3: Observatory

4.024, SPRING 2021


Exercise 3 is the culmination of all the projects this semester: we designed an observatory on the site we selected in exercise 2C. I had chosen the MIT Haystack Observatory site, which already featured an existing observatory with a long and interesting history. Not only that, but it is a relatively popular site for walkers, bikers, and school tours. This surprised me because the observatory buildings themselves are nondescript, the telescopes huge and incomprehensible. I wanted to design something that would bridge the gap between science and the public. A place which might not be a telescope observatory in the traditional sense, but would allow visitors to comprehend the magnitude of the discoveries that had been made here.


The first thing one notices when one walks up the road to the observatory site is a series of long pylons jutting out of the ground. They seem random at first, an alien landscape of glass and metal, like a field of lightning rods. As one crests the hill and approaches the telescopes, one realises that they are arranged in loosely elliptical orbits around a central locus: the primary structure. 

Far from being alien structures, what the observer has encountered is a large, fibre-optic art installation that extends across the entire hillside. In the same way that the solar system has the Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt surrounding its denser, rockier, brighter core, the Observatory is surrounded by a cloud of pylons. Their arrangement is drawn directly from the NASA Small Body Database, and represents the actual orbits of some of the brightest comets. 

I wanted the comets to have something ephemeral about them, hence the fibre-optic elements. At night, the tips of the poles light up, firing in sequence so that it seems like beams of light are truly orbiting the central structure.

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1. Plotting comet orbitals

2. Transformations into a structure


3. Final elevation


Approaching the structure, one of the things that immediately stands out is its circular form. Thin concrete roofs seem to float atop a glass base, looping out wide before coiling into the depths of the Observatory. It doesn't seem clear where the roof ends and the floor begins, people move seamlessly from one to the next, following an ever-spiralling pattern of stairs and ramps. Through the window, the observer catches a glimpse of the people inside. They are working, laughing, enjoying the view, as the setting sun turns the concrete walls to liquid gold.


From the beginning of this project, it was clear to me that it had to be circular: orbits are circular, gravity naturally draws things into ever more perfect spheres the more mass they accumulate. As the program of the building was to be dedicated to a) wonder, b) learning more about the science of the observatory, c) a place for relaxation, I settled on a loosely spiral circulation with a series of large landings. This way, people could choose to linger and relax, or they could follow the stairs down to the depths of the building, where the museum would be situated.


I imagine that the walls, where concrete and dug into the Earth, would also be decorated with scientifically meaningful graphics and that the staircase from the amphitheatre to the underground museum would be lined with informational screens. Where the building faces the sky, it is glass. (I briefly played with the idea of making it more sustainable, but since there is no danger of this structure ever being built, went for the brutalist aesthetic instead, all in the name of art. If you love the environment, please do not build this.)

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A lounge or landing for eating, talking, and working.

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A glimpse into the amphitheatre.

Here, one finds oneself in the amphitheatre. This is the main floor of the building. The stairs are functional — they lead you down to a lower floor — but can also be sat on. A presenter can stand in the centre of the structure and speak to a large audience in this way. 

There is an art installation hanging from the ceiling; in essence, a large solar system mobile. Each of the planets is on a circular track that slowly moves along the ceiling, while the moons of the planets all follow their own motorised motions.

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You move from the amphitheatre, flushed with light, into a dark corridor. The walls are black, a flight of steps lit by LED strips leads downward. Like the ones you came down into the amphitheatre on, these stairs, too, are shallow and wide. You feel no urge to rush, but linger to look at the glowing posters on the walls. Here and there, a wide stair forms a landing, on which you see artefacts from space missions and small plaques commemorating the scientists who accomplished these goals. As you reach the round room at the bottom of the steps, you suddenly realise that the concrete floor is dashed with specks of light. Little LED fixtures are set flush to the ground like stars. As you explore the rest of the room, which is decorated with the decades of achievements and space research that took place in the telescopes and buildings just metres away, you feel as though you are wading through the cosmos itself.

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The underground room is intended to be a place of contemplation and reflection. One emerges by following the circular circulation pattern of the space, up a narrow staircase that emerges to the outside. One passes between a large retaining wall and the bulk of the primary structure, as though emerging out of a natural gorge.

Thus ends the tour through the structure, the space, space, and history, and, alongside it, my studio.

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