The First Light Pavilion: Architecture and the Sky

Our First Light Pavilion is nearly complete – the building at least, there is still an exhibition to create! – and we are starting to see the ideas that we talked about, well over 10 years ago, become real.

After years of seeing flat drawings and artist’s impressions on screens and paper, there is now a huge, three-dimensional, object in the landscape of the gardens at Jodrell Bank.

How it started… (Artist’s impression)
Image: HASSELL Studio
How its going… (Latest site image)
Image: Kier Construction

Now we can walk around it and look at it from every side, it has taken us back from focusing on the details (wall finishes, fittings, doors, signage etc) to the ‘Big Ideas’ that we had right at the very start of the project in 2008, when we started to plan, persuade and raise funds.

The Big Ideas

Our beloved Lovell Telescope

The building now sits in the Jodrell Bank gardens, waiting for grass seed to be sown so that it can become the green hill that we are expecting.

Invisibly, we know that the diameter of the hill is 76metres. It’s no accident that this is the diameter of the dish of the giant Lovell Telescope….

Image: Craig Strong

That means that people who visit can get a real sense of the size of the Telescope (which is often difficult to realise, when it’s set apart in its own compound, or seen from the hills!).

What’s in a name?

The evocative name for our new building (The First Light Pavilion) has lots of meaning for us.

Of course, there’s obviously the idea of first light each day at dawn, signifying new beginnings – which chimes well with our building celebrating a new beginning in science. Our story of the emergence of radio astronomy charts a new chapter for astronomy as a whole.

Then there’s the idea of first light in the Universe – associated with the Big Bang, the echoes of which persist in the Cosmic Microwave Background studied by our astrophysicists.

And First Light is actually a semi-technical term, a very poetic way of referring to the moment when all the ‘bits’ (be they lenses, mirrors, reflectors or receivers) of a new telescope align for the first time and ‘light’ travels through to the observer from the distant object they are observing, far out across space to create an astronomical image.

Our new gallery and exhibition tells the story of ‘First Light’ at Jodrell Bank – the way in which all the ‘bits’ were assembled, by design, chance and determination, to create the world-leading Observatory here today.

Alignments

One of the first things that we thought about the building was that it had to be ‘in the tradition’ of other structures that people have created, over millennia, to express our relationship to the sky.

The world famous stone circle at Stonehenge, in England, aligns with the rising sun at dawn on the midsummer solstice. This is part of a much wider collection of structures spread over many square miles. The site developed over thousands of years, from around 3500BC to 1500BC and there is a lot still to discover about its story.

Image: Historic England

Newgrange, in Ireland, has a stone passage tomb, which is aligned so that the rising sun at the winter solstice shines down the passage and into the tomb chamber. Like Stonehenge, this is also part of a much wider complex of structures and alignments over the ‘Bend of the Boyne’ river UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Image: UNESCO

In a similar way, Maeshow, in Orkney is home to a series of Neolithic structures, over 5,000 years old, which include a chambered tomb aligned so that the light of sunset at the winter solstice shines down a similar passageway into the tomb chamber inside the mound.

In Chankillo, in Peru, the top of a ridge was modified around 500-200BC in order to mark the sunrise and sunset as it appeared at different times during an entire year.

Image: UNESCO

There are many more examples of this, old and new, so when we were thinking about our new building we had a lot to consider.

One example, however, really appealed to us. The idea of a solar Meridian line, where the midday sun shines through an aperture in a building and aligns with markings inside (either on the floor or perhaps a wall).

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of examples of these across Europe and the world, ranging from one that was quite an ‘intervention’ in the Cathedral of my own home town of Durham to the Cathedral in Bologna. Tim O’Brien has written a blog on the subject, which charts some of our research.

Rather than creating an ‘intervention’ after our First Light Pavilion was finished (as many of the meridian lines in cathedrals and other buildings do), we decided that we would work in the earlier tradition of aligning the whole structure of the building with the sky. Our architects Oliver Kampshoff, Julian Gitsham and Gary Collins, have worked tirelessly with us to understand exactly what we wanted from the building.

So – the building points due South, and has a single, slim vertical window right in the middle of its front face.

Image: Kier Construction

The window acts like a sundial, creating a finger of light that moves across the floor and walls of the foyer space inside.

At local noon at Jodrell Bank, when the sun is at its highest, the light line sits right in the centre of the entrance space inside, connecting the interior of the building to our star, the Sun.

Once the building is commissioned, we will mark the point at which the sun hits the floor at high noon on midsummer’s day.

This year, 2021, while the building isn’t quite finished, we are visiting site to see how the configuration performs (weather permitting, of course).

Once the new First Light Pavilion is open in 2022, we look forward to welcoming you to Jodrell Bank, when you can watch the progress of the light line for yourselves.

Look forward to seeing you then!

Teresa Anderson
18-06-21