06 Jul 2022 World leisure: news, training & property
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Attractions Management
2021 issue 3

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Leisure Management - Thomas J Wong


Thomas J Wong

As the world’s largest astronomy museum opens in Shanghai, Magali Robathan speaks to the architect who helped bring this highly ambitious project to life

Thomas J Wong photo: Hailong Jiang
The design of the Shanghai Astronomy Museum was inspired by astronomical principles photo: Arch-Exist
The design of the Shanghai Astronomy Museum was inspired by astronomical principles photo: Arch-Exist
The building design incorporates three instruments: the Oculus, the Sphere and the Inverted Dome photo: Arch-Exist
A levitating sphere houses the immersive digital planetarium theatre photo: Arch-Exist
The building embodies principles of orbital motion photo: Arch-Exist
Wong believes the museum’s design heightens visitors’ attention and creates a sense of awe photo: Arch-Exist
photo: Arch-Exist

It’s been one of the most anticipated museum and planetarium openings for years, and this July finally saw the launch of the Shanghai Astronomy Museum. Designed by Ennead Architects, the new astronomical branch of the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum covers a massive 420,000sq ft and features a planetarium, an observatory and a 78-foot-high solar telescope, as well as a digital sky theatre, an education and research centre, and a host of buildings and programming including temporary and permanent exhibits.

The programming will feature immersive environments, artifacts and instruments of space exploration, and educational exhibits.

The design is inspired by astronomical principles, with the building’s three principal forms – the Oculus, Inverted Dome and the Sphere – acting as functioning astronomical instruments, tracking the sun, moon and stars.

Here Ennead architect Thomas J Wong talks Attractions Management through the project.

What does the Shanghai Planetarium project mean to you?
After eight years in the making, we’re thrilled to celebrate the opening of the Shanghai Astronomy Museum. At 420,000sq ft, it’s the largest museum in the world dedicated solely to astronomy and is designed to encourage humans to connect with the principles of the universe through an impactful spatial experience.

We wanted to create a physical space that made evident the astronomical truths that make our existence on this planet possible and help people understand how truly exceptional the life-supporting aspects of Earth are when compared to the turbulent realities elsewhere in the galaxy. Modern life has detached most of us from the elemental bond to the universe as we take for granted the functional aspects of the earth’s daily rotation as it orbits around the sun, our moon’s circumscribing watch around the globe.

How does the design enhance the content?
The institutional mission of the museum and the architectural concept of the building are aligned: to offer an experience that ignites curiosity and inspires exploration. A foundational design concept was to shape the architecture around those magnificent elements dynamically alive among the stars, to abstractly embody the phenomena and laws of astrophysics that are the rule in space, to magnify the visitor experience of the cosmos to beyond just the exhibits.

We achieve this not only through dramatic architecture but by shaping figures of sunlight to place visitors in an intimate, direct engagement with real astronomical phenomena.

I hope visitors will be reminded of a shared universal perspective: where we humans sit in relation to the existence of all things, both near and impossibly distant. It’s 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.

What was the starting point for the design?
Our design process was an unpredictable journey guided by research and experimentation.

One fundamental notion became the clarifying concept: the fact that the entire Universe, from the time of the Big Bang, is in a state of perpetual motion. From the accelerating and expanding galaxies over billions of years to the complex gravitational relationships of multiple astronomical entities acting upon each other, the building design draws form from the dynamic energy of celestial movement.

The planetarium is also conceived as an astronomical instrument which coordinates with the path of the sun across each day and through the seasons to shape figures of light and illuminate our planet’s motion. The architecture is tuned to highlighting and heightening the experience of the sun and its changing relationship to the earth as we orbit our nearby star.

Visitors encounter three distinct moments that each make apparent core astronomical principles that play out on Earth. These three instruments – the Oculus, the Sphere, and the Inverted Dome – 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.

Can you describe the visitor journey?
The entire visitor experience unfolds in a dramatic choreography. Visitors approaching the building are greeted by the heroic front cantilever of the upper galleries of the building. Once underneath it they see the Oculus, meaning the pathway toward the entrance feels like walking through the nave of a great cathedral.

Arriving at the main atrium is – by contrast – an explosion of uplift and light that draws the gaze upward, with dynamic motion embodied in the spiraling ramp and ‘raw muscle’ contributed by the massive structural piers.

The main atrium is the heart of the experience and meant to embody a sense of awe and a reverence to the universe. From this central space, visitors are invited to begin the exhibit sequence, alternating between dark immersive environments and the central atrium, and culminating in the inverted dome.

The museum is filled with incredible exhibits about a range of themes and topics related to the study and exploration of our Universe, including the very solar system we call home.

There are immersive environments, artifacts and instruments of space exploration, and deeply informative exhibits to inspire and educate visitors.

As a complement to the exhibit halls, there’s also a fantastic sky show journey into the stars in the immersive digital planetarium theatre. This is housed in the building’s levitating sphere that magically floats in an adjacent wing of the museum. This is the place where sunlight is shaped by a circular skylight that surrounds the sphere and which creates a figure of light on the lower level of the museum interior – a figure that’s a complete ring at noon on the summer solstice when the sun is highest in the sky.

Iconic buildings have been criticised for being more about the architecture than the content – how did you ensure this didn’t happen?
This is a criticism that I have been known to wield myself, so we were very conscious about our responsibility as architects to the owners as we were about making something truly unique.

We didn’t design a shape and then attempt to fit the programme within it afterward. Each of our explorations and iterations during the competition phase had a basic approach to both programme and form that worked together. After we won the competition, we engaged with SSTM to refine the design and they had some suggestions on how to optimise the programme as well as the exhibit sequence. During these early phases, we actually changed the design quite a bit to accommodate those goals, though the overall basic concept was held intact.

Interestingly, the client was also willing to make adjustments to their programme and exhibit goals to work with certain architectural conditions and goals. So the process is really a back and forth and working together to make sure the best possible project is achieved, both functionally and aesthetically.

What is your favourite part of the museum? What are you proudest of?
In my view, the real centerpiece of the museum and the heart of both the architectural and exhibit sequence is the main atrium, with its spiralling ramp and Inverted Dome cradled by a massive concrete tripod. We wanted to create a dynamic space visitors would walk into that stood in strong contrast to the compression of the entry procession under the building’s cantilever.

Like the experience of some of the great cathedrals in the world, this space is a constant reminder of the dynamic power of the Universe, an embodiment of orbital motion which propels the planets.

The Inverted Dome is the conclusion that directs the gaze of visitors upward to the sky as the final act, as if to say: “Explore This!”

How does the design help visitors make sense of the universe?
The Shanghai Astronomy Museum was specifically designed to thematically extend the experience of the subject matter, while also putting visitors into direct contact with real astronomical phenomena. This was an early essential goal during the design process.

As we said, each of the building’s three principal components – the Oculus, Inverted Dome and Sphere – act as astronomical instruments, tracking the sun, moon and stars. By both creating an architectural form that embodied principles of orbital motion and designing portions of the museum to track the movement of the sun through the sky over the course of a day and throughout the year, we’ve created a building that teaches each of our visitors more about the universe through architecture. The grandeur of the experience also reinforces the monumentality and dynamic power of the museum’s subject matter; the museum heightens visitors’ awareness of forces which are beyond their imagination.

The museum will hopefully inspire a spirit of exploration for visitors of all ages and background – in science, history, technology, and civic life – all while mirroring the rich history of Chinese astronomy.

The experience is also meant to inspire more questions than it answers. What’s the nature of places that are “out there,” so incomprehensibly far from Earth and unimaginably strange, yet governed by many of the same physical laws as the Earth? Eventually, such questions pivot toward self-reflection: What are we — humans and all other life on our planet — in relation to the vastness of the Universe? I hope this museum will play a part in promoting the continual search for human understanding of these and many other important questions.

What was the highest point of this project, for you?
There was one visit to the site in the middle of construction where I walked into the just-forming atrium in the middle of the building. The building was basically enclosed, so the interior was dark even though the sun was still shining. The giant concrete piers of the tripod and compression ring had been poured several months prior and the Inverted Dome had just been installed, hanging within the tripod from above.

It was one of the most memorable moments to witness, the raw muscle of the immense concrete structure cradling a glowing glass-clad dish that streamed sunlight down to a massive tangle of steel rods on the floor. I understood at that moment the magnitude and impact of the space we were making, and despite that grandiosity, that this place captured only a fraction of the power of the realm to which it was dedicated.

The impact of that visit to the site was so powerful for me personally that it basically left me speechless for the rest of the day and into the evening. I remember eating dinner alone in the corner of a busy restaurant with eyes welling up with tears as I kept recalling the power of the experience. I am certain it will be one of the highest points of my career as an architect.

What feedback have you had?
We’ve been very fortunate to hear about the extremely positive responses to the building, both from visitors and in the press. Visitors have been mesmerised by the sheer scale and ambitious geometry of the museum and the exhibits are fascinating and exploratory. There’s a series of core galleries that visitors experience in succession, beginning with an exhibit called “Homeland.”

Homeland examines our solar systems and Milky Way Galaxy, progressing to an exhibit titled “Universe” that explores the science of astronomy and key concepts in astrophysics. The final exhibit is titled “Journey,” focusing on past, current, and ongoing space exploration.

Are you working on any other attractions projects?
We’ve just started construction on a small museum in New Jersey in the US, with a very interesting story and mission, which we can talk about in more detail this Fall.


The three main exhibition areas of the Shanghai Astronomy Museum are: ‘Homeland,’ ‘Universe,’ and ‘Journey’. There are also special exhibition areas including: ‘China Explores the Universe,’ ‘Curious Planet,’ and ‘Heading to Mars’.

The ‘Homeland’ exhibition is what visitors first encounter. They are immediately immersed in a realistic starry sky via one of the world’s most advanced optical planetarium projections. As they stroll through this section, their learning deepens as do their questions. This is followed by the ‘Universe’ area which is oriented to higher learning levels and has more interactive exhibits. It is divided into five sections: ‘Time and Space,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Elements,’ ‘Gravity,’ and ‘Life’.

Finally they reach the ‘Journey’ area, which as the name suggests, offers a panoramic view of the long journey of mankind to explore the mysteries of the universe, from ancient times to modern astronomical discoveries, as well as research projects and achievements from around the world today.

The guiding concept for the overall exhibition design was, “We are not writing a textbook, we are creating an experience.” The exhibits were developed to make complex content and information easily accessible to visitors of all ages. Exhibition areas provide spaces for real observation, as well as simulations and experiential interactive programming. The museum guides visitors through the learning principles of “SEE-DO-LEARN-FEEL” to gradually build their understanding of the universe.

Of the 300-plus exhibits, 85 per cent are original and more than 50 per cent are interactive. They consider the needs of visitors at different levels.

Source: Ennead

photo: Arch-Exist

Originally published in Attractions Management 2021 issue 3

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