The world’s largest astronomical museum opens in Shanghai, and its intricate curvilinear shape was designed to reflect the geometry of the cosmos. With no straight lines or right angles used anywhere, the structure is instead formed of three superimposed arcs that allude to the orbits of celestial bodies.
Open on Friday, the 420,000-square-foot Shanghai Astronomical Museum – a branch of the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum – will house exhibits, a planetarium, an observatory and a 78-foot-tall solar telescope. It was designed by the American company Ennead Architects, which in 2014 won an international competition for the design of the building.
The Shanghai Astronomical Museum was intentionally designed without straight lines or right angles. Credit: Courtesy of Ennead Architects
“We really thought we could leverage the architecture to make an incredible impact on this whole experience,” lead designer and partner Thomas J. Wong said in a video interview. “The building is meant to be this embodiment of … astronomically inspired architecture.”
By forgoing straight walls in favor of arc lines, Wong and his team hoped to show that everything in the universe is in constant motion and governed by an array of forces.
According to Wong, they were also influenced by the “three body problem”, the unresolved question of how to mathematically calculate the motion of three celestial entities – like planets, moons or stars – based on their relationships. gravitational. to another. While this calculation can be done with two celestial bodies, the paths become chaotic and unpredictable with three.
The main entrance oculus acts as a timepiece, with a luminous circle indicating the season and time of day. Credit: Courtesy of Ennead Architects
“The reason we thought the three-body problem was interesting is that it’s a complex set of orbits,” Wong explained. “(These are) dynamic relationships, as opposed to just a circle around the center. And that was part of the intention (of the design) – to capture that complexity.”
In Wong’s conception, the cosmic riddle translates into three arching shapes: an oculus, a sphere, and an inverted dome, referring to the sun, moon, and stars, respectively. Each is home to a significant tourist attraction or design feature.
Visitors first encounter the oculus, which opens above the museum’s main entrance. It acts like a timepiece, producing a circle of sunlight that travels the ground throughout the day, indicating the time and the season.
The planetarium, housed in a large sphere, was built with minimal visible support in order to appear weightless. Credit: Courtesy of Ennead Architects
Next is the Planetarium Theater, which is enclosed in a sphere and emerges from the roof of the building like a moonrise. The belly of the massive structure appears to float weightless, with room to walk underneath.
Finally, a vast inverted glass dome atop the rooftop gives visitors the opportunity to view the night sky open, in what a press release describes as “a true encounter with the universe to conclude the simulated experience at the ‘inside’.
“We want people to understand the special nature of Earth as a place that harbors life, unlike any other place we know in the universe,” Wong said.
The inverted glass dome offers visitors the opportunity to contemplate a breathtaking view of the open sky. Credit: Courtesy of Ennead Architects
With offices in the United States and China, Ennead Architects is also responsible for the famous Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York at the American Museum of Natural History, a project co-designed by one of the firm’s founders, James Polshek. Wong said there is “a lineage” between the two buildings.
“Polshek called the Rose Center a ‘cosmic cathedral’,” Wong said. “It’s very appropriate for the experience here at the Shanghai Astronomical Museum.”