In the planet's most barren landscape, a highly-trained crew of scientists are on a single mission: to track inter-stellar activity using the world's largest telescope. But they need somewhere to live …
The largest and most advanced telescope in the world lies on a mountain top in the Atacama desert of northern Chile. From Mount Cerro Paranal, the VLT, or Very Large Telescope, has an unparalleled view of the sky. The less humidity, the clearer the atmosphere, and the Atacama is the driest place on earth – it rains here every few decades.

Naturally, the landscape is utterly barren. So the scientists from the European Southern Observatory, who have been manning the telescope since it was built in 1991, were relieved to move out of their "base camp" early this year and into a brand new residence – with a swimming pool.

The ESO residence and offices, designed by Munich-based Auer+Weber+Architekten, is down the mountain from the telescope, nearly a kilometre away, so as not to pollute the surrounding night sky with light. In fact, for such a striking building, the residence displays a great sense of deference. The

low-lying structure nestles in a natural hollow, protected slightly from the extreme winds and relentless sunlight. And rather than using the landscape as a dramatic backdrop, the Paranal residence is a seamless part of it: iron oxide mixed into the concrete blends the walls with the red earth, and the sheer horizontal of the roof matches the skyline on the Pacific Ocean to the south-west.

This was not the easiest place for a construction site. Water, even for mixing concrete, had to be trucked in, and hard hats had to be strapped on against the wind. But now, after two years, the completed residence boasts a geodesic dome 35 m in diameter, an inventively modernist facade, and a host of amenities to keep the ESO's astronomers and technicians entertained after hours.

The facade is designed to screen as much sunlight as possible while retaining views out to the Pacific. The dome, on the other hand, acts as a light-well, brightening the floors sunk underground. Beneath the dome is a courtyard that is planted like an oasis to raise the humidity levels in the building.

The dome is also a reference to the dome of the sky, of course, as well as offering a foil to the monolithic, grounded main structure. This tension between earth and sky was one that Philipp Auer, one of the architects, was extremely conscious of. "We wanted to give the scientists the opposite to their technical surroundings," he said, "so that they could feel at home and connected to Mother Earth again, not just the telescope world of the sky."

Last month, ESO astronomers discovered a star orbiting a black hole in the centre of the Milky Way. With views like that and the one out to the Pacific, the astronomers scarcely need more down-to-earth stimulation. Just as well, perhaps, because the nearest town, Antofagasta, is 130 km away.