The King’s Observatory, Richmond

The King’s Observatory is an iconic piece of architecture right in the heart of Richmond. It’s found in the wide-open spaces of Old Deer Park and has been situated there since 1769. Commissioned by King George III himself, this is one of the most unique and fascinating buildings in the entire London area. The scenic setting and bold design make it stand out from the crowd, and despite how old it is, there’s still a very unique style to its design.

There’s a fascinating history behind this fabulous structure and the way it was designed/built. The most ironic thing about the King’s Observatory is that most people are unaware it even exists. Unless you have visited the Royal Mid-Surrey golf course, you’ve probably never seen it. It’s a hidden gem in the crown that is London, yet it sparkles brighter than most.

Designed By Sir William Chambers

King George himself handpicked Sir William Chambers as the architect for this project. As architects in Richmond, we’re always keen to see the thought process behind other people’s work. Indeed, Sir William was and is one of the most famous architects in English history. At the time of this commission, he had already made a name for himself with the design of Somerset House in 1776.

Those of you familiar with architectural styles will be able to deduce that this building looks nothing like a typical London property. In fact, it doesn’t look very British at all. This is because Sir William got a lot of inspiration from an Italian architect called Andrea Palladio. The more you look at the King’s Observatory, the more obvious the Italian influence becomes. It’s one of the reasons this is such a beautiful sight and stands out from other unique buildings in the area.

A Unique Architecture Combined With Contemporary Landscape Design

The building itself has a main block of two stories. One of the things that make the design so interesting is the inclusion of octagonal rooms in the central portion of the building. On both the left and right sides, the structure is more traditional and straight. The rooms here are square/rectangular shaped, and it creates such an intriguing design when you see it all put together. The octagonal central part is flanked by the dual stories, giving it a look that instantly turns heads.

From the outside, the entire building is stuccoed. This gives it a visually pleasing white and creamy look that stands out against the bright green backdrop. Again, this style is completely different from what is seen around London. Typically, older buildings like this will use a lot of exposed brickwork. This is where the Italian influence really came in, almost creating a villa-like effect. Certainly, if you were shown just this building and nothing else around it, you wouldn’t be laughed at for assuming it was in the Mediterranean.

Interestingly, when the observatory was first constructed, the east and west wings were only one-storey high. This meant that the central octagonal column was a storey higher, making it look even more palatial. A long time after this, someone made the decision to add a storey onto each of the wings. It proved to be a very popular and wise move, vastly improving the symmetry of the build. Since then, there have been no significant changes to the building’s structure or design.

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The King's Observatory, Richmond

The King's Observatory, Richmond

A Raised Base To Protect Against Flooding

Due to its close proximity to the Thames, the King’s Observatory was at something of a flood risk. Back when it was constructed, the Thames had a tendency to flood quite often. As a result, Sir William decided to build the structure on three rings of vaults. This raised it up above the flooding level, reducing the risk of the basement becoming drenched in water.

The basement itself offers a rather unique design, seeing as it is raised a lot higher than you would expect. The basement windows are also exposed, adding yet another unique touch to proceedings.

The Oldest Cupola In The World

Naturally, no observatory is complete without a cupola. This is the dome-like structure at the top of the building that can be opened to admit light and be looked out of. It was designed to be easy to open and to offer ample view of the sky above.

The most interesting thing about the cupola design is that it is now the oldest one of its kind. Over the years, calls have been made to perhaps modernise the building and develop a new cupola with a more advanced telescope. However, everyone has turned down this notion as they want the King’s Observatory to retain its original look and feel. As such, you can still see the classic telescope looking through the cupola to this very day!

Landscape Developments

Originally, Sir William Chambers had grand ideas for the landscape surrounding this fantastic building. He called upon his Italian influence yet again but also blended it with Chinese design elements. It created a look that contrasted the surrounding area, further solidifying the King’s Observatory as a one-of-a-kind piece of artistic brilliance.

Naturally, the landscape has undergone extensive developments over the years. Most notably, The Thames Landscape Strategy Study called for many of the trees in the area to be removed, focusing more on the green open plains and sight-lines. It was a move that was seen to be more eco-friendly for wildlife, as well as one that transformed the area closer to what it looked like when the observatory was initially built. Now, there are clear lines of sight to the building from across the park, making it stand proud.

The King’s Observatory has been renovated numerous times, but only to ensure that it stays standing. Aside from the introduction of one extra storey on each wing, very little has been done to the original architectural design. This speaks volumes for Sir William Chambers’ work, demonstrating that his design was clearly well ahead of its time. This 18th-century building is one of the must-see things in the Richmond area of London. Both architects and locals agree that it is a truly stunning property.

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