Page C1.2 . 09 October 2002                     
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  • Restoring Kew Gardens
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    Restoring Kew Gardens


    Kew's Historic Origins

    Founded in 1759, the original botanical gardens were created for Augusta, Princess of Wales, around her home, Kew Palace. The site featured an orangery (precursor to the modern greenhouse), a pagoda, and an archway designed by the architect Sir William Chambers. Augusta's son, King George III, employed landscape gardener Capability Brown to extend the gardens in 1766.

    Following the death of George III, the botanic gardens fell into decline. In 1840 the estate was handed over to the public and enlarged to become a place for the scientific study of horticulture. It now contains one of the largest collections of plants in the world. Tropical and subtropical specimens are kept in near-natural conditions in Victorian glasshouses.

    The plural form, "gardens," is appropriate because, originally, two separate parts of the royalty owned adjacent plots of land the Kew Estate and the Richmond Estate to the south. They were combined into a single area around 1800.

    Restoring Historic Structures

    Some of the buildings have undergone a number of changes over the years. Their restoration is a complex process because the age of most of these structures makes the work physically delicate. Furthermore, the buildings' listed status requires that specific skills and materials and exacting standards be applied.

    Queen Charlotte's Cottage, in the southwest corner of the gardens, was built as a wedding gift. Queen Victoria also used it until she presented it to the public upon her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. It has recently been restored to its original state. A mile away, at the other end of the gardens, is Chambers's Orangery which reopens in October, 2002 after undergoing restoration.

    Also being restored is Kew Palace, which is the smallest and most intimate of the royal palaces. This four-story brick house was built around 1631 by Samuel Fortrey, a merchant of Dutch origin, whose initials, together with those of his wife Catherine, can be seen above the entrance.

    Architect Decimus Burton was responsible for designing two of the main buildings in Kew the Temperate House and the Palm House in collaboration with the iron-founder Richard Turner. Burton also reconstructed the Temple of Aeolus.

    Structures for Tropical Plants

    The Palm House is the centerpiece of Kew Gardens. Its curvilinear structure is a classic example of Victorian glasshouse design. Built between 1844 and 1848, it was constructed to house tropical trees, shrubs, and palms. Its location was determined by Burton who was adamant that it should stand by the body of water then known as George III's lake so the reflection of the building could be seen in the water.

    The artist and garden architect, William Andrews Nesfield, landscaped the grounds of the Palm House, making it the focal point of two long avenues Pagoda Vista and Syon Vista.

    The restoration of the Palm House began in the autumn of 1985. Because of its advanced state of disrepair, it was decided to first dismantle virtually the entire building. And because the Palm House is considered one of the most important surviving 19th-century glass and iron structures in the world, it was necessary to replace materials with like materials. So ductile iron was used for castings, mild steel was used for strengthening the main arches, and stainless steel replaced the 10 miles (16 kilometers) of glazing bars. The Palm House was officially reopened in 1990.

    The Temperate House is the world's largest ornamental glasshouse. The main center block and the octagons at each end were built between 1860 and 1862. The end blocks were added between 1860 and 1899. The completed building measures 590 by 138 feet (180 by 42 meters) at its greatest length and breadth. It covers an area of 52,000 square feet (4800 square meters), about twice the size of the Palm House.

    The cumulative effects of more than a century's decay, with glass, masonry, and metalwork falling in high winds, necessitated the full restoration of the Temperate House. Work began in 1972 and took eight years to complete.

    Dannatt, Johnson Architects, who designed the landscaped entrance, shop, and cafe at Victoria Gate in 1992, more recently refurbished "Museum No. 1," another Burton building. The renovation has given the building a new function as Kew's education center.

    Mixing New with Old

    The newest building in Kew is the Princess of Wales Conservatory. It was built as a tribute to Princess Diana as well as to Augusta, one of Diana's predecessors. Within the new building, ten different environmental zones provide the cultivation and display conditions for Kew's collection of tropical herbaceous plants. Two large areas simulate hot-humid and hot-dry climatic zones, while smaller areas hold plant species with specialized environmental requirements.

    Architect Gordon Wilson was selected to design the conservatory and manage its construction, which was completed in 1986. The building has no vertical walls on the east and west sides, where the roof slopes down to the ground. Most of its space below grade, with the hottest zones located at the center.

    The south-facing vertical walls of the conservatory allow deep penetration of winter light, while the higher-angled sunlight of the summer is partially reflected from the shallowly angled east-west sloping roofs, thus providing some protection for the delicate plants against sun-scorch.

    In 2002 an archaeological dig is taking place near Kew Palace. A sundial on the lawn marks the spot where the "White House" once stood. This was where King George III lived during his bouts of insanity. George ordered the house demolished in 1802, and the only remaining evidence of its existence is from illustrations, maps, and parch marks on the ground. The dig may add another historic building to Kew's already rich heritage.

    Don Barker is a freelance writer and photographer in London, UK, who has lived and worked in Europe, Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and Singapore. He is a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.



    ArchWeek Image

    The Princess of Wales conservatory, by architect Gordon Wilson, is the newest structure at Kew Gardens.
    Photo: Don Barker

    ArchWeek Image

    Map of Kew Gardens, in southwest London.
    Image: Royal Botanic Gardens

    ArchWeek Image

    Kew's Pagaoda.
    Photo: Don Barker

    ArchWeek Image

    The southern entrance of the Temperate House,by Decimus Burton, the world's largest ornamental glasshouse.
    Photo: Don Barker

    ArchWeek Image

    Inside the Temperate House by Decimus Burton.
    Photo: Don Barker

    ArchWeek Image

    Queen Charlotte's cottage.
    Photo: Don Barker

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    The refurbished Museum No. 1 by Decimus Burton.
    Photo: Don Barker

    ArchWeek Image

    The landscaped entrance, shop and cafe at Victoria Gate by Dannatt, Johnson Architects, completed in 1992.
    Photo: Don Barker


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