The Residencia is a hotel for staff and guests at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in northern Chile. Located in an extremely remote and desolate section of the Atacama desert, the Residencia was designed by the German architecture firm Auer + Weber as a sanctuary in an environment that has never supported life. The L-shaped building was dug into the ground as if to conceal its presence, presenting profoundly different faces depending on the approach. From the road entrance out front the Residencia is practically invisible; from the observatory on the mountain's top all that's seen is the skylight dome. And from the open desert the building could be a mirage: a long, flat brick wedged between two hills like a step into the star-filled sky.
Auer + Weber's primary design challenge was to create an oasis for Paranal's staff who work under severe conditions (night shifts, extended isolation from family and friends, harsh weather). The site is not unlike an Antarctic or science fiction lunar colony -- a lonely outpost in a hostile, inhuman terrain. Auer + Weber's solution was to integrate the building into the surrounding landscape while subduing the desert's harsh edges by creating long, cavernous public spaces that echo the openness of the desert, enclosed by dark earth tones that produce a cozy and secure effect. A swimming pool in the central atrium provides humidity to counteract the dehydrating pressure of the desert air and doubles as an exercise outlet. There are trees and plants throughout the building that surprisingly give refuge to birds who have managed to nest alongside the astronomers. Though the desert outside looks like Mars, the interior spaces provide the kind of relaxed luxury that feels like the pinnacle of Earth-based civilization.
A few years ago the Residencia was featured as the bad-guy lair in the James Bond movie QUANTUM OF SOLACE and it's easy to see why. Like the best Bond architecture, there's an impossible quality to the building that asks how such a strange luxury could exist in so barren a desert. In the end, though, the Residencia was designed for astronomers, not megalomaniacs, for people working for the sake of humanity and not to exploit it. It feels right then that such work can be supported by so marvelous and serene a place.
At dusk automated shades on all the windows close to prevent light leakage that would disrupt the nearby observatory's work. There are always reminders that this is a place for work. Inside, sealed off from the alien desert, busy preparations for the night's activities: conversations over dinner in the cantina; reviewing emails in the lobby; checking data in the archives. Outside, except for the wind, is silence. The horizon, like the sky above, is a darkening mystery. Sit on the terrace and watch the sun set behind mountains of red dirt and dream of other worlds.