The Biggest Astronomy Museum in the World Is Opening in Shanghai — and We Spoke to the Architect

The design of this cosmic museum is out of this world.

If you woke up one morning at the brand-new Shanghai Astronomy Museum, you'd be forgiven for thinking you might have somehow traveled across the universe to an alien city, or at the very least, onto the Hollywood set of the latest space flick. But no, this isn't science fiction, nor is it a soundstage—this is the Earth's largest astronomy museum, and it's an otherworldly spectacle.

Designed by Thomas J. Wong of Ennead Architects, the Shanghai Astronomy Museum, opening July 18, is a master lesson in the architecture idiom "form follows function." Every single part of the 420,000-square-foot complex has been designed with the cosmos in mind, which is made even more impressive by the fact that Wong is not an astronomer or astrophysicist. (He did, however, take an astronomy elective at Cornell University when he was studying architecture.)

"Over the past two decades, I have had a growing interest in the scientific aspects of the natural world, largely stemming from research as a function of architectural commissions," Wong told Travel +Leisure, noting that Ennead's work on the Natural History Museum of Utah immersed him in such fields of study as paleontology, biology, and geology, among others.

Shanghai Museum
Courtesy of ArchExists

That curiosity about the universe, however, was founded long before Wong became an architect. "I can remember going to Cape Canaveral as a kid and being awestruck by the Saturn V rocket, loving the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, and left speechless by the amazing views of the universe at the time of the Hubble [Space] Telescope launch," he said. "I've never forgotten the first planetarium I went to when I was young and the feeling I had upon leaving when I looked back up at the sky. The complexity and the mystery have always left me wanting to know more."

Shanghai Museum
Courtesy of ArchExists

Fortunately for Wong, the Shanghai Astronomy Museum project provided him a chance to explore astronomy in a professional context, albeit through the lens of an architect's eye rather than a telescope. The Ennead team immersed themselves in the world of astronomy, researching complex scientific concepts and interviewing experts in order to more fully understand the museum's mission.

"Given the enormous potential of the science of astronomy to inspire, we zeroed in on some pretty cool phenomena: the relationship of our concept of time with orbital motion, the continuous motion of our universe, the complexity of that motion as represented by the three-body problem," he said. (The three-body problem is a physics problem that studies the gravitational pull of celestial bodies.)

Shanghai Museum
Courtesy of ArchExists

The Ennead design team then translated those three concepts into the architecture of the Shanghai Astronomy Museum, which is indelibly linked to the motion of celestial bodies—in fact, the entire building is designed without straight lines or right angles, creating a sense of movement within the static buildings. But it's not just implied motion that's worked into the design. One of the museum's main architectural features is the Oculus, which serves as a sundial; as the sun moves across the sky, a circle of sunlight tracks time on a calendar set into the floor.

Then there's the Sphere, home to the planetarium theater, which appears not only to rise like the moon over the horizon as you approach it but also to hover as if supported by some sort of anti-gravity machine. And finally, there's the Inverted Dome, a rooftop amphitheater of sorts that connects visitors with the sky, reached via a spiraling ramp that has visitors mimic the orbit of a planet as they ascend and descend.

"Winning the commission for the Shanghai Astronomy Museum was exceptionally exciting as it gave me a chance to dive in and learn more about a longstanding interest," Wong said. "Even though it's been several years on the project, I would still consider myself a complete amateur! I have such respect for those working in this field and expanding our body of knowledge about what is beyond the earth."

Stefanie Waldek is a freelance space, travel, and design journalist. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @stefaniewaldek.

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