Norway's Harestua Solar Observatory — or Solobservatoriet — has afforded astronomers and amateur stargazers alike with sweeping views of the heavens ever since it was completed ahead of the total solar eclipse of June 30,1954. But as far as telescope-housing observatories go, Solobservatoriet itself isn't much to look at.
True, the astronomical facility — the largest not just in Norway but in all of Northern Europe — is both historic and dramatically sited. Nestled deep within a boreal forest at nearly 2,000 feet above sea level in landlocked Oppland County, Solobservatoriet was originally built and operated by the University of Oslo as a major solar research center. During the Cold War era, the facility doubled as a Soviet satellite tracking station run in caooperation with the U.S. military. Beginning in the late 1980s, the university converted the campus into an astronomy-focused education hub. Since 2008, Solobservatoriet's current owner, the Tycho Brahe Institute, has used the site as a wide-ranging learning center dedicated to the natural sciences.
Although not as architecturally significant as some of its peers, Harestua Solar Observatory was a leading research hub in the field of solar physics during the mid-20th century. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Despite the operational and ownership changes over the years, Solobservatoriet, looks largely as it did in the 1950s — an outdated Space Age relic that could do with a fresh coat of paint … and perhaps a major overhaul.
And a major overhaul Solobservatoriet will soon be getting thanks to Oslo-based Snøhetta, Norways's go-to architecture firm for underseas fine dining restaurants and self-powered glacier hotels. As Snøhetta writes in a news release, it hopes that the new Solobservatoriet, complete with a golden-domed planetarium that's orbited by seven "interstellar" visitor cabins, will boost tourism while "inspiring a sense of wonder and curiosity, as if the architecture itself was asking the question: Where does the Universe come from?"
A celestial theater for the ages
While Solobservatoriet is located a field trip-friendly 30 miles north of Oslo, design renderings released by Snøhetta portray an otherworldly landscape seemingly imported from another time and place. But then again, the ethereal beauty of Norway shines bright with or without a collection of buildings arranged to resemble a solar system when viewed from above.
"This magical landscape has inspired so many folktales in Norway that we grew up with," Vegard Lundby Rekaa, lead astronomer at the Tycho Brahe Institute, explains to CNN Travel. "You have the valleys, the hills, the forests, the stars — it's all part of the experience."
Using this "magical landscape" as a blank canvas, Snøhetta brings the heavens down to Earth as part of its "ambitious expansion of the current and modest facilities" at Solobservatoriet:
Through the design phase, the architects studied simple principles from astronomy. The study inspired the design of the cabins which seemingly orbit around the planetarium, imitating how planets orbit around the Sun, inspiring a sense of wonder and surprise. Comfortably accommodating up to 118 guests in total, the facilities capture the imagination of its visitors through an intellectual, visual and tactile journey into the realm of astronomy.
At over 16,000 square feet, the planetarium-cum-visitors center is the centerpiece of Solobservatoriet's cosmic revamp. Half sunken into the forest floor, the three-story structure's domed "celestial theatre" rises like a mysterious glowing orb crash-landed in the Nordic wilderness.
With a golden dome protruding from an undulating roof that melds into the forested surroundings, this in-development Norwegian planetarium is an architectural showstopper. (Rendering: Snøhetta/Plompmozes)
"The planetarium's dome, for example, will be engraved with constellations. It looks a bit extraterrestrial, as if it belongs somewhere else," Rikard Jaucis of Snøhetta tells CNN Travel. "At the same time, it's wrapped around with the landscape and rooted in the earth."
Inspired by Archimedes' circa 250 B.C. design for the world's first planetarium, the domed structure literally comes alive during the warmer months thanks to a lush green roof — or "roofscape" — clad in grass, wild heather, blueberry and lingonberry bushes. "Wrapping around the golden cupola, the living roof functions as a cross between landscape and built structure that visitors can stroll on to gaze up at the starry sky," writes Snøhetta.
As Ingebjørg Skaare, a senior architect at Snøhetta working on the Solobservatoriet expansion projecy, explains to Quartz: "The untouched landscape at the site is one of the most important qualities for the experience. Being in the nature is [like] being among stars and planets."
Snøhetta architect Jaucis tells CNN Travel: "We want people to come here without feeling like they're in a classroom."
If the plant-topped planetarium doesn't do the trick on that front, surely the septet of sleepover-ready cottages orbiting it will.
Although one might assume that each cabin is modeled after one of the seven classical planets, Snøhetta explains that they're actually "imaginary objects" with made-up names.
But much like real-life planets, each cabin, connected by a network of winding footpaths, varies in size, shape and material composition. Some are sunken into the ground like the planetarium while others rest gently on the forest floor. More suited for seminars and retreats, the largest of the lodges can accommodate a group of up to 32 eager stargazers while the daintiest, dubbed Zolo, is an intimate two-bed affair that measures just under 20 feet in diameter and is perfect for an "undisturbed night under the stars."
There are no firm details as of yet as to how one can go about snagging one of Solobservatoriet's visitor cabins for an evening or two of interrupted stargazing — Snøhetta's jaw-dropping expansion project isn't due for completion until 2021.
But already, the Tycho Brahe Institute, named after the prosthetic nose-wearing 16th century Danish astronomer, is boasting the upcoming campus' year-round appeal to future visitors.
As astronomer Rekaa explains to CNN Travel, winter is prime time to hunker down in a cabin optimized for craning one's neck upward. (Each comes equipped with its own viewing platform as well as strategically placed windows.) Aside from the long, dark nights, winter provides guests an off chance of catching a glimpse of aurora borealis. The observatory, however, is too far south of the Arctic Circle for viewing the full-on light shows famously on display in Nord-Norge (Northern Norway).
"It's like your favorite art just dropping straight above you, and not even standing still. It's in motion and surprising you constantly," Rekka says of the northern lights. "It's always at a time when you least expect it, so that is a source of frustration of tourists coming all the way to see it. They don't really know when it comes, or if it comes."
Snøhetta aims to transform Solobservatoriet into a 'publicly accessible and international knowledge hub while also providing expanded support spaces for activities such as teambuilding, lectures and seminars.' (Rendering: Snøhetta/Plompmozes)
Rekka goes on to note that summertime is also ideal for a visit given that the observatory goes into full solar observation mode while the sun shines bright well past 10 p.m. (Solobservatoriet's original 39-foot-tall telescope tower will stay put as part of the expansion.) For dedicated stargazers, the temperate fall months seem to be most advantageous.
"You have all the different stars coming up and you have different constellations, galaxies and star clusters visible in the autumn versus the springtime," says Rekka. "It doesn't matter when you visit — there's always something to see."
Beam us up, Snøhetta.