China has certainly been making its growing power and influence felt in recent years, especially when it comes to the realm of space exploration and science. In the past ten years alone, China has deployed the three space stations with their Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) program, unveiled the Long March 5 heavy launch rocket, and sent robotic missions to the far side of the Moon and the surface of Mars.
Here on Earth, facilities like the Five hundred meter Aperture Space Telescope (FAST) illustrate China’s growing accomplishments in space and astronomy. And on Friday (July 16th), the largest museum in the world dedicated to the study of space – the Shanghai Astronomy Museum – will open its doors. The purpose and design of this museum is to highlight China’s accomplishments in space and astronomy, as well as the country’s future ambitions in space.
The design was conceived by Ennead Architects, a firm with offices in New York and Shanghai that won an international competition in 2014 for their inspired creation. Their previous work includes New York’s Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). At 39,000 m2 (420,000 ft2), this new branch of the Shanghai Science of Technology Museum (SSTM) will be the largest of its kind in the world.
Architect’s impression of the museum at night. Credit: Ennead Architects
Inspired by the orbits of celestial bodies and the geometry of the cosmos, the layout of the SAM has no straight lines or right angles. According to Thomas J. Wong, a partner at Ennead and the museum’s lead designer, it was also inspired by the “three-body problem,” an as-of-yet unresolved question in classical physics of how to calculate the motion of three celestial bodies.
It is also the title of the novel written by celebrated Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin, which was released in 2008 (translated into English in 2014) and is the first installment in his Remembrance of Earth’s Past series (which deals with extraterrestrials). As Wong explained in a video interview with CNN about the project:
“We really thought that we could leverage the architecture to bring incredible impact to this whole experience. The building is meant to be this embodiment of … astronomically inspired architecture. The reason why we thought the three-body problem was interesting is because it’s a complex set of orbits. (These are) relationships that are dynamic, as opposed to a simple circle around the center. And that was part of the (design’s) intent – to capture that complexity.”
According to Ennead’s website, the structure’s complex curvilinear shape is formed from three overlapping arcs, which is symbolic of how the museum is a celebration of “the continuum of time and space.” It also symbolizes a connection to the past and the future, being a modern “forward-looking” structure representative of China’s future ambitions in space, and a connection to China’s long history of astronomy.
The Oculus and reflecting pool in the museum’s entryway. Credit: Ennead Architects
“In linking the new Museum to both scientific purpose and to the celestial references of buildings throughout history, said Wong, “the exhibits and architecture will communicate more than scientific content: they will illuminate what it means to be human in a vast and largely unknown universe.”
In Wong’s design, the geometry of the cosmos is conveyed through three arcing shapes: the Oculus, the Sphere, and the