Prairie Sky

Project Rothney Astrophysical Observatory Visitor Centre, Priddis, Alberta

Architect John Brown Architect Ltd. With Students From the Architecture Program, Faculty of Environmental Design, University of Calgary

Text Andrew King

Photos Jason Molyneaux

As you move further out into the prairie south of Calgary to the “Cowboy Trail” and the stark beauty of the southern Alberta foothills, the landscape is punctuated only by compositions of the shining metal and weathered wood of the ranches and farms. At first glance, the Rothney Astrophysical Research Station registers as just another of these compositions with flashes of galvanized sheeting and the truncated silo-like telescope towers. On further investigation, the Rothney complex, with John Brown’s recently completed Visitor Centre, project a more abstract, painterly and willful presence. It is clear very early on in the experience of the Rothney that the landscape and the mountains are implicit in the experience, a considered part of the making of the place along with the sky and the stars.

The Rothney Visitor Centre is many things and nothing. Its primary function is a place in which academics, students, the curious and passersby can engage the world beyond the terrestrial. It is nothing more than a community gathering hall, albeit one where the community has a rarefied and specific interest. This elemental programmatic function is reflected in the building’s reduced, simple form and its elegant and poetic sequencing.

The building primarily accommodates visitors at monthly public openings, occurring from early evening until the sky becomes dark enough to gaze at the stars from the viewing platform and the telescopes. At times, the hall becomes a flexible classroom for lectures, graduate astronomy classes and grade-school science-class outreach programs or a series of curated expositions, becoming a museum of sorts. In a similar spirit, the making of the building was a sort of academic “barn-raising.” It was designed as part of an interdisciplinary research project involving astronomers and University of Calgary students of architecture and astronomy. Most of the project was then constructed by another group of architecture students as part of a design/build studio. This interdisciplinary community both conceived of and constructed their building, asking and answering questions of its making along the way.

The geometry of the building is organized around three axes of orientation: the existing windbreak of pine trees and the research buildings on the site, the azimuth of the North Star, and finally, the vertical axis as defined by the view through the telescopes. This fairly straightforward formal strategy is reflected materially. The building is a composition of only two materials. A folded and extended metal skin shrouds the north and west faades and continues as the roof, at points completely reflecting a distorted but legible view of the landscape and sky. The metal can be seen as a playful homage to the vernacular of corrugated metal panels. The scale of the corrugations is exaggerated, providing a more abstract yet clear patterning, visible at the beginning of the experiential sequence. The second material is the oiled cedar wall placed underneath the protective roof canopy. This truly reads as a soft permeable membrane wrapping around the south and east faades to mark the entry and exit points of the building.

Together, these elements can be seen to create a long extended threshold through which one moves from the earth to the sky, from the horizontal to the vertical. Brown uses the site and the building to create a series of defined, almost narrative moments. These moments begin at the road up the hill, the metal skin reflecting the setting sun. The existing windbreak of pine trees, the overhanging roof, and the metal skin on the north faade first obscure, then reveal the view of the mountains. Within the building one immediately emerges from the darkened entry and gallery space into the light and vertically expansive lecture hall. This primary room is oriented towards a high north-facing horizontal window, which, as the sky darkens, frames the stationary North Star. The sequence ends on the telescope viewing platform, where the ultimate destination is the night sky.

The Rothney is a punctuation mark between prairie and sky. It is a programmatically nebulous, tectonically and formally resonant curated experience. Like many great buildings, it speaks succinctly and elegantly of its context, enriching without mediating the experience, and ultimately adding to the beauty. It is a barn, a church, a classroom and a museum. It answers many complex programmatic requirements, but so elegantly that it can be considered as simply a place to just look at the sky. CA

Andrew King is the recipient of the 2003-2004 Prix de Rome in Architecture for Canada, and practices in Banff and Calgary.

Client The University of Calgary

Architect Team John Brown, Matthew North, Students of the Architecture Program, Faculty of Environmental Design, University of Calgary

Structural Kasian Dyck & Associates

Landscape Architecture Program, Faculty of Environmental Design, University of Calgary

Interiors Architecture Program, Faculty of Environmental Design, University of Calgary

Contractor Architecture Program, Faculty of Environmental Design, University of Calgary

Area 2,600 Ft2

Completion Fall 2005