ArchExists, courtesy Ennead Architects

In 2014, New York–based Ennead Architects won an international competition to design the Shanghai Astronomy Museum, a new branch of the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum in Lingang, China. For its proposal, the design team brainstormed five different concepts over four intense months of research and experimentation. The team then wiped the slate clean and synthesized elements of each concept into its final concept. "In a sense, we designed this building six times," Ennead design partner Thomas Wong, AIA, tells ARCHITECT.

Thomas Wong
courtesy Ennead Architects Thomas Wong

Opened to the public on July 18, the 420,000-square-foot structure—the world's largest astronomy museum—is a geometrically precise embodiment of celestial physics. Drawing inspiration from planetary form and motion, Ennead divided the museum into three main architectural spaces—Oculus, Inverted Dome, and Sphere—inspired by the sun, the moon, and the stars. The floorplan creates pathways through these elements, allowing visitors to orbit the museum's Inverted Dome, a glass tension structure hovering above the central atrium that provides visitors with a clear view of the sky above. The gold-paneled Oculus reflects and tracks sunlight above the museum's main entry, and the Sphere houses the structure's planetarium.

Wong gave ARCHITECT a behind-the-scenes look at the otherworldly project.

ArchExists, courtesy Ennead Architects
courtesy Ennead Architects

ARCHITECT: What were the challenges of realizing such a formally unique project?
Wong: The geometry was one of the most challenging aspects of the project, but not because these forms are particularly unique or infinitely complex. Plenty of recent buildings have far more extreme geometric propositions. But the challenge was seamlessly integrating the project's formal language and underlying logic with the primary systems of the building: structure, circulation, spatial sequence. In other words, we did not first develop a primary building shape and later figure out what hidden scaffolding was needed to support the shape. The two were conceived together.

While most in our profession would agree that seamless integration is one of the hallmarks of a true work of architecture, it is far easier said than done and is the central challenge of an ambitious geometry. Fortunately, we were largely successful, as evident in the eccentric stance of the concrete tripod as if the rotational forces of the spiraling ramp push it slightly off balance while holding up the tension structure of the Inverted Dome; or as is conceived in the interstitial space between the concrete dome, which supports the Sphere, and the ribbons of the outer façade, a space that houses major mechanical systems and distribution, like the life-support systems of the International Space Station clipped to the outer edges of the precious, interior conditioned space.

ArchExists, courtesy Ennead Architects Cantilevered entry with golden Oculus

One of the most challenging structural features was the heroic cantilever at the entry—not only because it is more than 130 feet long, but also because we achieved that cantilever with something that was integrated with the building form. Originally, the structural engineers were proposing conventional, straight steel trusses that extended off a giant concrete pier, but we kept fighting back since that approach conflicted with the overall geometry of the architectural parti. We worked with our local design-institute partner to arrive at a curved-belt truss solution that tightly follows the geometry of the building nose.

courtesy Ennead Architects Building section

Can you elaborate more on the design intent? What inspired your work?
We wanted to create a physical space that made evident some of the astronomical truths that allow for our existence on this planet. Civilizations of the past have utilized the built environment to achieve this, displaying an attuned reliance on the astronomical phenomena that shaped their very existence.

Unfortunately, modern life has detached most of us from that elemental bond, particularly for those living in dense urban areas like Shanghai or New York. Situated within this contemporary context, 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 of our universe.

Consequently, a foundational design concept was shaping the architecture around astrophysical realities and abstractly embodying some of the phenomena and laws of astrophysics that are the rule in space. One fundamental notion became a primary source of inspiration: the fact that the entire universe is in a state of perpetual motion. The building design draws form from that dynamic energy—from the accelerating and expanding galaxies to the complex gravitational relationships of multiple astronomical entities acting upon each other.

ArchExists, courtesy Ennead Architects The Inverted Dome

What did you hope to convey to visitors? How do you hope visitors might experience your design?
We wanted our design to spark curiosity about the many known and unknown wonders of space and impart some of the excitement we experienced as we delved into this topic during the design process. It was important to create a building that would further the educational mission of the institution and seamlessly integrate with the subject matter itself. We wanted the building to have a role in the learning process.

From start to finish, the entire experience is meant to place visitors in a purposeful and direct engagement with real astronomical phenomena, emphasizing the relationship between human and sky, with the hope it will inspire an interest in protecting and preserving this thin layer of atmosphere that allows life to happen on this planet.

Above all, we wanted to deliver an experience that inspires, one that somehow provides a tiny mirror of the magnificent wonder that is space—a veritable "Cosmic Cathedral," a phrase Jim Polshek, FAIA, coined at the opening of the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York more than 20 years ago. With the Shanghai Astronomy Museum, my hope was to create a physical setting that reminded visitors of a shared universal perspective, providing scale and context of where we humans sit in relation to what is beyond our planet. As much as we hope people leave the museum looking upward and thinking about the sky, we hope they are also thinking about the rare fortune of our unique and fragile planet and how we might better care for it.

ArchExists, courtesy Ennead Architects The Oculus with mirrored gold, stainless panels

How did the material selections reflect your design intent?
The building’s material palette is quite simple: concrete, glass fiber reinforced concrete, and anodized aluminum façade panels. We wanted to stay relatively restrained and keep the materials elemental—a combination of the raw and muscular with the machined and refined. Much of the palette, especially on the interior, is white abstracted forms that heighten the perceptions of light upon the variety of spatial constructs.

For the museum exterior, a key design idea was to render the building as simultaneously grounded and earthbound while espousing a dynamic momentum that defies gravity and projects uplift. To support this idea, reinforced concrete and GFRC panels clad one of the ribbons of the façade connecting the building to our planet as if rising out of the earth. This sits in direct contrast to the anodized aluminum cladding of the other façade ribbon—precisely crafted and abstractly shimmery through the faceted faces that resolve the curving geometry—and deliver the upward reach of the building’s cantilever.

We could not resist finishing the Oculus—an astronomical instrument at the front entry tied to an encounter with our sun—with mirrored gold, stainless panels. It seemed appropriate as a monument to our star, and [it creates] a magnificent ethereal light that reflects and wafts through the plaza from within, visible in some of the photos and time-lapses.

ArchExists, courtesy Ennead Architects Inside the Dome

Were any sustainable strategies incorporated into the project?
The building achieved a three-star rating within China’s Green Building System framework, which is the highest level a structure can attain. From a performance standpoint, the museum was designed to integrate geothermal wells as a ground-source heat exchanger, in addition to having a high-performance rainscreen façade system that minimizes vapor- and air-infiltration as well as maintains [the continuity of] insulation barriers. The building’s energy efficiency is also helped by a low window-to-wall ratio, minimizing thermal loss and radiant heat gain from solar exposure.

ArchExists, courtesy Ennead Architects
ArchExists, courtesy Ennead Architects

What else would you like to add?
At the end of the day, the museum is meant to inspire more questions than it answers: What is 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 of science? What have we yet to discover? Eventually, such questions pivot toward self-reflection: What are we—humans and all other life on our planet—in relation to everything else?

As the building opens and is launched into the world, this remains one of the primary goals that informed the design of the Shanghai Astronomy Museum: the need to expand the modern human perspective, to encourage a view beyond our fabricated construct, to create an experience that strengthens our awareness of the realm beyond our planet. Ultimately, we hope the project illuminates our place in the universe, instills a sense of humility, and promotes a call to action—since we know what Carl Sagan has said is true: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

ArchExists, courtesy Ennead Architects
ArchExists, courtesy Ennead Architects
ArchExists, courtesy Ennead Architects
courtesy Ennead Architects
courtesy Ennead Architects

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.