Jodrell Bank Observatory: Control Building
- Heritage Category:
- Listed Building
- List Entry Number:
- Date first listed:
- Statutory Address:
- Jodrell Bank, Lower Withington, Macclesfield, SK11 9DL
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- Statutory Address:
- Jodrell Bank, Lower Withington, Macclesfield, SK11 9DL
The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
- Cheshire East (Unitary Authority)
- National Grid Reference:
University building for scientific research, 1954-1955, of red-brown brick with concrete dressings, architect unknown, for Sir Bernard Lovell, with early extensions and later C20 alterations.
Reasons for Designation
The Control Building at Jodrell Bank Observatory, a scientific research building of 1954-1955 with early extensions and later C20 alterations, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Historic interest: as the site of several landmark achievements in detecting and tracking objects in space, most notably the carrier rocket for the soviet Sputnik 1 satellite (the world’s first extra-terrestrial vehicle) on 11 October 1957, and the Lunik II rocket in 1959;
* Design quality: in particular for the plan-form with primacy for the centrally-sited control room overlooked by a gallery, and for the theatrical approach to the control room from the lobby with good quality bespoke features such as the curved-plan steps and bench;
* Degree of survival: notwithstanding numerous alterations and extensions, the essential character and finishes of several of the principal spaces remains, most notably the entrance lobby and the control room with its original cork-tiled floor and highly evocative U-shaped central control console;
* Group value: for its very strong functional and visual relationship with the Grade I listed Lovell Telescope.
The observatory at Jodrell Bank is one of the earliest planned sites for radio-telescopes in the world. As such it had a pivotal role in the development of the new science of radio astronomy which was one of the first steps towards modern Astrophysics, revolutionising our understanding of the Universe. The site was first used for academic purposes in 1939 when the University of Manchester's Botany Department purchased three fields in the Cheshire countryside covering around 11 acres. The earliest use of the site for radio astronomy occurred in December 1945, when Bernard Lovell, who worked for the university’s Physics Department, moved here to escape the radio interference that occurred in Manchester city centre. His first observations used ex-army radar equipment located at the south end of the site, close to two pre-existing botany huts. Subsequently his team expanded northwards with the continuing construction of more permanent buildings, and purpose-built aerials and telescopes to support their research. Jodrell Bank’s status as a world-class centre of ongoing scientific research continues to this day with the construction of the global headquarters for the Square Kilometre Array project linking hundreds of telescopes and aerials in South Africa and Western Australia.
The control building for the Lovell Telescope was begun in March 1954 and completed in August 1955, and on 25 August a symposium was held in the Lecture Room, under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union. (Sir) Bernard Lovell’s office was moved here from what is now known as the Electrical Workshop, and this room is retained. By late 1956 or early 1957, the equipment racks and control console were wired up and in position, and on 9 October 1957, the servo loop to the Lovell Telescope’s drive was completed, allowing automatic remote control of the telescope from the control room for the first time. That night, transmission of radar signals to the moon began in anticipation of tracking the carrier rocket for the soviet Sputnik 1 satellite. Control of the telescope was via a novel electro-mechanical analogue computer. The cathode ray tube displaying the returning Sputnik signals was set up in the lab of Dr Stanley and Dr JG Evans. It was via this display that the rocket was first detected on the night of 11 October and then tracked the next night as it passed over the Lake District. On 12 September 1959, at the request of the Russian team, the Lunik II rocket was also tracked to the moon, and in the Control Building JG Davies measured the Doppler shift caused by the moon’s gravity, a technique used in all subsequent moon approaches.
In July 1958, the US Air Force flew a trailer of equipment to the UK and installed it next to the control building, so that they could use the Lovell telescope to track their own space rockets (which the Guardian newspaper of 25 July called 'a telling tribute to the versatility and power of the great telescope'). This era of US space flight is not thought to be particularly significant in itself. However it did include the first pilot-controlled manned space flight, by Alan Shepherd, and laid the foundations for the manned missions to the moon. On July 1969, 'Eagle' (the lunar module of Apollo 11) was tracked in the control building using the 50ft telescope (no longer extant), providing independent verification of the successful landing.
The Americans also erected an antenna array with several helical aerials on it, fixed to a concrete pad to the west of the control building, for additional telemetry. Shortly afterwards this array was moved to the roof of the control building. A photograph shows it on the roof of what is now the reception room to the south of the lobby. As this helical antenna was removed from the roof in 1961, this room must have been added to the control building within five or six years of completion. Single-storey, semi-basement extensions around the control room must have been added in the same period, as they are shown in another photograph of 1961. It is possible that these phases of extension were planned earlier, as there are no architect’s drawings for the building and it is known that funding difficulties led to phasing decisions on the construction of the Lovell telescope itself, and so likely that the same applied to the control building. The requirements of the control building certainly evolved during the planning phase as the practicalities of operating a completely new type of instrument with enormous amounts of international co-operative work and media interest were thought through.
In 1964, a 50ft-diameter telescope was installed to the east of the southern wing, on a podium building of concrete. Soon afterwards, this building was attached to the original by a single-storey eastward extension of the south wing. In the late 1960s the main building was extended at the north on a cranked line in brick with timber panels, and the original north wing also extended eastward, in brick to match the original style, and probably reusing some external materials from the original east wall. In the 1970s, timber clad extensions were added to the roof of the south wing, to the south of the reception room, and to the north of the semi-basement extension around the control room. In 1982, the 50ft telescope was replaced, on the same mount, by a 42ft telescope, which is not included.
As part of the upgrade to the Lovell Telescope from 1967-1971, the analogue computer was replaced by the Ferranti Argus 104 digital computer that was first used to control the nearby Mark II Telescope. This has also now been replaced by state-of-the-art controls. However, the U-shaped central control console is the original, adapted for continued use, and the control room is otherwise relatively little-altered. Elsewhere in the control building alterations to the original rooms have largely been to the function and contents rather than to their essential character and finishes, although the installation of the processing computer and its cooling, for co-ordinating worldwide observations for Very Long Baseline Interferometry, did require some physical works.
University building for scientific research, 1955, architect unknown, for Sir Bernard Lovell, with early extensions and later C20 alterations.
MATERIALS: red-brown brick, and concrete.
PLAN: linear rectangular plan aligned roughly north-south, single-storey with central two-storey block, with rooftop additions.
EXTERIOR: standing to the south-east of the Lovell radio-telescope and linked to it at basement level by a tunnel (not included); the Control Building was sited just far enough away from the telescope to allow the operator of the telescope to view it fully from the control room.
The walls are of red-brown brick in Flemish bond, window surrounds of concrete, and windows of metal casement type, unless otherwise stated. The main entrance is in the east wall, in a short two-storey central block. The doors are reached by two steps with an adjacent modern access ramp* with handrails*. Two full-glazed timber doors are set in a glass-block surround and over-sailed by a concrete canopy, all highly characteristic of the period. Above the canopy are five equally-spaced square recesses, and a coped soldier-course parapet with modern safety barrier*. To the right is a single-storey block with a continuous glazed strip of ten windows, separated by mullions, each window being divided into nine lights of three sizes. At either end of the window are cast-iron hoppers and downpipes fed by chutes through the parapet. To the left of the entrance the ground floor is similar but with only a five-window strip. Above the window and a flashing strip sits a timber roof-top extension* with five smaller windows. To the left of these and set slightly back is a two-storey timber stair tower*, glazed at first-floor only. Further left, a short section of the original east wall is largely obscured by the 42-Foot telescope’s concrete podium building (not included). Above the original brick wall is a single-storey glazed timber rooftop extension*. At the left-hand end is the blind brick wall of a short eastward extension, with attached fire-escape*. The timber first-floor is set back and does not cover this extension.
Returning to the left, the south wall has a short single-storey section at the right, with a three-window strip of the same style as those on the east wall, with rainwater pipes to either side and a parapet with modern safety barrier*. At the left is the original south wall, with a central door that has adjacent windows to either side, lighting the former office of the Director of the observatory. Above the lintels is a single-storey timber rooftop extension* with two central windows. Set well back at the left is the south wall of the central block, with a large control-room window of 12 panes of differing sizes. Below this is the south wall of the semi-basement extension (not included) around the control room, with small windows.
Returning to the left again, the west wall largely mirrors the east, with strip glazing at ground floor and the glazed timber first floor extension* at the right. However, the central two-storey block is dominated by a glazed wall of four vertical lights. Below this the west wall is concealed by the semi-basement extension (not included) that surrounds the control room, in red brick in stretcher bond, with concrete dressings. To the left of this extension is a small timber entrance extension (not included). Set back behind these extensions, and visible to the left of them, is the original west wall, with similar strip glazing to that of the east wall. Various air-conditioning units* are fitted to the west walls. The north wall is obscured by the late 1960s extension (not included) on a cranked alignment. The roof of the northern wing retains chimney-like features thought to be related to air extraction.
INTERIOR: the lobby provides a theatrical approach to the control room, which is the principal space. The ceiling has a grid of concrete beams supported by a pair of columns with simple capitals. Set beyond these columns, steps rise along the rear wall from left and right to a small central landing, with recessed doorways leading to the left and right, hidden by wing walls. The rear wall of the landing is glazed, with windows leaning away at the top, which afford a view into the control room. This was the original control room access, although now an alternative is used. The steps’ inner face is gently concave, and against this, between the columns, is a bespoke curved oak bench whose back follows the profile of the steps with their outward-leaning risers. The metal balustrade with oak handrail carries a plaque recording the construction of the Lovell Telescope, listing the contractors. To the left of the main entrance, similar stairs (the two flights at an acute angle) lead to the first floor, with tiled terrazzo finish and skirting, angled risers and elegantly ramped handrail. On the left wall, former windows are now blocked*, one having been lowered and with an inserted doorway*. To the right is a store mirroring the footprint of the stairs. Carpet* conceals the original parquet floor.
In the far corners, doors to the left and right lead to the spine corridor, the east wall of which was originally external. The northern corridor has no visible evidence of this, but on the southern side, the quarry-tile sill is still extant and the blocking* is recessed within the original long opening. Rooflights* in the northern corridor are insertions. The original offices in the south wing are largely intact, in particular the Director’s office for ACB Lovell which retains its door, parquet flooring and grid-pattern radiators, although replacement lighting* has been fitted. The boardroom in the projecting extension at the south-east corner has been subdivided into two, but also retains its interior character. Other rooms in the north and south wings have carpet* and vinyl* floor finishes but the parquet is retained beneath these, and indicates the lines of original partitions. Radiators are all original. The lecture room now houses a large super-computer, processing data from co-ordinated international observations.
The control room has a partial false-ceiling* concealing later ductwork* and also the windows which originally overlooked the control room from the first-floor gallery. However it remains full-height at the west end where four very large windows are filled with the view of the Lovell telescope, with large side windows flooding the room with light. The highly-evocative U-shaped central console is the original with some updated controls, and is thought to retain the original desktop beneath a later upgrade. The carpet* conceals the original cork-tile floor.
Up the main stair the original first-floor gallery retains the windows overlooking the control room, now blocked with boarding*. The interiors* of the timber extensions are devoid of features of interest.
*Pursuant to s1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that the aforementioned items are not of special architectural or historic interest.
This list entry was subject to a Minor Enhancement on 20/05/2019
Books and journals
Lovell, Bernard, The Story of Jodrell Bank, (1968)
Lovell, Bernard, The Jodrell Bank Telescopes, (1985)
Pevsner, N, Hubbard, E (eds), The Buildings of England: Cheshire. Kelsall: Jodrell Bank, (1971), 249
Jodrell Bank Observatory, Conservation Management Plan, Chris Blandford Associates, 2016
This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.
The listed building is shown coloured blue on the attached map. Pursuant to s1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’), structures attached to or within the curtilage of the listed building (save those coloured blue on the map) are not to be treated as part of the listed building for the purposes of the Act.
End of official listing