Every year in elementary school, our class would visit the local planetarium – and every year we’d see the same show. The presentation was automated, pre-recorded, and never changed.
The planetarium presented our universe as an object – a dead, dusty diorama; as immutable as it was distant. We left bored, sleepy, and more convinced than ever that nothing up there had anything to do with our lives down here.
The planetarium I propose takes a radically different approach: Gone is the pre-recorded lecture, dim lighting, and dreamy music – even the dome above. My planetarium would not merely gesture at the sky as “that thing out there.” My planetarium would point into the visitors, into their purpose, and ask them to confront their very existence.
Architects of the past have imagined the planetarium as little more than a specialized theater. And, like a theater, its space instructs visitors to forget where they are; forget the people around them; to lie back and watch the show. But now that virtual reality can deliver a more radical and absorbing experience than any traditional planetarium could, it suddenly dawns on us that the planetarium was always, in some sense, an empty architectural artifact. At best, the styling of its exterior would attract visitors; yet once inside, they could be anywhere – and thus, were nowhere.
My planetarium would deliver an experience that virtual reality could not. Its design will not allow visitors to forget where they are, or the people around them. It uses architecture to frame the real sky – really, to reframe the sky, the same one they have seen every night of their lives. In doing so, visitors have a chance to leave with an expanding, inflating appreciation for the cosmos as well as the human universe, the community of visitors around them.
Indeed, the experience is complete only once the visitor has left, once the frame has been taken away, once they realize that there is no separation between them and the universe; between themselves and each other.
Now compare this graceful, meaningful exit to the bleary-eyed, blinding ejection from a typical planetarium!
Rather than standing out proudly against the backdrop of a city, my planetarium exists in a forest, hidden humbly among the trees. As we move through the building, we change perspectives: visitors enter a small gate into a long corridor punctured by skylights, ferrying them further and further underground, down to the lowest level.
The base of the planetarium tectonically mimics the compressions and distortions of gravity as it propagates through spacetime. Down here, staff holds classes and workshops, using the building itself as a working model.
Above, a large platform spatially implies observing: Visitors look down at the people below and begin to subconsciously identify with the stars above.
Finally, on the ground level, the visitors are reintroduced to the sky, framed by the elevator, an axis mundi and sundial, then they are led slowly, gently back out into the forest, the Earth, and the rest of their lives.