Out of This World: “Celestial Bodies” Define Ennead Architects’ Shanghai Planetarium

The Angry Architect The Angry Architect

In architecture school, impressionable students are taught to reach for the stars in their mission to create the greatest buildings of their generation. Thomas Wong, partner and Design Principal at Ennead Architects, has taken this advice to heart, channeling all manner of heavenly influence in his proposal for Shanghai’s latest civic landmark, a 38,000 square-meter planetarium set for construction on the coast of East China Sea.

This cosmic museum will educate and inform the public on subjects ranging from the history of Chinese astronomy to the future innovations in scientific research and space exploration. Upon its completion in 2018, the building will house a diverse program of spaces including a planetarium theater, an IMAX cinema, a solar telescope, an observatory, a youth observation camp, and education and research centers.

© RTKL/YiHuai Hu

© RTKL/YiHuai Hu

The proposed design is inspired by astronomical principles, with the building consisting of three “celestial bodies” in architectural form: the Oculus, the Inverted Dome, and the Sphere. Despite what you might think, these three components are not simply metaphors for the extraterrestrial program that they house: Their forms create an immersive environment for astronomical observations, actively working to draw the public closer to the mysteries of space.

As Ennead Architects state: “Each major element acts as an astronomical instrument, tracking the sun, moon and stars — reminding visitors that our conception of time originates in distant astronomical objects and enriching the museum exhibit experience with actual encounters of celestial movement.”

Firstly, the Oculus — an ancient architectural element first made famous by the Pantheon in Rome — turns the building itself into an astronomical instrument, visualizing the passage of time with a circle of light that moves slowly across the gallery floor. While the Oculus has scientific significance in this context, its experiential qualities may hew towards the visceral, not unlike James Turrell’s atmospheric installations, which transform light itself into immersive works of art.

Add to this the inclusion of reflecting pools, and the external environment of the museum brings to mind the serene settings created by Japanese modernists such as Yoshio Taniguchi and Tadao Ando. If Ennead come even halfway to producing a building in the vein of those architects’ museum commissions, they will have a roaring success on their hands.

Secondly, the Inverted Dome forms a focal point at the museum’s heart, offering what the architects describe as a “sublime spatial experience” at the culmination of the visitors’ journey through the museum interior. The dome’s inverted form makes the sky itself a focus, and the uninterrupted glazing creates a light and airy atmosphere in the atrium housing the majority of the museum’s permanent exhibits.

Architectural precedents of inverted domes are hard to come by, probably because of the taxing task of designing an attractive drainage system for such a structure. However, Ennead appear to have tackled this problem without the need to compromise on aesthetics, incorporating a sculpted access bridge that provides visitors with access to a roof top observatory, while also taking rainwater away.

Finally, the Sphere houses the Planetarium theater inside a geodesic dome, a classic form reminiscent of many astronomically oriented buildings around the world, including Le Planetarium de Buenos Aires and the Saturn-like Indira Gandhi Planetarium in India.

The Sphere appears as the positive counterpart to the inverted dome, nestled within a curved pedestal like a pearl in the heart of a concrete oyster shell. Landscaped pathways spiral outward from this pedestal, around the exterior of the planetarium, echoing the elliptical orbits of the planets around the sun. The sweeping green space — a welcome addition in a city bursting at the seams with new development — provides further external exhibitory to supplement the museum program, including a 24-meter high solar telescope.

The planetarium should become a valuable new amenity for locals, particularly for students across the region, while also forming yet another architectural landmark for China’s largest city. Indeed, it appears Shanghai’s gluttonous galaxy of iconic architecture is set to gain a new star…

Yours intergalactically,

The Angry Architect

Images courtesy Ennead Architects

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