by Sid Feddema

Just 30 miles north of Oslo and you’re in proper storybook forest. Towering spruce in every direction, crowns framing a wash of stars. A primeval beauty that spawned folktales of wolves and fauns and witches. Ensconced in a clearing within this forest is the Harestua Solar Observatory, Norway’s largest astronomical facility. Built in 1954, it’s maintained a proud history of discovery (this is where solar storms were first discovered), bearing an outsized influence on astronomy despite the country’s small population. 

In typical Scandi-utopian form the observatory has long offered public engagement, though for a visiting schoolbus of unruly kids with short attention spans there isn’t exactly a ton of excitement to be found—the observatory is more research facility than wonderland. That will change in 2020, when the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta unveils their reinterpretation of the site. 

Since they won their first commission for a reimagining of the legendary Alexandria Library in 1989, and in a series of high profile projects since—a redesign of the pedestrian experience at Times Square, an expansion to SFMOMA, a home for the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet—Snøhetta has designed buildings that look like fragments of a future we probably won’t be lucky enough to get. They’re idealistic and beautiful, clean and otherworldly, with a vernacular all their own. The Harestua observatory project is a perfect pairing for the firm’s aesthetic, not least because it’s located right in their backyard—Snøhetta is based in Oslo. 

The final design both respects and transcends the site. Visitors in 2020 will emerge from the forest to encounter a huge golden orb, half-planted in the ground and hooded with earth, like some fallen artifact from an alien civilization. The orb will hold a state of the art 100-seat planetarium, a café, and exhibition space. Around it a series of globes are scattered amidst the trees, in a layout that references the orbital patterns of solar systems. These “planets” will offer lodging for students and visitors, providing children from the city a chance to sleep beneath the stars.

According to Rikard Jaucis, an architect at Snøhetta, consideration for the location and surroundings is an integral facet of the project. “That’s one of the main design philosophies within our company. Even though the planetarium will look like an otherworldly object that somehow landed on Earth, you need to embed it locally. We wanted to have the forest floor embrace this shining golden dome, to get this juxtaposition between the local and outer space,” he tells me, full of enthusiasm. “Using local materials and using inspiration from the site was really important to us and something we worked a lot on, nestling these different design elements and different architectural forms within the site.”

Equally important, for both Snøhetta and the researchers, is increasing public access to the center. “It’s exciting to have a planetarium this close to Oslo, especially one that’s planned to be as open as this one is, welcoming all visitors, with educational purposes and places to sleep so people can spend significant time there,” Jaucis says. As with all of Snøhetta’s projects, which unite design, art, architecture, and landscaping into one vision, the planetarium is a collaborative project. “We have a word that we often use here—‘transdisciplinary’—because within our office we have landscape architects, we have interior architects, designers, graphic designers… a lot of different people and educational backgrounds. We always try to work collaboratively and communicate with each other throughout the process.” 

The planetarium is just one of many future-facing projects in Snøhetta’s ledger. Always pushing against the impossible, they’re in the works on an underwater restaurant and the first energy-positive hotel, which will be located above the Arctic Circle. Let’s just hope our global future ends up as bright and beautiful as their buildings.

Written by Sid Feddema 

Architectural renderings courtesy Snøhetta and Plompmozes