove the existing facilities and relandscaping works will last through into next spring. English Heritage are continuing to push for the A303 to go into a tunnel eventually. But for the time being the road has been recoated with a noise reduction surface, in the hope that the constant traffic might be less intrusive when you are contemplating the stones themselves and asking the big questions of how and why they ever managed to find themselves here in the first place.

Stonehenge –

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