Royal Botanic gardens, Kew - Temperate House, London

Last year in May, the largest Victorian glasshouse in the world opened its doors to public once again. Grade I. listed Temperate house in London‘s Kew Gardens undertook long renovation work by architects Donald Insall Associates. The result is a huge success not only in showcasing the engineering prowess of the past and present but essentially in re-opening this space for conserving the collection of rare temperate plants – the main objective of this project.

Kew Gardens was established by princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha who commissioned head gardener John Dillman to enlarge botanical garden planned by her deceased husband Frederick, Prince of Wales. The gardens opened in 1759 and one of the oldest plant here is tall tree ginkgo biloba planted in 1762, the year in which the first sandwich was served in London.

Temperate house was designed by Decimus Burton (1800 – 1881) in 1859. This glasshouse was then opened in 1863 but the construction continued for the next 36 years. After the turn of millennium the glasshouse was so run down that it was no longer safe for public to enjoy the beauty of diverse plants and flowers inside. With help of funding from National Lottery, private and commercial donors it was possible to start restoration project that took five years to accomplish with the total amount spent close to £42 million. Most of the plants were removed during painstaking restoration however, nine trees remained in situ as they were too horticulturally significant to risk moving them elsewhere.

The embellishments decorating the glasshouse such as statues and urns were recast to the original Burton‘s design. Burton‘s sense for architectural detail is highlighted in terracotta urns placed in each corner of the central building. These urns are in fact concealed chimneys. Their function was releasing the steam from the old heating system.

This spectacular building comprising five pavilions (with its 4880 meters square) houses about 10 000 plants in diverse habitats like for example China, Himalaya‘s, Africa, Australia or Americas. One of the most interesting plants here is Encephalartos woodii, named after John Medley Wood, curator of Durban Botanic Garden who discovered it in 1895. This palm tree like cycad, brought to Kew in 1899, has also been called the loneliest plant in the world because there are only male specimens left – the female Encephalartos woodii has never been discovered.

It will also be interesting to observe the new growth of plants in Temperate house. There are currently unobstructed views from the upper walkway and it will take some time before most plants reach maturity and therefore it is possible to appreciate the expansive view of space inside of this architectural gem.

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Short stories in architecture

Villa Tugendhat (1930)

During my recent stay in the Czech republic I visited two very interesting buildings – Villa Tugendhat in Brno by Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) and the new Saint Wenceslas church in small village of Sazovice by Atelier Štěpán. The common denominators of these two buildings is simplicity and organisation of space.

Villa Tugendhat was built in 1930 for the industrialist family of the same name. An interesting fact reveals that the design was accomplished with no budget constraints but from the street level this functionalist villa appears to be low, discreet and modest. However, the built area consists of 900 m2 with sloping and expansive garden. This was the first time in architectural history that the steel structure in the form of subtle columns was used in a private house. The building with its architectural details was somewhat related to another Mies van der Rohe’s design, the Barcelona pavilion.

Sadly, the owners did not enjoy living in their home for long as they had to flee the country due to World War II approaching.

In the meantime, it became the headquarters of Nazi Germany secret police, Gestapo. At the end of the war it housed and was devastated by the Soviet cavalry. It briefly functioned as a private dance school or a place for physiotherapy. In 1992 the villa housed historical negotiations about political separation of Czechoslovakia. Since 1994 it is open to public and the villa also became UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001.

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Villa Tugendhat, Brno, Czech Republic

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Saint Wenceslas church (2017)

The first reference about an intention to build a church in the small village of Sazovice, South Eastern Moravia comes from 1935 assembly of Union of Saint Wenceslas. Two years later after financial contributions from members of this Union a plot of land was bought in auction for a future chapel. However, the World War II put things on hold when German soldiers confiscated remaining finances.

After the end of war a new bell tower was executed in the village. Nonetheless, people still put together another pot of money for chapel but before they could start building, Communists who took power in coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 expropriated the plot of land and the money left for building new chapel. During the Communism era it was very difficult to have any church approved and built as the only ideology officially permitted by the state was communist doctrine.

After so called “Velvet Revolution” in 1989 there were other priorities in the village to attend to but constant belief of locals in a new church has gradually transformed the idea into tangible design.

Architect Marek Jan Štěpán drew the round shape based on scale and horizontal projection of square-shaped Saint Wenceslas chapel in Prague. Round form also relates to Saint Wenceslas age (10th century) when rotundas were being built in Bohemia. Architect wanted the cylindrical volume to look light as if made from paper. The sections of façade fold inward and outward thus enabling the light coming inside.

This building is also more than a church. In the basement is small cultural centre, a space devoted to lectures, discussions or exhibitions.

This interesting building and its design has also won many architectural prizes and was listed by Azure magazine in 10 Best Buildings in 2017.

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Saint Wenceslas church, Sazovice, Czech Republic

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Roca London Gallery

During the annual Open House in London I visited this relatively small place with complex design. It is certainly not an ordinary shop.

Roca Gallery London was designed by Zaha Hadid Architects as a gallery and presentation showroom for leading bathroom and tiles manufacturer. This complex and innovative space creates interesting visual experience that may be comparable to moving through a cave or canyon. It is no wonder as the inspiration to the architects was indeed water – its different forms and attributes. The gallery occupies one floor and there are two main features in its design. Firstly, it is continuity and fluidity of space which twists and turns creating one seamless experience of movement through the interior. Secondly, it is the contrast between materials used: GRC (glass reinforced concrete) and GRG (glass reinforced gypsum). The space is not only used for showcasing Roca’s products but also for exhibitions, public lectures and other events.