China has certainly asserted its growing power and influence in recent years, particularly in the field of space exploration and science. In the last ten years alone, China has deployed the three space stations with its Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) program, unveiled the Long March 5 heavy rocket and sent robotic missions to the other side of the moon and the surface of Mars.
Here on Earth, facilities such as the Five Hundred Meter Aperture Space Telescope (FAST) illustrate China’s growing achievements in space and astronomy. And on Friday (July 16), the world’s largest museum for the study of space – the Shanghai Astronomy Museum – opens its doors. The purpose and design of this museum is to highlight China’s achievements in space and astronomy, as well as the country’s future ambitions in space.
The design was created by Ennead Architects, an office with offices in New York and Shanghai, which won an international competition in 2014 for its inspiring creation. Her previous work includes the New York Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). At 39,000 m2 (420,000 ft2), this new branch of the Shanghai Science of Technology Museum (SSTM) will be the largest of its kind in the world.
Architectural impression of the museum at night. Photo credit: Ennead Architects
Inspired by the orbits of celestial bodies and the geometry of the cosmos, the SAM has no straight lines or right angles. According to Thomas J. Wong, partner at Ennead and the museum’s chief designer, it was also inspired by the “three-body problem,” a previously unsolved question in classical physics of how the motion of three celestial bodies can be calculated.
It is also the title of the novel by acclaimed Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin, published in 2008 (translated into English in 2014) and the first in his Remembrance of Earth’s Past series (which deals with aliens). As Wong explained in a video interview with CNN about the project:
“We really thought we could use the architecture to add an incredible impact to this whole experience. The building is supposed to be this embodiment of … astronomically inspired architecture. The reason we found the three-body problem interesting is because it is a complex set of orbits. (These are) relationships that are dynamic as opposed to a simple circle around the center. And that was part of the (design) intention – to capture this complexity. “
According to Ennead’s website, the complex curvilinear shape of the structure consists of three overlapping arches, symbolic of how the museum celebrates “the continuum of time and space”. It also symbolizes a connection to the past and future, as it is a modern “forward-looking” structure that represents China’s future ambitions in space, and a connection to China’s long history of astronomy.
The Oculus and the reflective pool in the entrance area of the museum. Photo credit: Ennead Architects
“By associating the new museum with both scientific purposes and the heavenly references of buildings throughout history,” said Wong, “the exhibits and architecture will convey more than just scientific content: they will shed light on what it means to to be a person in a vast and largely unknown space. “Universe.”
In Wong’s design, the geometry of the cosmos is conveyed through three arcuate shapes: the oculus, the sphere, and the inverted dome. In addition to architectural features, these are also astronomical instruments that track the movements of the sun, moon, and stars (each). Each of them also hosts a major visitor attraction, starting with the Oculus at the main entrance to the museum.
Suspended above the main entrance to the museum, the Oculus creates a circle of sunlight that moves across the floor, across the entrance plaza and a reflecting pool. At lunchtime during the summer solstice there is a full circle of light that aligns itself with a circular platform in the entrance area of the museum. In this respect, the Oculus acts as a timepiece and illustrates how the relationship between the earth and the sun depends on the time of day and season.
The next stop is the planetarium theater, which is immersed in the building with its lower abdomen protruding from the ceiling. With little visible support, it creates the illusion of weightlessness and alludes to the archetypal forms of planets, stars and other celestial objects. Finally, the sphere gradually becomes visible as visitors move around the building, resembling a moon rise on the horizon of the earth.
The planetarium, which is housed in a large sphere in the museum. Photo credit: Ennead Architects
Finally, there is the huge inverted glass dome, a tension structure that sits on top of the central atrium and gives the viewer an unobstructed view of the sky. This dome contains a 720-degree spiral ramp that directs the eye up to the top of the dome, giving visitors the opportunity to experience an unobstructed view of the sky. This represents the culmination of the simulated cosmological journey that the museum represents.
“We want people to understand the special nature of the earth as a place that houses life, unlike any other place we know in the universe,” as Wong put it. This museum will feature both temporary and permanent exhibits with immersive environments, artifacts and instruments related to space exploration, as well as educational activities. It will also house a 24-meter-high solar telescope, an observatory, a youth observation camp and a Digital Sky Theater.
The exhibition already houses a very impressive sample collection with over 70 samples of meteorites, some of which come from Mars and the asteroid Vesta, and lunar rocks. The museum also has an impressive selection of artifacts from over 120 collections, including original works by Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and other astronomers. The museum also has facilities based on augmented reality, virtual reality, biometrics, and artificial intelligence to simulate different types of astronomical experiences.
When viewed from the sky, one can also get the impression that the museum looks like an astrolabe – an ancient device was essentially a hand model of the universe. From classical antiquity and the Islamic Golden Age to the High Middle Ages and the “Age of Discovery”, this instrument was used by astronomers to measure the height above the horizon of a celestial body, to identify stars and planets, to determine the local latitude or time and to navigate on the sea.
The “wheels in wheels” configuration of the main structure is also reminiscent of cosmological maps of ancient times and the Renaissance, showing the orbits of the planets around the sun. The elliptical shape of the main building is also strongly reminiscent of Kepler’s depiction of elliptical orbits. It’s also reminiscent of a traditional timepiece, with its interconnected structures and concentric circles reminiscent of gears and wheels.
As for the planetarium, I dare to say with a serious expression that it doesn’t resemble the great sphere from Sphere (look, you will see). The museum will be open to the public next Monday (July 19), but many have already seen the exhibits and exhibitions of the Astronomy Museum through special tours. For those of us who can’t make the journey, the contest video posted above provides a nice guide.
More information can be found on the Ennead Architects website.
Further reading: CNN, Ennead Architects