Right now, in an abandoned clay pit in England, 15-story-high geodesic domes large enough to swallow the Tower of London are rapidly taking shape. When these giant domes are finished next year, their interiors will recreate two of the world’s great climatic regions, the tropics and the warm temperate zone, and they’ll be filled with thousands of plants from all over the world.
The $180-million Eden Project, a millennium project funded in part by England’s national lottery, is part tourist attraction, part educational facility, part conservation project, and part research facility. Its creators call it “a theatre of plants” and “an unashamed assault on the senses.”
Describing it just as a series of domes filled with plants doesn’t do it justice. Whereas a traditional botanical garden is like a butterfly collection, interested in saving, cataloging and labeling plants, the focus of the Eden Project is on human interaction with plants–how plants are or could be used in industry, how conservation and the human need for land can be balanced. As a result, the plants in the Eden Project will include everything from exotic tropical flowers and trees to farm crops, cultivated in an ecologically friendly manner as models for 21st-century agriculture.
There will also be exhibits and artwork in all media, from robots to sculpture to animation to puppetry to live music and performance. (One example: a full-scale model of a cartoon kitchen which shows what life would be like without plants. First life-sized marionettes of a family and their pets are stripped of clothes, then the chairs are pulled into the ceiling or out of the door, then food disappears from the refrigerator, and finally all the occupants collapse. The last to go is a cat, which keeps drinking until the milk disappears, then sinks into the ground.)
The project will also highlight some of the work being done around the world in conservation and development. Among the exhibits in development are showcases of Cornish biodiversity and heathland restoration, demonstrations of biodiversity initiatives in the Seychelles and research on home garden systems and forest ecology in Malaysia.
A wide range of educational projects are also being developed. In addition, the project hopes to provide a focus for ongoing scientific research, helping aid communication among researchers around the world who are working on plant-related projects.
If you visit the Eden Project after it opens next year, the first thing you’ll see is Bodelva China Clay Pit, a 14-hectare bowl, sixty metres deep, with steep south-facing walls.
Within that bowl will be two giant biomes domes, called biomes, a visitor centre, a lake, an outdoor, 2000-seat ampitheatre, and a 500-seat restaurant.
The largest biome, the Humid Tropics Biome, will house plants from Amazonia, West Africa, Malaysia and the Oceanic islands. The enormous size of the dome will allow the growth of giant tropical rainforest trees. Rubber, cocoa, bamboo and vanilla are among the crops that will be grown in this biome.
The Warm Temperate Biome recreates the Mediterranean climate zone, and will feature plants from places such as Southern Africa, California and (of course) the Mediterranean.
Outdoors, in the “Roofless Biome,” a series of interlocking crescent-shaped terraces, as well as the steep sides of the pit, will be filled with the plants of the temperate region. The lake will be surrounded by displays that celebrate the association of plants with myth and folklore.
The frames of the computer-designed giant domes are made of lightweight galvanized steel tubing, formed into a combination of giant hexagons (the largest is bigger than a car) and pentagons. One biome 200 metres long and the other 135 metres long; the Humid Tropics Biome is 45 metres in height and, at its widest, 200 metres across. Both are covered with a triple-glazed foil which is strong, lightweight, anti-static, and highly transparent to both visible and ultraviolet light–which means sunlight won’t degrade it. The foil has better insulation properties than glass and is recyclable.
Ecological concerns are foremost in the designers’ minds, as you might expect. Although 1.5 million tonnes of material has been moved around the site, none of it has left the pit. All of the Eden Project’s water needs, except for drinking water, are met by harvesting the rainwater that runs off the buildings. And the road to the site incorporates a new drainage design that will soon be designated the standard by Britain’s Environment Agency.
Every culture has its own story of an ideal place, a “Garden of Eden.” In England, they’re making it a reality.