Kielder Observatory
The commission was won by Charles Barclay Architects in an open competition organised by the Kielder Partnership and the RIBA in 2005. It is the latest in a series of small-scale works of art and architecture commissioned by the Kielder Partnership for the Kielder Water and Forest Park with the express brief of creating unique relationships with the landscape. The observatory is an all-timber structure in form of a land pier standing above the rough landscape of Black Fell above Kielder Water. Designed primarily for use by amateurs and for outreach work, the observatory will also be used for serious research, taking advantage of Kielder's dark night skies. It has a warm room attached to a small rotating turret with a computer-operated Meade telescope, an open observation deck and a large turret housing a 20 inch manual telescope as the pier destination. The pier form maximises accessibility, creates a sequence of architectural events and functions as viewing platform for Kielder Water and Forest Park during the daytime. It is orientated to point towards its sister project across the hillside, the Kielder Sky Space by James Turrell. Timber was chosen as a robust, economical and appropriate material in the forest setting; it also has low specific heat thereby releasing less radiant heat at night that can cause thermal disturbance during observation. The original intention was to use locally grown timber, but the fast-growing Sitka Spruce of Kielder could not meet the demanding structural requirements. The need for high strength and durability led to the specification of North American Douglas fir sub-structure, Siberian larch cladding and European pine framing, treated by Arch Timber Protection for added life-span and fire protection. Stressed plywood skin structures using Spruce and Birch plies are used for the cantilevered large turret and the flying entrance roof. The timber structure needed to be very stable and accurately built as a platform for observation and for the rotating mechanisms, and has to resist high wind loads in the exposed location. The observatory has a particular relationship with its forest setting. The pine trees enhance the local observing conditions by mopping up stray light pollution and making even faint and distant stars visible. The observatory functions as a belvedere during the day, providing framed views over the surrounding landscape from Deadwater Fell to Kielder Water in the distance. The floating form of the observatory pier touches the ground lightly and suggests a building that is impermanent and lightweight, a modest construction from which to witness cosmic wonders. The wooden construction holds echoes of the former industrial activity in the valley, such as the timber pit props in the local coal mines and the trestle bridges used for the railways that served them. Likewise, the Kielder observatory is pioneering a new building form for an observatory, in clear opposition to the normal typology of the dome on a tower. The pier is both literally and figuratively accessible, helping make the observatory attractive to newcomers to astronomy, and being vessel-like, helps contain parties of school children safely on dark night time visits. Its stepped form takes advantage of the slope to allow sight lines from small turret over the roof of the large turret; the five degree slope of the warm room roof is also generated by the minimum elevation of the Meade telescope. The low-tech timber construction is inspired by the typical plywood DIY observatories of amateur astronomers; high-tech buildings are not a requirement for star gazing. During the day it is not obviously an observatory, but transforms itself dramatically when the shutters are opened ready to observe and the turrets are rotated, forming intriguing new geometries in the architecture. The building is entirely self-powered by means of a 2.5kW wind turbine and photo-voltaic panels mounted on the warm room roof, with a wood-burner for heat, and a composting WC. It is expected to have a life-span of at least twenty five years. Project value £450,000, including renewables and telescopes. The structural engineers were Michael Hadi Associates, the quantity surveyors Burke, Hunter, Adams and the metalwork subcontractor John Aynsley of Newcastle. The building is owned by the Forestry Commission and leased to the newly formed Kielder Observatory Astronomical Society.

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