ON THE NORTHEASTERN SIDE of Kew's Royal Botanical Gardens is a cluster of glass roofs sprouting from the ground. Unlike most houses, in which a roof sits atop a structure of at least one storey, the Princess of Wales conservatory looks more like it had burrowed itself into the earth, leaving only the roof above ground. Inside, the building is in fact tall, or deep, with terraced floors containing an array of fauna from both wet and dry climates. The sunken scheme, while unique in appearance, was not intended for mere aesthetic appeal but for energy efficiency. Sloping glass brings in more sunlight than do upright glass walls.
Designed by Gordon Wilson, the Princess of Wales Conservatory was built in commemoration of Princess Augusta, and was opened in 1987 by Princess Diana. Replacing a previous cluster of 26 smaller buildings, the conservatory contains ten different environments, arranged to provide each zone the ideal temperature, humidity, ventilation and lighting. Sensors on the walls prompt a central computer to adjust heat, release mist, open vents and carry out other functions to further regulate climate conditions.
Naturally, a spectacle at the conservatory is the flora it contains. There are desert plants, savannah plants, species from rainforests and swamps, as well as carnivorous plants and giant lilies large enough to hold a baby without sinking. I found fascination in dangling roots, curling ferns and protruding stems of black amidst the green. Mangroves, with their raised thicket of roots, are always delightfully exotic.
Although lacking in the aesthetic elaboration of traditional 19th century glasshouses, I find the showcase magnificent, juxtaposing prolific greenery with angular glass and steel. Designed by Wilson to "provide optimum conditions for preservation but also show the plants in the most interesting way," the Princess of Wales Conservatory may have just cultivated in me, a new interest in greenery.
May it bloom and grow.
Princess of Wales Conservatory, Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, London. www.kew.org Photos by Lady San Pedro and Jaime Sese.