There’s something about Stonehenge which seems to send plans for its new visitor centre around the bend. Recent plans by Denton Corker Marshal have been scrapped, and a fresh OJEU is out for those brave or foolish enough to take on the challenge. I’m not suggesting that the project suffers any kind of supernatural curse. But maybe, for a culture like ours that’s so hung up about history, tradition, nature and so on, Stonehenge is just too much of a cultural overload that it simply blows our circuits. Like a compass at magnetic north, it’s the place where we loose our bearings.
We know almost nothing about Stonehenge’s origins or the purpose it builders intended – who in the words of Spinal Tap ‘nobody knows who they were or what they was doing there’. Stonehenge’s huge presence and significance is in direct disproportion to the little we know about what it was supposed to be. This freakishly lopsided disparity creates an effect of liberating its form from any singular or particular content.
Stonehenge is a sign without a meaning. The sites sensation of significance seems to suck meaning in to fill its void. From the Druids in their pantomime robes acting out a Victorian charade at the Summer Solstice, to the crusty Convoy attaching non-specific cosmic vibes as generator-powered Hawkwind space-rock the sunrise, all the way back to the local guide who, when showing William Stukeley around the site in the mid 1700s, scattered Roman coins in an effort to confirm Inigo Jones’s theory that it had been built as a Roman temple. Stonehenge performs varied roles in diverse narratives. It acts as a monument not to itself or its own culture, but to our own psychic projections.
Plan of Stonehenge showing twentieth-century excavations.
Stonehenge is a monument to contemporary doubt, to fallibility, competing theories and conflicting mythologies. And perhaps these confusions explain the curse of the Stonehenge Visitors centre. Because, though seemingly benign, visitors centres are highly strung cultural artefacts.
The role of a visitors centre is more than corralling cars and dispensing cappuccinos. The
real substance of a Visitors Centre is to articulate our relationship to history, nature or whatever it is we happen to be visiting. The current visitors centre typology employs a kind of eco-high tech that steers a path between various controversies. It’s a building type that attempts to feel authentic, natural and generically vernacular but contains enough contemporary tropes of transparency and engineering to differentiate it from commercialised ‘themed’ heritage. If you only visited Visitors Centres, leaving before you saw the significant site, you’d develop a nuanced understanding of the ways contemporary culture relates to nature and history.
Stonehenge is an extreme example of the problems we have in relating to our history and heritage. In the US, for example, natural significance or history are treated as drive-in experiences. But here we still feel that some effort should be made to reach those sublime moments and that the process of touristification – the infrastructure of leisure – devalues authentic experience: Bought experiences don’t count.
Our obsession with authenticity is predicated on the idea that somehow there was a more natural moment. But as Julian Cope – 80s rocker turned megalithic chronicler – notes, the standing stones of Avebury mark the moment that man set himself at odds with nature: the moment of the agrarian revolution. Standing stones set a course for architecture as a symbol of the separation between the manmade and the natural.
Perhaps pursuing this narrative might break the Visitor Centre curse by embracing the artificial and synthetic. Stonehenge deserves a visitors centre which embraces its unique position among the ancient artefacts of Britain. My tip to English Heritage would be to appoint ex-Archigrammer David Greene as creative director. Greenes Log-plug and Rok-plug are the definitive precedent studies in the synthetic architecture of leisure. These projects – artificial rocks which house the infrastructure of convenience – oscillate between the commercial and the poetic in just the right way.