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The Eden Project: Story Telling Through Design

Justin Libra & Stacey Leonard


The Eden Project, home to the largest greenhouses in the world, has made many bold steps toward actively promoting sustainability, positively affecting climate change, preserving biodiversity around the world, and educating its visitors in new and exciting ways (Smit, 2001) (Figure 1). One of the great ways that the Eden Project conveys its message to its visitors is through story telling. Tim Smit, the creator of Eden, was initially intrigued by the stories behind plants. At the Eden Project, where so many complex and intricate ideas come together, stories are the glue. Eden is impossible to describe in a sentence because it in itself is an ever-changing story, and every small part, from a plant to entire ecosystem has its own story to tell as well.


Along the south-west shores of England, in the rural town of St. Austell, lies the Eden Project, which for quite some time was just a dream. St. Austell is located in the region of Cornwall which is known for its beautiful coastline, rich heritage, vacationing, and clay mining to name a few. Retired and active clay mine sites dot the Cornwall landscape, but are most concentrated in the St. Austell area (Figure 2). The china clay in this area is mainly used in the paper industry to thicken white paper and improve its glossiness, but is also used for a number of other things including rubber, paint, and plastics (Smit, 2001). The process of clay mining involves blasting the earth with high pressure water to wash away soft minerals and collect them in a pond. The heavier sediments then sink to the bottom while the lighter, finer sediments (namely china clay in this instance) remains suspended and then can be collected for further processing. Rocks and larger particles of soil are mounded next to the mine sites in what are called large spoil heaps. These processes are very land and resource intensive, and leave huge open marks and mountains on the landscape that little can be done with. The steep sloped craters are generally so deep that the bottom is below the water table and will fill up without extreme pumping measures. There is also little to no soil in the pit, so almost nothing grows unless, like the Eden Project, soil is brought in or manufactured on site (Smit, 2001). The mine site provided many opportunities with its unique landforms, and encouraged great ingenuity and creativity to overcome its many obstacles.

To the southwest of St. Austell, was a man by the name of Tim Smit working on The Lost Gardens of Heligan. Heligan was an old estate that had been renovated and rethought and eventually had become open to the public. While working at The Lost Gardens of Heligan he engaged young children in horticulture by telling stories about how exotic plants were obtained and how they are used today. Smit, a former archaeologist and musician, played a large part of the conception and implementation of the plans at Heligan, but had dreams of something bigger. There was an old clay mine site near Heligan that led him to dream of terraced gardens lending itself to a completely new experience in such a foreign landscape (Smit, 2001). His dreams involved educating the public on plants and their benefits to our daily life. His interests included stunning architecture to captivate the guest and show them plants from every climate on Earth (Pearman and Whalley, 2003). For quite some time, Tim was on the search for the perfect mine site for his dream, and right when he was about to lose hope, a colleague told him about Bodelva. In 1990 Bodelva was a china clay mine that was on the verge of closing located to the northwest of the St. Austell town center. With a site in mind, it was finally possible for Tim to start making progress on the project. Eden was never about plants and architecture; it was always about harnessing people to a dream and exploring what they are capable of (Smit, 2001).

Evolution of an Idea

As Tim Smit spread his idea of an oasis in a reclaimed mine site, people fell in love with his idea (what he calls the Tinkerbell Theory) and joined his team to make the dream come to life. The evolution of the idea that came to become the Eden Project went through many phases, but stayed true to original ideals and concepts throughout the entire design and construction phase. Aside from plants and architecture, Eden was meant to conserve, educate, strengthen community, connect with other cultures, and to set an example that dreams can become reality (Smit, 2001). The Eden Project is committed to sustainable thinking and demonstrates this by offering a three pound discount if you arrive by foot or by bicycle (Andrew, 2004) (Figure 3). Also, the main transport throughout the site, the train car, is run on biofuel. In addition to demonstrating sustainable practices, they try many other methods to educate. Eden has to appeal to the common person, but also engage the knowledgeable or those seeking deeper information (Smit, 2001). The team charged with this idea wanted to convey information in stimulating and progressive ways, but at the same time, did not want Eden to turn into a theme park. Eden has to develop, not only in order to continue to surprise, but in order to fulfill its original remit as an ideas generator as much as a building. It has to become a place which cannot be experienced all in one go, and which does more things for more people (Pearman and Whalley, 2003).

The design ideas of Eden represent an era of testing the limits of architecture and sustainable construction. In a place like Cornwall, England where the economy has been deprived and employment desperately needed, the Eden Project presented amazing opportunity. Being the warmest climate of all British Isles, located in a protective valley providing great energy saving ability, and having a history rooted deep in plants and structures there was no better place to construct such a showcase of vegetation diversity and brilliant architecture (Figure 4). In some instances, Cornwall has a larger gene bank of original species than the country of origin (Smit, 2001). Cornwall has also been a long time holiday destination for many Brits allowing Eden to captivate plenty of tourists. The striking image of the translucent, light-looking dome structures is the epitome of modern design and thinking. Their material and form breathe life into a once barren landscape. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the lush environment of the Tropical Biome (Figure 5).

The design for the two greenhouse biomes went through many stages of development through concept generation, professional and public critique, and physical testing. In the end, soap bubbles were the inspiration for the geodesic domes that reside on site today (Smit, 2001). Many other references to nature can also be made; bug eyes, honeycomb, and frog spawn to name a few, giving inspiration to Nick Grimshaw to design a biological, earthy structure. The biomes are beautiful structures because they are efficient structures - a kind of beauty common in nature but rare in architecture (Davies, 2001). The material chosen for the hexagons and pentagons in the biomes was Ethylene Tetrafluorethylene foil (ETFE). This material was invented in the 1960s and has given architects more flexibility and creativity ever since (Pearman and Whalley, 2003). In the case of the Eden Project, this material was essential because it is lighter, more flexible, and more transparent than glass allowing Ultra Violet light to pass through. In the largest hexagons of the Tropics Biome, hexagons span 11 meters across, an impossible length for a single sheet of glass (Davies, 2001). The hexagons are tripled layered with ETFE foil creating incredible insulation for cooler temperatures in the winter season (Pearman and Whalley, 2003). These triple layers are inflated with air, much like a pillow, and are supported by light-weight steel components. As much as the team tried to source the steel completely from Britain, the technology was nonexistent within the country and had to be sent to four other countries on mainland Europe before coming back to England for the final assembly (Pearman and Whalley, 2003).

Apart with having to deal with all of the issues related to the site, the construction of the biomes was a feat in itself. The scaffolding structure was the largest the world has ever seen, took over four months to construct, and actually set a Guiness World Record. The design of the biomes is much like an arch in that it has no strength until the final piece is in place. Although the scaffolding had more mass than the finished structure, it was reused throughout the site and on other projects, still upholding the sustainable ideals of Eden (Pearman and Whalley, 2003). The Biomes face southwest, maximizing the angle of sun and built into the side of pit using the heat of the earth to maintain a warm temperature, effectively lowering heating requirements (Figure 6). The design of the biomes against the pit cliff also maximizes ground space in the pit creating more area for the Outdoor Biome, Cornwalls natural climate. Architecture that mimics natural forms and an overall design that works with nature instead of against it embraces and is a symbol of the Eden philosophy.

Eden Today

A theme that runs throughout the entire Eden site is the connectivity between man and nature. Three climate zones demonstrate a wide range of flora in many different ways. The two biomes designed by Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners make up the Humid Tropics and Mediterranean landscape and Dominic Cole from Land Use Consultants designed the outdoor landscape which represented the temperate climate of the area. In the two greenhouse biomes as well as the o