the transformation of the Jodrell Bank Observatory not only provides a transformation for the future, but pays homage to the site’s heritage.
Words by Emily Martin
Client: University of Manchester
Executive architect: JM Architects
Scenographic design and interpretation: Casson Mann
Start on site: January 2020
Completion date: June 2022
Size: 2,077 sq m
CASSON MANN AND HASSELL have completed a significant transformation of the Jodrell Bank Observatory visitor experience, which lies on a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the north of England. The First Light Pavilion is part of a £21.5m regeneration project to open the inspirational heritage of the observatory to visitors. Together Casson Mann and Hassell have designed a venue, incapsulating a quintessential ‘garden shed’ character, which delivers the inspiring story of the pioneering observatory with its fully immersive and interactive exhibition ‘The Story of Jodrell Bank’.
Home to the iconic, Grade 1 listed Lovell Telescope – the first steerable radio telescope of its time – Jodrell Bank pioneered space exploration using radio waves to discover cosmic phenomena and track man-made spacecraft. The observatory, located in the heart of the Cheshire countryside, made ground-breaking discoveries in the fields of quasars, pulsars, gravitational lenses, rocket and satellite tracking, and continues to have a world-leading reputation for scientific research.
Spare parts around the site are used in exhibitions rather than stored in a shed. Image Credit: HUFTON+CROW
The Lovell Telescope has inspired both exhibition and building design in various ways. Explains Roger Mann, co-founder and director of Casson Mann: ‘We began our relationship with Jodrell Bank in 2014 when we were commissioned to undertake the visioning study (HLF Stage 1) for the First Light Pavilion. At the time, as part of a planned renovation, the 1957 dish of the Lovell Telescope was to be removed. These rusty panels are the original metal surface of the telescope – itself the Grade I listed building that gives Jodrell Bank its UNESCO World Heritage status.’
Working with Jodrell Bank prior to the telescope’s refurbishment, Casson Mann saw an opportunity to save and repurpose parts of the original 1957 dish as the fabric of the exhibition: at over four metres high, the authentic, heavily patinated panels become the projection surface that connects visitors to the original telescope.
An internal view of the curved entrance.
‘Use of the Lovell Telescope’s metal “skin” was an unusual, even a unique, opportunity – we knew it was too good to pass up. We saw its full potential and went massive with it,’ explains Mann, with the design team set the complex and detailed task of disassembling and reassembling the enormous telescope jigsaw puzzle. ‘Given this unprecedented opportunity to tell the story of Jodrell Bank through its prime asset, we had to work out how to extract pieces of the dish. The constraints of the site meant we could not use whole dish segments from core to rim, so we thought strategically about how to cut out substantial sections. We took inspiration from the sculptural lines and curves used in ancient observatories, such as at Jantar Mantar in Jaipur, India, and decided to cut out smaller, more manageable dish fragments which we could piece together into great 6m x 4m curved panels.’
The external of the same entrance is a curved arc of concrete facing due south to reflect the sun. Image Credit: HUFTON+CROW
Working in collaboration, Jodrell Bank, Casson Mann and Hassell further developed this unique concept for the First Light Pavilion. Complementing Casson Mann’s vision for the interior, Hassell designed a building that celebrates both the site’s heritage that takes a form of a grass-covered dome, integrated into the surrounding landscape. Its circular shape responds to the site’s arboretum and references both the shape and exact size of the 76.2m diameter dish of the Lovell Telescope.
‘The exhibition aims to emulate the charming and quintessentially British character of Jodrell Bank,’ says Mann. ‘The NASA visitor centres in the US are slick, well-established and expensive. In contrast, there is something very “garden shed” about the whole Jodrell Bank operation. This slightly ramshackle quality makes a brilliant counterpoint to the subjects of scientific research here – supernovas, black holes, pulsars, the universe itself. Scientists worked here in their wellies, sitting in deckchairs and cycling between sheds, surrounded by cows and gooseberry bushes in muddy fields originally intended for botanical studies.’
The site benefits from numerous educational exhibitions. Image Credit: HUFTON+CROW
The structures, which house exhibits and interactives in the exhibition, are based on the furniture and materials of these mid-century sheds in Cheshire. Old filing cabinets, colours, materials, finishes and furniture styles are drawn from the huts where British scientists expanded human knowledge of the universe. The recycling and repurposing done by Lovell and his team became part of Casson Mann’s design approach.
Mann explains: ‘So, a rack and pinion, taken from a First World War battleship for reuse as the gear rack of the Lovell telescope, appears on display: rather than leaving these spare parts in a shed until they may be needed for the working telescope, we decided they should appear, for now, as exhibits in the First Light Pavilion. This contrast between the humble set up on the ground and the cosmic dimension of scientific discoveries here is what really sets Jodrell Bank apart. Those who work at the observatory don’t shout about what they do and have done, so it is important to us that the exhibition does just that.’
The Pavilion’s entrance is a dramatic curved concrete screen with its axis due south to reflect the arc of the sun. Two separate screen walls guide visitors to the entrance evoking a sense of exploration and discovery. At the heart of the building is a highly immersive circular exhibition space and auditorium, encased within a cylindrical ‘drum’. Visitors are led through the social history of Jodrell Bank from the 1940s, through the Cold War era, up to the present day, all brought to life through audio, film, diaries, letters, plans, notebooks and photographs, interactives and projected media.
By repurporsing parts from the original Lovell Telescope, the design fits into the surrounding area while paying homage to the site’s history. Image Credit: HUFTON+CROW
‘The exhibition is divided into six chronological chapters, demarcated by the telescope panels. This creates a clear and accessible journey and suggests a logical chapter-by-chapter sequence, though visitors are free to dart around and explore the different areas as they please,’ says Mann.
A 150-seat capacity auditorium ‘pod’ features a screen that follows the shape of the drum shell and curves over the seats to create a dynamic and immersive projection space. The multimedia room houses special exhibitions and caters for night sky projections, as well as educational lectures and live links to other science facilities. Exiting the drum gives way to a café and circular courtyard, cut into the mound so that its orientation aligns to the First Light’s tracking of Russia’s Sputnik at 102° from azimuth. As visitors leave the Pavilion, a historical avenue of trees frames the giant Lovell Telescope in the distance, inviting them to explore further across the site.
Hassell principal, Julian Gitsham, comments: ‘The completion of the First Light Pavilion marks a new era for Jodrell Bank. It will introduce new generations to the rich history of the site and the wonders of radio astronomy. The Observatory team has been totally committed to developing the site in a way that is sensitive to its heritage, yet transformational in its future impact. To have been part of this team is an exceptional opportunity for Hassell. We have embraced the challenge to push the boundaries of design to deliver what will undoubtedly be a truly exceptional experience for all who visit this remarkable site.’