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Kielder Observatory


Our entry in the 2005 RIBA competition for the design of the Kielder Observatory, sponsored by the Art and Architecture program at Kielder, Northumberland, envisioned a pavilion that felt grounded in the isolated landscape while capturing its extraterrestrial spirit. The following is the text from our submission:

Heading north on the dark road, one can make out a bronze light flashing through the trees. The metallic piece comes into view as one passes by. Seen from the path at the top of the hill, a bronze parallelogram appears to hover above the ground. The prismatic shape of the building emerges as one approaches. What is it? A golden shard of metal encrusted in the earth.
One enters an exterior corridor of inclined floors. The corridor splays out to frame a view of the Kielder reservoir and its banks. A floor ascends to a sliding door, which opens to reveal a large, low-ceiling space housing two telescopes. The room is enveloped in darkness until the roof rolls back, revealing the sky and a space that is both intimate and infinite. The telescopes are elevated and take a 360-degree command of the sky from just above the horizon. A continuous counter running along the inward-tilting south wall holds star maps and chart logs.
Back in the corridor, the floor slopes down to meet the warm room and to create a full-height space for observers. At the end of the vestibule, there’s a drop-down screen for media presentations; an inclined floor doubles as a seating area. In a corner of the warm room the exterior façade folds in to give a view of the sky and landscape. The glazed opening provides illumination and escape. The folded façade forms a continuous desk for computers and layouts. The shelves above store research material and maps.
The building peaks at the southeast corner, where the photovoltaic cells covering the south face meet the bronze-tinted glass on the east. As one circles the building, the form constantly changes; no view is the same. The roof slopes down to the west, leading to a spacious exterior observation deck. The edge of the deck forms a cradle where viewers can lounge and gaze at the stars. Power hook-ups in the deck provide electricity for visitors’ telescopes.
The bronze cladding is meant to feel at once foreign to the site and natural to the earth. The interior materials are unassuming, void of color. The building form slides into its place on the site and does not attempt to compete with the land in scale. Rather, the earth accepts and envelops the object. This observatory is a remote object in an isolated landscape. It offers a space for one to take a journey toward the unknown.


Collaborator: Jennifer Erbes-Chan