Astronomers on the deck of this lost longship: Charles Barclay’s Kielder Observatory
A review of Charles Barclay’s lecture in the Forum, 2 April 2009, 6.30pm
Charles Barclay’s presentation of his practice’s competition-winning astronomical observatory, which was completed a year ago high up in the wilds of Northumbria (away from the light pollution which effects much of the night sky of Britain), revealed a practice of serious intent whose unpretentious attitude towards an unusual brief has produced a building of great character and an uncanny presence in the landscape.
The building is a vantage point from which astronomers can observe the night-sky and a belvedere from which hikers can view the surrounding landscape during the day. The pier-like structure is raised above the landscape, its timber form flexing and revealing the step in section that untangles the sightlines of the pair of telescopes which are housed in rotating timber turrets. These give the building an almost predatory, figurative quality. The observatory is home to regular star gazing events, during which amateur astronomers set up their own equipment on the deck between the two permanent instruments. A ‘warm room’ contains a kitchen and the workstations used to operate the facility. Powered by a wind turbine and photo-voltaics, the project is unfussy and rigorous, ‘touching the ground lightly’ in a way reminiscent of the work of Australian architect Glenn Murcutt.
After illustrating the process by which the design team rinsed away the naivety of their initial designs, Barclay’s talk set out the pragmatic, problem solving approach his practice had employed. He spoke of the way in which a great client, ambitious structural engineers and a dedicated contractor contributed to the project’s success and he conveyed how the building had become well loved and well used.
Planted on the bare earth the observatory has an air of a well-made tool or agricultural implement and the passage of time will only amplify this quality. Barclay reports that the timber has silvered beautifully during the building’s first year of life and this prompts one to think about how the structure will continue to develop a rich material character over its projected twenty-five year lifetime. The timber will record both the aggressions of the passing seasons and the gentler touch of stargazer’s hands on the comfortable, oversized handrails; the tea stains from thermos flasks sent tumbling as someone rushes to point out their first shooting star.
Barclay explained that originally the observatory was aligned with the pole star, in order to help amateur observers find their way amongst the vast field of stars, but this orientation would have led too great a disturbance from the headlights of approaching cars. Instead the building points towards James Turrell’s Light Space which lies in the valley below and is one of a number of art pieces scattered within the Kielder Water and Forest Park as part of it’s Art and Architecture programme. Poignantly, the distorting presence of modern technology has deprived the project of its cardinal alignment, giving it instead a connection with a relatively more recent attempt at orientation, namely Art.
Like an outsize spirit level, the observatory rebels against the gradient of its site while simultaneously pulling around itself the horizons of earth and cosmos. As a microcosm of this larger order the building contains within itself the qualities of a landscape; the timber cladding changing from horizontal along the hull of the pier to vertical on the superstructure. Of all the photographs Barclay used in his presentation, it was David Grandorge’s in particular that re-enforced these horizons, his characteristic passion for capturing symmetries and geometrical relationships framing soil and timber and revealing the archetypal conditions of above and below, earth and sky.
The plan and section reveal strong formal echoes of cosmic symbolism; the earthly, rectilinear geometry of the superstructure and the ritualistic circular promenade of the route under and around the larger telescope’s housing. One senses that these primordial, architectural echoes grew organically as the remarkable brief was met by the pragmatic but eloquent approach of Barclay and his design team.
As a work of architecture its dignity and purpose elevate it above being merely a decorative addition to the landscape. As architecture it cannot be understood without some recourse to what we may uncomfortably call function or program, but neither can it be reduced to this. Charles Barclay Architects have kept what architectural theorist Alberto Perez-Gomez described as the “promise” of architectural program, that “proposal for lives to be lived”. In so doing they have produced a building that surpasses its role as a shelter to become something far stranger, or, to quote from a different Space Odyssey, ‘something wonderful’. It speaks clearly of the fragile encampment we have made on this earth and the vision of a huddle of bright-eyed astronomers on the deck of this lost longship, held up within the dome of the cosmos, the hatchery of stars, is both architectural and poetic.