Building the Paranal Residencia — From Turbulence to Tranquility

Building the Paranal Residencia — From Turbulence to Tranquility (historical image)
Building the Paranal Residencia — From Turbulence to Tranquility (present day image)
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ESO turns fifty this year, and to celebrate this important anniversary, we are showing you glimpses into our history. Once a month during 2012, a special Then and Now comparison Picture of the Week shows how things have changed over the decades at the La Silla and Paranal Observatory sites, the ESO facilities in Santiago de Chile, and the Headquarters in Garching bei München, Germany.

In this month’s pair of photographs, taken at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert, we compare a bustling construction site, as seen in November 1999, with the end result in the present day: the observatory’s accommodation building, known as the Paranal Residencia. Imagine the change from then to now: the clanging of hammers and drills, and the noise of tractors and cranes, have given way to the peaceful calm of a desert building that complements its surroundings. Built using natural materials and colours, and nestled into an existing depression in the ground, the completed building blends into the landscape.

The Residencia was built as a refuge for astronomers and other staff working in one of the harshest landscapes imaginable, where the extreme dryness, intense ultraviolet radiation from the Sun, strong winds, and high altitude are part of everyday life. The contractors who built the Residencia, also working in these harsh conditions, have created a deeply appreciated oasis in the desert for the observatory’s staff to take shelter from the arid environment, and the finished building is a testament to all their hard work. The award-winning Residencia contains over 100 rooms, as well as a number of communal spaces including a canteen, lounge, swimming pool, fitness centre and library. It has spectacular views from its western facade across the desert in the direction of the Pacific Ocean and the sunset.

There is another feature that can be seen in both these photographs: behind the Residencia, 2600 metres above sea level on the summit of Cerro Paranal, is the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT). It is the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory, and the reason why the Residencia, and all those who stay within its walls, are there at all!