Eyre explains: "With the Gardens receiving World Heritage Status, it was felt the site should not become frozen; that it should continue to evolve. We had to consider what a botanic garden should be saying in the 21st century. It has to grow as a tourist destination whilst still maintaining its international stature as a reservoir of knowledge for scientists and enthusiasts alike."
He continues: "The strategy looks at how the gardens should develop over the next 30 years. Museums have changed, becoming more about interpretation and understanding. Kew Gardens has a unique collection of plants from all over the world and is a major international influence on the history of landscape and garden design, so it is important this is not diminished."
To understand the overall site and how it operates, the architects worked throughout program development with Kew's Director, Peter Crane, with Tom Bailey, head of building and maintenance, and with various specialists. Because of the role these individuals played in the creation of architecture, Kew Gardens received the 2006 RIBA-Arts Council Client of the Year Award for its program of master planning and new building.
"Rather than being a physical building plan," Eyre says, "the 30-year strategy introduces a series of programs and initiatives. Essentially it is about the opening up of the site and reconnecting the gardens to the River Thames."
Resulting from this work were questions relating to the location of the established buildings and vistas. Was the physical approach by the modern-day visitor on the current paths the same as that intended by the original designers such as Capability Brown and William Nesfield? Extensive research unveiled the key to previous Kew Gardens' master plans, and so the "Arc" was born.
Arcing across the Garden
The Arc is a concept that will help to reveal the garden to visitors differently from the way they currently experience it, establishing an improved sense of place and making the landscape more legible. It is a new route, connecting the well populated northern destinations and riverside to the heart of the gardens and beyond to the Temperate House.
The name "Arc" is derived from its geometry. If you draw a radial line from a center point at the west doors of the Palm House to the intersection of the Boardwalks, then sweep an arc across the gardens, a route is created that reveals the landscape, highlights the heritage, encompasses important trees and plantings, and makes connections with Kew's conservation mission and historic collections.
To see how one of the end points of the Arc was established, we need to go back to the 1860s. At that time, the main entrance to the gardens was on Kew Green at the northern end of the site. The proposed extension of the London and South Western Railway to Kew promised a potential increase in visitor numbers.
This meant another gate was essential on the southeast side nearer the proposed railway location. The site chosen was in the boundary wall opposite the Temperate House. It was to be a grand entrance, suitable for royalty, and would be linked by "The Avenue" in Kew Village to the station.
In 1868, the Queen's Gate was erected, but news was filtering through that the new station would be located further north. The Queen's Gate was never opened; instead it was relocated a few hundred yards up the road opposite Lichfield Road and renamed Victoria Gate.
This is where it remains, close to where the station was actually built. The station is now both a rail and underground station. A gap in the wall surrounding Kew Gardens, near the Marianne North Gallery, now filled with railings, indicates where the original entrance from the rail station would have been. The orientation to the gardens and buildings is quite different from this entry point, which is an end point of the Arc.
Renewing Old Paths
From this point, the Arc moves between mature cedars to the front face of the Temperate House. The intended path down the cedar avenue has recently been reintroduced as part of the program. Walking straight through this glasshouse from front to back, you cross Holly Walk, planted by James Hooker, Kew's first director. It was previously known as "Love Lane" and dates back to the 15th century, long before the public gardens were created.
The route proceeds through an 18th-century woodland landscape to the lake and the recently built Sackler Crossing — Kew's first passage across water. The bridge itself opens up new vistas and gives visitors a new understanding of the earlier geometry of the site. The Crossing provides the essential link between the Temperate House and the Marianne North Gallery on the south side of the Gardens and the river, Brentford Gate, and the Rhododendron Dell to the north.
The bridge leads to Syon Vista, one of the primary views laid out by Nesfield in the 19th century, with the Palm House at one end, and the River Thames at the other. The route then enters Capability Brown's intricate woodland landscape of Rhododendron Dell and the reclaimed Japanese Minke House and Bamboo Garden.
Emerging from the wooded area, the route approaches the riverside walk and the 19th-century gate onto the towpath, a less frequented part of the gardens with its views over the river. Currently a car park, the Riverside Terrace is planned to be reinstated.
The Arc configuration will take some time to accomplish, with refurbishment of the landscape, restoration of the Marianne North Gallery, and reference to the Thames Landscape Strategy. There are more than ten Arc initiatives; some are buildings and others relate to experiencing the landscape.
The restored John Nash Conservatory at the northern main entrance is now an educational resource for some of the 60,000 school children who visit Kew each year. The plan includes "break out" points near the main attractions, places where visitors, particularly children, can sit and view the surrounds such as the lake and Kew Palace. In the end, it's how visitors experience the landscape that's most important.
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Don Barker is a freelance writer and photographer in London, who has lived and worked in Europe, Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and Singapore. He is a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek and writes for several periodicals in the United Kingdom.