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.