'Stonehenge? It's more like a city garden'

Design watchdog hits out at plans for £20m visitor centre at megalithic jewel in England's cultural crown

Its footpaths are "tortuous", the roof likely to "channel wind and rain" and its myriad columns – meant to evoke a forest – are incongruous with the vast landscape surrounding it.

So says the government's design ­watchdog over plans for a controversial £20m visitor centre at Stonehenge, the megalithic jewel in England's cultural crown. CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, has criticised the design of the proposed centre, claiming the futuristic building by Denton Corker Marshall does little to enhance the 5,000-year-old standing stones which attract more than 800,000 visitors each year.

Its concerns are the latest chapter in the long saga surrounding the English Heritage-backed project, and follow a ­government decision two years ago to scrap on cost grounds a highly ambitious £65m scheme to build a tunnel to reroute traffic to protect the World Heritage site.

The centre, which has been approved by Wiltshire county council planners, has divided opinion.

"We question whether, in this landscape of scale and huge horizons and with a very robust end point that has stood for centuries and centuries, this is the right design approach?" said Diane Haigh, CABE's director of design review.

"You need to feel you are approaching Stonehenge. You want the sense you are walking over Salisbury Plain towards the stones."

But the "twee little winding paths" were "more appropriate for an urban ­garden" than the "big scale open air ­setting the stones have", she added.

The many columns were meant to be "lots of trunks" holding up a "very delicate roof", she said. "Is this the best approach on what is actually a very exposed site. In particular, if it's a windy, rainy day, as it is quite often out there, it's not going to give you shelter. We are concerned it's very stylish nature will make it feel a bit dated in time, unlike the stones which have stood the test of time".

CABE believed the location of the ­centre, at Airman's Corner, is good, and were pleased "something was happening at last", but questioned the "architectural approach". The centre has the full support of local architects on the Wiltshire Design Forum, and has been passed by the local planning committee. Nevertheless English Heritage recognised it was an emotional and divisive subject.

"Innovative architectural designs will always polarise opinion, and often nowhere more so that within the architectural world itself," it said in a statement.

"The Stonehenge project has to overcome a unique set of challenges," it said. "This has required a pragmatic approach and, following widespread consultation, we maintain the current plans offer the best solution".

Stephen Quinlan, partner at Denton Corker Marshall, defended the design. The roof was meant to be a "sun canopy" and not offer weather protection in what was, principally "an outdoor experience".

"It's not an iconic masterpiece. It's a facility to help you appreciate the Stonehenge landscape. It's intellectually ­deferential in a big, big way to Stonehenge as a monument.

"I wouldn't even mind if you couldn't remember what the building looked like when you left. The visitor centre is not the destination," Quinlan said.

However, he added: "We don't take criticism from CABE lightly. And we are ­crawling through their comments to see if there are any improvements we can make."

Contributor

Caroline Davies

The GuardianTramp

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