In the undisturbed countryside of Harestua – about 30 miles (48 km) north of Oslo, Norway – a road winds through a dense corridor of 65-foot-tall spruce trees.
There’s darkness ahead and swirling galaxies above.
At the end of the star-lit road, a celestial golden dome rests atop a snow-capped hill, where uninterrupted views of the horizon stretch in all directions.
That’s the vision for design studio Snøhetta’s otherworldly planetarium and “constellation” lodges, which will join the Harestua Solar Observatory – Norway’s largest astronomical facility – in 2020.
The ambitious facilities aim to provide a place where travelers and students can observe the world’s natural wonders.
“This magical landscape has inspired so many folktales in Norway that we grew up with,” Vegard Lundby Rekaa, lead astronomer of Tycho Brahe Institute (which manages the observatory), tells CNN Travel.
“You have the valleys, the hills, the forests, the stars – it’s all part of the experience.”
A star-studded history
Home to the largest solar observatory north of the Alps, Harestua Solar Observatory is already on the map for astronomers, academics and enthusiasts.
The facility was founded in the 1950s by the University of Oslo and is still an active research center.
“Norway isn’t a very big country, in a research sense,” says Rekaa. “We’re few people, but nevertheless, they were creative and clever, and they built an observatory for solar physics, which turned out to [be one of] the world’s most foremost observatories in the ’60s.”
The center has been credited with several techniques and discoveries over the years, including the spectrograph – used for observing and analyzing the sun – and the discovery of solar storms.
As part of the immersive experience, visitors can experiment with the institute’s instruments, including an enormous telescope that stretches 65 feet in diameter.
With Snøhetta’s new additions, the astronomy center will be even more accessible to travelers, thanks to an innovative planetarium and overnight accommodations.
“This is going to be an educational experience, and the architecture is part of the education, a part of the story,” Rikard Jaucis, a Snøhetta architect, tells CNN Travel.
“We want people to come here without feeling like they’re in a classroom.”
Building new worlds
Snøhetta’s overarching design concept borrows from various principles of astronomy.
As a result, the aerial view resembles a solar system, with the 16,145-square-foot planetarium at the center.
“We have this endless bag of natural [phenomena] to collect inspiration from,” says Jaucis.
“The planetarium’s dome, for example, will be engraved with constellations. It looks a bit extraterrestrial, as if it belongs somewhere else. At the same time, it’s wrapped around with the landscape and rooted in the earth.”
Arching over the landscape, the gold cupola is a nod to the world’s first planetarium, built by Archimedes around 250 BCE.
Snøhetta plans to incorporate a living roof – covered in grass and moss – that visitors will be able to stroll across as they please.
Underground, there’s another surprise.
“When you go to a planetarium, you usually only use the upper half of the dome to project the sky. But we wanted to use the lower part as well,” says Jaucis.
“So we have created a kind of bowl-shaped room. It’s intended for children to play, but the scientists can also use it for experiments.”
Night under the stars
For overnight guests, Snøhetta has designed seven “constellation” cabins which seem to orbit around the planetarium.
Accommodating anywhere from two to 35 people, each pod will have a distinct personality – one might be made of glass, another of wood.
“We have also considered the relationship to the ground. Some will be elevated as if hovering, others will be half-sunken into the earth, or tangentially touching – as if it was landing,” says Jaucis.
No matter the design, each will have a viewing platform to ensure uninterrupted views of the sky above, and grazing sheep below.
“How we place the windows will be super important, because every cabin should have a clear, unobstructed view of the sky,” says Jaucis.
“The landscape is beautiful, too. In the middle of a dense forest, you have this beautiful clearing in the woods that has a significant, emotional feeling about it.”
Preparing for takeoff
While winter offers the darkest nights for star-gazing, it’s not the only viable season to visit.
“You have big variations in Norway from summer to winter. In summer, you have beautiful night skies but it doesn’t really get that dark – even at midnight,” says Rekaa.
“That time of year, we spend more time focusing on the sun. it’s a solar observatory and we use the telescopes to observe sunspots and solar storms.”
Come winter, Rekaa suggests settling into your cabin and awaiting the aurora borealis.
“It’s like your favorite art just dropping straight above you, and not even standing still. It’s in motion and surprising you constantly,” he says.
“It’s always at a time when you least expect it, so that is a source of frustration of tourists coming all the way to see it. They don’t really know when it comes, or if it comes.”
While you’re less likely to catch the Northern Lights on the shoulder seasons, Rekaa says the climate at these times is much more comfortable.
“Autumn is not too cold, yet it’s still quite dark,” says Rekaa. “You have all the different stars coming up and you have different constellations, galaxies and star clusters visible in the autumn versus the springtime.”
“It doesn’t matter when you visit – there’s always something to see.”