No-one seeing the Palm House in the Royal Botanic Gardens for the first time can fail to be amazed and wonder how, with so little apparent structure, so few columns, no diagonal bracing, and great widths of unsupported space, it manages to stand up. It is so light, so restrained, and so unlike anything else happening at that time, when everyone else was doing ornamental neo-classical design. Decimus Burton was a prolific and inspired architect, but for me the Palm House was his moment of genius.
Its design derives from the timber Palm House at Chatsworth — a reference that many architects still go back to (at Richard Rogers’ office there were pictures of it up in the studio when the team was designing the barrel vault for the Lloyd’s Building).
People often talk about the Palm House’s similarity to an upturned hull of a ship but to me that isn’t particularly obvious (though there is a shipbuilding connection). It is made of glass, yet it seems to me to be much more closely associated with nature and natural forms: blades of grass, sea-life and bubbles all come to mind. You can look at it and almost wonder if it is animal, vegetable or mineral!
It’s gentle and graceful, a natural form with the delicacy of a spider’s web in the morning dew. Like a soap bubble, its surface structure is thin compared with the volume it’s enclosing. There is an extraordinary lightness to it. It almost looks like it would float away if it weren’t anchored to the ground.
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