Adelaide Botanic Garden’s three centuries of glass

Botanists, and perhaps plants, treat glass with some suspicion. The idea of placing a physical barrier between a plant and the Sun, while still expecting an environment suitable for photosynthesis, seems poorly conceived. The transformation of light into life through photosynthesis is the basis of life on Earth. While a glass ‘house’ might facilitate control of heating, humidity and watering, an Edenic environment for a plant begins with photosynthesis, which is dependent on light wavelengths largely within the visible range and particularly at the blue and red ends of the visible spectrum. Miraculously, glass does transmit photosynthetically-active light, although that ability depends, sometimes inversely, on other qualities of the particular glass. These other qualities include heat insulation, light diffusion, surface treatments (for instance, reflective or self-cleaning coatings), colour and tensile strength. The audacity of placing a physical barrier between a plant and the Sun through the construction of glass houses has seen some remarkable successes.

The story of glass houses, as displayed in Adelaide Botanic Garden, is a powerful one spanning three centuries, but rarely read in a coherent way. Botanical historian, Frans Stafleu, suggests the narrative might begin with Luca Ghini at Pisa botanic garden in 1547. Ghini utilised south-facing windows for the successful cultivation and overwintering of southern and south- eastern European species of Nerium, Citrus and Laurus in tubs — the so-called cubicula tepida. But Pisa’s claim as the originator of botanic gardens, herbaria and glass houses might be extravagant — the story might well have begun in ancient Rome.

Cubicula tepida (or warm rooms) with south-facing windows expanded to grand orangeries. However, the use of masonry to support glass is limiting — such constructions are well suited for orangeries into which plants might simply be moved over winter. The limitations on both the area and quality of glass (especially on ceilings) present a challenging and often hopeless situation for photosynthesis. Wood, of course, is a fine alternative to masonry for a purpose- built glass house, and provides a light, strong and malleable fabric to support glass. The choice of timber is critical. At Cambridge, the 1888 pine glass houses managed 40 years before being replaced with teak in the 1930s; and the teak lasted nearly 75 years prior to a full pane-by-pane restoration in 2005. Sadly Adelaide’s timber 1868 Victoria House succumbed to the elements long ago, although the masonry plinth and pond survived a range of iterations.

The Industrial Revolution presented new opportunities for plant collection across the globe, while new horticultural technologies, such as the Wardian case, allowed for the successful shipment of new plant discoveries. The first test of Dr Nathaniel Ward’s glazed cases saw the successful shipping of tender plants from London to Sydney in 1833. The arrival of a primrose in full bloom was a ‘sensation … so great, that it was necessary to keep the case under constant strict surveillance’.[1] Of course, the Industrial Revolution also allowed the glass house to blossom.

Adelaide’s botanic garden begins on Light’s 1837 Plan of Adelaide. However, a series of unfortunate events saw the Adelaide Botanic Garden only reach its current site in 1855. George Francis, the Garden’s first director, built a fine domed conservatory in 1859, which disappeared a century later under the Royal Adelaide Hospital’s extension into the Garden.

Victoria House, 1868
Victoria House, 1868
Adelaide Botanic Garden, North Terrace, Adelaide
Photo: Botanic Gardens Archives

Francis’s successor, Richard Schomburgk, oversaw construction of the 1868 timber-framed Victoria House to show off the giant Amazon waterlily (Victoria amazonica) he discovered with his brother, Sir Robert Schomburgk, in British Guiana (now Guyana). Their specimens allowed London botanist John Lindley to describe the waterlily for science in 1837 and dedicate the waterlily to Queen Victoria as Victoria regia. The waterlily is, astonishingly, intimately involved in glass-house design and construction, providing the blueprint for its own cultivation.

The repeal of the Glass Act in 1845, together with advances in the working of iron, allowed Joseph Paxton to envisage, design and build a conservatory based on the architecture of the waterlily’s leaf at Chatsworth House (the Duke of Devonshire’s estate in Derbyshire). Paxton’s conservatory was the first to allow sufficient light to penetrate the structure, to allow flowering and saw the first waterlily flower in cultivation in 1849. This success, and the charismatic nature of the waterlily, led to the establishment of so-called ‘Victoria houses’ in botanic gardens in Adelaide and around the world. Further, Paxton’s successful adoption of the lily leaf as a model for the Chatsworth House conservatory ultimately resulted in the acceptance of his proposal, still based on the waterlily leaf, for the Crystal Palace — the home of the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. The Crystal Palace, relocated to Sydenham, was later home to the Sydenham School of the Arts, where glass designer René Lalique was likely influenced by Paxton’s audacious biomimicry. The Crystal Palace remains feted in architecture as the progenitor of the glass-and-steel skyscrapers that provide the fabric of modern cities. The rapid development of glass-and- iron technology, and new approaches to design, saw a proliferation of grand conservatories internationally.

Palm House, 1877
Gustav Runge
Palm House, 1877
Adelaide Botanic Garden,
North Terrace, Adelaide
Photo: Grant Hancock

In Adelaide the fine Palm House, 1877, signifies the Industrial Revolution’s technology and remains a rare jewel. Prefabricated from wrought and cast iron, and likely flat-packed from J Hoper of Bremen in Germany under supervising architect Gustav Runge, this 100- foot (30.5 metre) long and 30-foot (9.1 metre) wide structure reached Adelaide in 1875 and opened in 1877. The Palm House was beautifully restored under Brian Morley’s directorship and re-opened in 1995. Last year Jess Hood’s Equinox photography exhibition in the Santos Museum of Economic Botany explored the Garden’s archive and the relationship between glass, light and life.

The Gardens waited another century for the largest single-span conservatory in the world: 100 metres long, 47 metres wide and 27 metres high. Architect Guy Maron’s steel-framed construction incorporates 2434 m2 of toughened glass panels, and is clad with insulated aluminium panels at its base. The curved segmental and conical form evolved from the need
to standardise and prefabricate glazing and framing prior to it being lifted into position. The prefabricated aluminium-framed glass panels comprise a series
of 28-metre long and 2.4-metre wide assemblies, supported by 28 trusses. Guy’s groundbreaking design and execution won the RAIA Sir Zelman Cowan Award for Public Buildings in 1989 and, after 25 years, was recently recognised with the RAIA SA Enduring Architecture Award and provisionally listed as South Australia’s youngest heritage building.

Bicentennial Conservatory
Guy Maron
Bicentennial Conservatory, 1989
Adelaide Botanic Garden,
North Terrace, Adelaide
Photo: Grant Hancock

The remnants of the 1868 Victoria House provided the brief for the new Amazon Waterlily Pavilion, completed in 2007 to coincide with the sesquicentenary of the Adelaide Botanic Garden opening to visitors on its current site. The new millennium allowed the construction of the temple-like glass house, utilising 80 per cent structural glass elements including roofs, support beams, transfer wall beams and load-bearing columns, with only a small amount of steel providing some internal support. Here, the glass performs the work ordinarily done by concrete and steel, again necessitating groundbreaking design solutions and wholly customised fittings, including triple-laminated glass columns with a load-bearing of 2.5 tonnes. An Australian first, the completed glass house won the Australian Engineering Excellence Award for Connell Wagner in 2008.

Amazon Waterlily Pavilion, 2007
Flightpath Architects
Amazon Waterlily Pavilion, 2007
Adelaide Botanic Garden,
North Terrace, Adelaide
Photo: Grant Hancock

So, the story of three centuries of glass-house design is well told here. The first timber-framed Victoria House opened in 1868; the cast and wrought- iron Palm House characterising the Industrial Revolution opened in 1877; the landmark aluminium- framed Bicentennial Conservatory opened in 1989; and the load-bearing structural glass Amazon Waterlily Pavilion opened in 2007. These exemplars of 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century glass-house technology illustrate major advances in maximising light penetration and allowing plant life, minimising energy and other resource requirements and managing the continuing challenges of growing plants and maintaining both the physical and growing environment. Together, with the presence of the 1868 Victoria House still evident in the original pond, Adelaide Botanic Gardens’ presentation of the history of glass houses is likely unrivalled internationally.

Originally published in the catalogue of GLASS: art design architecture a JamFactory exhibition.

For more information or to purchase the catalogue, visit the JamFactory website.

GLASS: art design architecture showcases 23 outstanding projects by contemporary Australian artists, designers and architects. It represents a cross-section of current creative practices and relationships to this versatile material.

The  exhibition will tour to 14 venues across Australia from 2015 to 2018. View the national exhibition dates here.

Exhibitors: Andrew Simpson (Vert Design), Architectus, Blanche Tilden, Charles Wright Architects, Clare Belfrage, Deb Jones, Elliat Rich, illumini (Karen Cunningham and Mandi King), Janet Laurence, Jess Dare, Jessica Loughlin, Keep Cup, Mark Douglass, Max Pritchard Architect, Mel Douglas, Nicholas Folland, Richard Whitely, Ruth Allen, Tom Moore, Tonkin Zulaikha Greer (with Taylor Cullity Lethlean and Aurecon), Wendy Fairclough, Woods Bagot and Yhonnie Scarce.

[1] Stephen H Ward, On Wardian cases for plants, and their applications, John van Voorst, London, 1854, p 17.


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