Ennead Architects evokes celestial bodies in motion at Shanghai Astronomy Museum

The world’s largest astronomy museum in Shanghai functions as a veritable astronomical instrument, with immersive spaces to remind visitors of humanity's place in the cosmos.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Jul 31, 2021

Offering an immersive experience laced with mesmeric spaces that take cues from various celestial phenomena, the new Shanghai Astronomy Museum designed by Ennead Architects is a monument to the fundamental relationships and forces between heavenly bodies that have made our existence in the cosmos a reality. At 39,000 sqm, the museum complex in Shanghai is said to be the largest of its kind, centered exclusively on the topic of astronomy. Wrapped in winding ribbons that echo the elliptical orbits of planetary motion, it will serve as the new astronomical branch of the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum in China’s most populated metropolis, that is steadily becoming home to a plethora of impressive architectural feats.

The structure is wrapped in winding ribbons meant to evoke images of orbital motion | Shanghai Astronomy Museum by Ennead Architects | STIRworld
The structure is wrapped in winding ribbons meant to evoke images of orbital motion Image: Courtesy of Arch-Exist

Ennead Architects was initially awarded the commission at the conclusion of an international design competition back in 2014. At the core of their grandiose design scheme is a desire to rouse awareness of our species’ place within the macrocosm of an ever-expanding universe. “When designing the Shanghai Astronomy Museum, we wanted to create a physical space that made evident the astronomical truths aiding our existence on this planet and also help people understand how truly exceptional the life-supporting aspects of Earth are when compared to turbulent realities elsewhere in the galaxy,” says Thomas J Wong, Design Partner at Ennead Architects, in an official statement.

Avoiding straight lines and corners, the design was influenced by the ’Three-body problem’ in classical mechanics | Shanghai Astronomy Museum by Ennead Architects | STIRworld
Avoiding straight lines and corners, the design was influenced by the ’Three-body problem’ in classical mechanics Image: Courtesy of Arch-Exist

To reinforce this vision, the design eschews straight lines and angular corners, instead adopting a fluid scheme of curves and arcs, reflecting orbital trajectories. Wong relays, “A foundational design concept was to shape the architecture to abstractly embody the phenomena and laws of astrophysics that are the rule in space. One fundamental notion became a primary source of inspiration: the fact that the entire Universe, from the time of the Big Bang, is in a state of perpetual motion.”

In fact, the idea of primordial motion played a prominent role in developing the façade design and layout, as Wong was particularly influenced by the ‘Three-body problem’ in classical mechanics. Traditionally defined as a mathematical problem to predict the motion of three gravitationally interacting point masses or particles with known initial positions and momenta, the three-body problem is among the most studied cases of the larger family of n-body problems, used to ascertain the behaviour of planets, moons, and stars in closed systems.

01 min watch Experiential video of the Shanghai Astronomy Museum | Shanghai Astronomy Museum by Ennead Architects | STIRworld
Experiential video of the Shanghai Astronomy Museum Video: Yihuai Hu

The Shanghai and New York-based firm used models of this problem as a precedent for the structure of the building envelope, articulated as a pair of intersecting ellipsoidal wings punctuated by spherical volumes. Even the landscape design surrounding the complex has arcing patterns that radiate from the museum’s form and the illusion of movement it creates - particularly when lit up at night. The ‘Three-body problem’ also guided the placement of the museum’s three main program areas - the Oculus, Sphere, and Inverted Dome, meant to conjure up images of celestial objects. Wong explains, “Within the building visitors encounter three distinct moments that each make apparent core astronomical principles that play out on Earth. These three instruments force a confrontation between visitors and those planetary facts which have been relegated to the background of our human construct but shape our very existence.”

  • The Oculus is embedded into the roof above the museum entrance | Shanghai Astronomy Museum by Ennead Architects | STIRworld
    The Oculus is embedded into the roof above the museum entrance Image: Courtesy of Arch-Exist
  • As a gleaming golden vortex open to the sky, it traces a circle of sunlight along the plaza below | Shanghai Astronomy Museum by Ennead Architects | STIRworld
    As a gleaming golden vortex open to the sky, it traces a circle of sunlight along the plaza below Image: Courtesy of Arch-Exist

As the first of the three encounters, the Oculus functions as a bona fide timepiece suspended above the museum’s main entryway. Embedded into the roof as a gleaming golden vortex, it traces a circle of sunlight along the plaza and reflecting pool below it. On the summer solstice at noon, when the light is at its highest intensity, this circle aligns with a round platform on the plaza floor, embedded with black tiling. “The building itself is conceived as an astronomical instrument which coordinates with the path of the sun across a day and through the seasons to shape figures of light and illuminate our planet’s motion,” mentions Wong.

It functions as a veritable timepiece, in accordance with the sun’s path across the sky | Shanghai Astronomy Museum by Ennead Architects | STIRworld
It functions as a veritable timepiece, in accordance with the sun’s path across the sky Image: Courtesy of Arch-Exist

In the adjacent wing is the museum's second attraction - a spherical planetarium theatre with a 30-metre diameter, that appears to be weightlessly floating above the stepped rotunda beneath it. Hinting at the forms of planetary objects, the Sphere - as it is dubbed - rises above the museum’s roof line, suspended in place with minimal support.

The spherical planetarium theatre makes a dramatic statement within the museum’s interior, resembling a planetary body | Shanghai Astronomy Museum by Ennead Architects | STIRworld
The spherical planetarium theatre makes a dramatic statement within the museum’s interior, resembling a planetary body Image: Courtesy of Arch-Exist

This structural marvel acts as a focal point that constantly draws the eye towards it, recreating the dramatic sight of approaching a planet from one of its moons. The only thing missing here might be the opening ‘Sunrise’ fanfare to Richard Strauss’ composition Also Sprach Zarathustra playing in the background, stirring up the image of the musical piece’s most iconic usage immortalised on film by Stanley Kubrick. A ring of sunlight enlivens the floor around the Sphere, infiltrating the space through a narrow band between the theatre and its enclosing walls, that is open to the sky.

  • Held in place with minimal support, it appears to float weightlessly above the stepped rotunda beneath it | Shanghai Astronomy Museum by Ennead Architects | STIRworld
    Held in place with minimal support, it appears to float weightlessly above the stepped rotunda beneath it Image: Courtesy of Arch-Exist
  • Interactive exhibits depict concepts related to space exploration and various astronomical phenomena  | Shanghai Astronomy Museum by Ennead Architects | STIRworld
    Interactive exhibits depict concepts related to space exploration and various astronomical phenomena Image: Courtesy of Arch-Exist

Interactive exhibits and program areas hosted within the museum’s halls and accompanying structures include an observatory, an optical planetarium, an education and research centre, a digital sky theatre, and a 78-foot solar telescope. Programming will include both temporary and permanent showcases, depicting various phenomena related to space exploration and astronomical observation, with immersive installations and environments meant to educate the public.

  • The Inverted Dome crowns the central atrium, at the end of a 720-degree spiralling ramp | Shanghai Astronomy Museum by Ennead Architects | STIRworld
    The Inverted Dome crowns the central atrium, at the end of a 720-degree spiralling ramp Image: Courtesy of Arch-Exist
  • It is a glass tension structure with its own oculus | Shanghai Astronomy Museum by Ennead Architects | STIRworld
    It is a glass tension structure with its own oculus Image: Courtesy of Arch-Exist

Confronting visitors at the climax of a 720-degree spiralling ramp that outlines the building’s primary circulation routes, is the Inverted Dome. Crowning the central atrium, it is the culmination of the sequence of exhibits housed within the museum. The titular ‘dome’ is actually an upturned glass tension structure that houses another oculus. Above, at the centre of the bowl on the roof, sightlines towards the horizon are inhibited, forcing the eye towards the heavens, as a real confrontation with mankind’s final frontier, that contrasts the virtual exhibits preceding it.

Sightlines towards the horizon are cut off at the centre of the bowl, forcing attention up towards the open sky | Shanghai Astronomy Museum by Ennead Architects | STIRworld
Sightlines towards the horizon are cut off at the centre of the bowl, forcing attention up towards the open sky Image: Courtesy of Arch-Exist

As an ethereal environment befitting the scope of its functions, Wong states that he hopes the museum will remind visitors of a shared universal perspective, particularly humanity’s relationships with objects and phenomena both near and impossibly distant. He further adds, “It is a place where I hope we will simultaneously acknowledge the great fortune of Earth amidst the unimaginable hostilities of the cosmos, in tandem with the underlying responsibility to care for this planet, each other, and all species of life here.”

  • First Floor Plan | Shanghai Astronomy Museum by Ennead Architects | STIRworld
    First Floor Plan Image: Courtesy of Ennead Architects
  • Second Floor Plan | Shanghai Astronomy Museum by Ennead Architects | STIRworld
    Second Floor Plan Image: Courtesy of Ennead Architects
  • Third Floor Plan | Shanghai Astronomy Museum by Ennead Architects | STIRworld
    Third Floor Plan Image: Courtesy of Ennead Architects
  • Section | Shanghai Astronomy Museum by Ennead Architects | STIRworld
    Section Image: Courtesy of Ennead Architects

Project Details

Name: Shanghai Astronomy Museum
Location: Shanghai, China
Area: 39,020 sqm
Completed: 2021
Client: Shanghai Science and Technology Museum
Program: Permanent Exhibit Galleries, Temporary Exhibit Galleries, Digital Sky Theater, Optical Planetarium, Education and Research Center, Solar Telescope, Youth Observation Camp, and Observatory
Architect: Ennead Architects
Design Partner: Thomas Wong
Management Partner/Principal: V. Guy Maxwell / Grace Chen
Project Manager: Weiwei Kuang
Project Designer: Charles Wolf
Project Architect: Anthony Guaraldo
Design Team: Jorge Arias, Margarita Calero, Michael Caton, Christina Ciardullo, Eugene Colberg, Regina Jiang, Jörg Kiesow, Aidan Kim, Stefan Knust, Xinya Li, Francelle Lim, Xiaoyun, Mao, David Monnar, Nikita Payusov, James Rhee, Yong Roh, Miya Ruan, Na Sun, Eric Tsui, Stephanie Tung, Charles Wong, David Yu, Fred Zhang
Code/ Life Safety/Landscape/MEP/Structural Consultants: Shanghai Institute of Architectural Design & Research (Co., Ltd.)
Lighting Consultants: Brandston Partnership, Inc.
Exhibit Consultant: Xenario
General Contractor: Shanghai Construction No. 7 (Group) Co., LTD

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