Last week I went down to Amesbury (the town closest to Stonehenge) for the English Heritage panel that meets occasionally to discuss the information and ideas that will be presented to visitors in the new Stonehenge arrangements – whatever, and still, even, if, they might be. This was the first time I had seen Denton Corker Marshall’s architectural concept for the facilities that will be at Airman’s Cross, the site chosen to the west of Stonehenge after extensive consultation. I’m pleased to be able to say that the whole solution is looking good to me. I would have liked the more ambitious scheme to the east; but with hindsight we may come to think that only something low-key, subtle and small ever stood a chance. Stonehenge’s recent history is very clear that any attempt at change there makes meddlers of us all – and the bigger the vision, the greater the opposition. English Heritage never mustered a respected public figure to fight for that vision, and it fell to the wolves.
Denton Corker Marshall was chosen to design the eastern visitor centre in 2001. Barrie Marshall created a robust idea that was subtle and low-rise, and excitingly avoided the clichéd references to Stonehenge so common to previous schemes – no stone, no circles, no tall lintelled structures. On the other hand, perhaps unwittingly, the steel entrance was a little redolent of the sweeping facade of a huge long barrow, as if the portal into the world heritage site that the centre set out to be was also an entry to the underworld.
After this whole plan failed late in 2007 with the withdrawal of government support for the proposed tunnelling of the A303, in May 2008 EH dropped DCM. But here it is back again, under its London director Stephen Quinlan, and, I imagine, Barrie Marshall at the end of a conference phone in Melbourne. Airman’s Cross, as English Heritage says, is “a pragmatic and practical scheme, and more affordable than previous proposals”. It is indeed tiny by comparison. But it retains some of Marshall’s key themes, and within the severe limitations of the commission, it’s difficult to fault the result.
Now we have two squarish “pods”, slightly askew from one another, between which visitors will walk to reach whatever has been laid on to take them to the stones. One pod is in glass (café, shop and education facilities), the other in wood (loos, first aid and – the largest single indoor space – the exhibition gallery). Beyond the gallery there is a proposed outdoor space with reconstructions of two or three of the square houses recently excavated at Durrington Walls.
When Marshall came up with his original idea, these neolithic houses were unknown. Yet their domestic, rectangular opposition to the ritual circularity of the world heritage site foretells his scheme, and the new pods are fascinatingly similar in shape and arrangement to the huts at Durrington. I’m sure people will like these huts. And I’ll not name the archaeologist at the panel meeting, who on seeing the hut reconstructions on the plan, asked, “What have they got to do with Stonehenge?”