Published in 2a Magazine issue #45 – Summer 2020
َAlexandre Koyré argued that, with the modern scientific and philosophical revolution of the 17th century, man “lost his place in the world, or, more
correctly perhaps, lost the very world in which he was living and about which he was thinking … Koyré describes this process as “the destruction of the Cosmos. Inspired by the seemingly infinite potential of the celestial sphere, we have built up cities which project the heavens onto the landscape. The new urban lightscape has effectively erased the stars from our lived experience. This disruption of natural order has drastic ecological implications, but it also poses less quantifiable threats including a broad cultural displacement and the loss of a direct experience of the night sky as part of our shared human heritage. For ancient cultures, the stars were the subject of intense observation, artistic representation, and religious ritual. Today, astronomy remains a means of searching for answers about our origins and our place within the expanse of the cosmos. This was the primary focus of the Starlight Reserve Concept, developed in 2009 by UNESCO’s Astronomy and World Heritage Initiative. UNESCO’s emphasis on cultural preservation was later integrated into the 2015 International Dark Sky Association’s Dark Sky Reserve guidelines through a requirement for public accessibility and educational programming. Using the Dark Sky Reserve guidelines as a base, this the oretical project proposes the design of an astronomical observatory and researchers’ housing in Death Valley National Park as a vehicle for exploring issues of cultural memory and bodied perception. It engages architecture’s role in preserving core aspects of our humanity and in crafting territories of resistance through envisioning alternative paths for future development.
Although Death Valley has one of the darkest skies in the National Park system, it is threatened by increasing light pollution from Las Vegas. With its status as a National Park and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Death Valley’s mission aligns with the core values outlined in the Starlight Reserve Concept of protecting cultural and natural conditions related to the darkness of the night sky. The Concept maintains that a Reserve should place education about the importance of darkness and its value as part of human tradition as one of its primary goals. This emphasis ultimately shaped the programming and development of the proposed project.
The Racetrack Playa, a dry lakebed, has the darkest skies in the park and served as the starting point in siting the Reserve. To reach the Racetrack, one must depart from the main Visitor’s Center at Scotty’s Castle and journey 28 miles south down Crater Road to arrive at a crossroads known as Teakettle Junction. The land sits untouched apart from the lonely signpost pointing the way to Hunter Mountain and the Racetrack beyond. On it hang dozens of tea kettles, worn down by the harsh sun. Except for faint tire tracks, the kettles are the only remaining trace of previous human interaction with the desert. Even so, its location brings almost every visitor to the park right past this point. Dark Sky Reserves are comprised of three radiating zones (Figure 1). The core zone is at the heart of the reserve and represents the primary space of darkness protection. The Racetrack is the proposed core zone. No outdoor artificial lighting is permitted in this area. An observatory harboring two telescopes is positioned here. Guided tours will bring visitors through the observatory site, giving them a chance to experience the Reserve at peak darkness and to learn from the astronomers in residence. The buffer zone surrounds the core, protecting it from damaging light, air, and noise pollution. A Visitor’s Center and Astronomers’ Housing are positioned within this zone at Teakettle Junction. No cars are permitted beyond this point, and the Playa will be accessible only by electric shuttle. The external zone provides additional isolation from major sources of light emission that could encroach on the Reserve. This area extends all the way to Las Vegas, and cities within it are engaged in the Reserve’s outreach efforts and encouraged to adopt their own lighting management plans, slowly expanding the territory of the Reserve outward.
The new facility at Teakettle Junction is pulled northeast of Crater Road, preserving the historic signpost and open view into the desert beyond. It includes a parking area and gallery for visitors in addition to a residence for the Observatory Director five units for visiting researchers, a communal space and the permanent research and equipment archive (Figure 2). The structure grows out of the landscape. The walls are composed of rammed earth, and the roof is planted with creosote and sage, linking it materially to the surrounding wash (Figure 3).
2:38 pm. The Explorer wakesfour hours to sunset. Rolling over, unlocking the hatch. Rote memory Sunlight (starlight] pours in washing the Night from his eyes. His day begins nowfour hours to nightrise.
The researchers’ rooms have bedside skylights which can be opened in the afternoon on their waking. The units are oriented toward the nightrise with a clerestory window diffusing northeastern light across a simple work surface. Light monitors direct southern light to a point just behind this desk, warming the researcher as he or she sits to write (Figure 4). The walls of the passageway leading from the residential wing to the common space contain cuts angled to reveal sunlight as the researchers leave after waking but conceal it as they return to sleep. 6:38 pm. Night is coming. They gather in the courtyard-polished stone To watch the dusky browns ignite, dancing across the walls Immersed for a few moments by the wild fire of the Star’s death throes Each night it collides with the mountains Supernova Magnifying color before erasing it entirely.The courtyard is oriented toward the sunset and the distant observatory to the southwest. Its walls and floor are polished and angled to reflect the light and color of the valley, and it is lined with planters that pull the desert up into the space (Figure 5). The common room serves as an extension of the courtyard into the dwelling. It is anchored and separated from the dining area by a stone hearth. The adjacent dining room opens up to the night rising as the researchers come together to share a meal before taking a shuttle south to the Racetrack 8:59 pm. Light fades, yellow to orange to blue. They have been earthbound, trapped by the sun ’til now when the night brings their freedom. From beneath the sage they emerge traveling deeper into the desertdeeper into the darkness.
9:00 pm. Visitors leave their vehicles parked in the small dirt lot and enter the welcome center. The exhibition here explains the role astronomy played in the region’s Native cultures and features a series of installations by artists examining the bodied perception of darkness. Once night has fallen, visitors meet with the Director, who accompanies them to the observatory by electric shuttle. A wall of black stone weaves in and out of the earth, marking the passage to the Racetrack. To maintain the Racetrack’s delicate surface, the observatory is positioned at the former adjacent gravel parking area. There are two domes-one housing the primary research telescope and the other for public outreach and the Director’s ongoing research (Figures 6 and 7).
9:30 pm. From the shuttle dock, visitors enter the observatory grounds through a slippage in the black stone wall and follow the Director into the public telescope dome. Internal lighting is controlled to preserve their night vision. The visitors’ path follows a continuous wall, its corners rounded so they can navigate simply by dragging a hand along the cool concrete. The Director tells them about the telescope and what is visible in the sky that night. Lights recessed between the concrete retaining wall and metal telescope enclosure diffuse a subtle low around the pdop of the space The floor is polished to reflect the sidereal light coming in through the dome’s aperture.
10:00 pm. The Visitors continue down a ramp into the next space. They are left in the dark for seven minutes. Slowly they begin to distinguish the curvature of the room. The Director adjusts the telescope, and suddenly the sky outside is projected across the surface of the space. The visitors are immersed in the world of the astronomers (Figure 8).
10:30 pm. The projection shuts off, and they ascend up a final ramp toward the sky. When they reach the surface the Director is waiting for them. They sit together on the mound of the domes, looking south as the galaxy awakes from its daytime slumber to arch its back in open defiance of the city lights over the horizon.
As Koyré observed, we are a culture in crisis. We have lost not only our place in the cosmos but our ability to sense the world clearly. The architecture described here demonstrates resistance by seeking connection over separation and by providing opportunities for a sensual engagement with and participation in the realities and mysteries of the given world. Dan Duriscoe argues that the protection of the night sky is an essential component of the “wilderness ethic” mandated in the Wilderness Act of 1964. He notes that, while much contemporary astronomical study is conducted via space-based satellite, “firsthand observations are exceedingly important to the development of values, philosophies, and matters of a spiritual nature. This touches on the ethical imperative of retaining bodied experience within our increasingly technologically mediated culture. The Death Valley Dark Sky Reserve allows visitors to participate directly in astronomical rituals and the preservation of the sky. Judith Wasserman notes, “A more social view of the sacred and sacred place is that which holds specific rituals carried out for individual or communal well being. To this end, the Dark Sky Reserve preserves the ritual of astronomy in order to maintain access to shared spaces for bodied encounters of natural light and darkness. It provides an anchor for cultural memory and sensory engagement by tapping the human capacity to experience wonder.