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Unique ‘unfolding’ glasshouse and landscaped garden in West Sussex offer a contemporary take on the ancient Silk Route

  • Bespoke glasshouse unveiled by Heatherwick Studio and the National Trust
  • Glasshouse and new garden showcase plants collected on the ancient Silk Route between Europe and Asia
  • 10-sided pyramidal glasshouse unfolds to create immense space in the shape of a crown full of sub-tropical trees and shrubs

Heatherwick Studio has unveiled its latest project, a kinetic glasshouse set on the edge of the National Trust’s Woolbeding Gardens, part of an historic estate in West Sussex.

This unfolding structure provides the focal point to a new garden that reveals how much the ancient Silk Route – which linked the Western world with the Middle East and Asia – has influenced English gardens of today. It features ten steel ‘sepals’ with glass and aluminium façade which take four minutes to open, creating an immense 141m2 space in the shape of a crown.

The glasshouse was conceived and developed by The Woolbeding Charity, working closely with the National Trust, to stand within the Woolbeding Gardens, owned by the National Trust, but home for many years to the late Simon Sainsbury and his partner Stewart Grimshaw, who still lives at Woolbeding. Over three decades they restored the house and generously endowed the gardens, introducing many classic and contemporary elements.

The glasshouse, together with the surrounding Silk Route gardens, continues their journey to restore and re-imagine various structures and spaces at Woolbeding. It draws inspiration from the spirit of Victorian ornamental terrariums. It deploys cutting-edge engineering to provide a functional protective structure while at the same time offering a beguiling, decorative element to the new Silk Route Garden.

On warm days, the glasshouse opens its ‘sepals’ using a hydraulic mechanism to allow the plants access to direct sunshine and ventilation, while in colder weather the structure will remain closed, providing shelter to a collection of subtropical species.

Thomas Heatherwick said: “This is a place and a project that literally unfolds. You step through this bewitchingly beautiful garden and discover an object that starts like a jewel and ends like a crown, as the Glasshouse slowly unfurls.”

“I think it also speaks of our need to keep creating amazing pasts. Weaving contemporary inventions into the fabric of historic settings and having the confidence to let each one speak to the other.”

The Silk Route Garden surrounding the glasshouse invites visitors on a 12-step journey through a landscape influenced by the ancient trading route between Asia and Europe where commodities such as the eponymous silk were exchanged and along which many plants species were brought back to Britain for the first time, such as rosemary, lavender and fennel.

A winding path allows visitors to move through over 300 species and twelve distinct regions of the Silk Road. From Mediterranean evergreens where visitors can enjoy a rare variety of Mullein (Verbascum sp.) grown from a seed brought here by a friend of Woolbeding Gardens, through to the richly scented Gallica roses, now so popular in England but originally introduced to Europe by traders from Persia.

The glasshouse itself shelters an impressive, rare specimen of an Aralia Vietnamensis, which provides shade for a collection of tender ferns growing alongside umbrella trees, magnolias and bananas.

The Woolbeding Glasshouse and the Silk Route Garden are open on Thursdays and Fridays from 28 April to 30 September. Visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/woolbeding  for more information.

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