The Greatest Glasshouse in the World Awaits

May 2, 2018
Venues News

Iconic Temperate House re-opens after largest restoration in Kew’s history...

The story of the greatest glasshouse in the world, its long journey back to magnificence, and the 10,000 plants, many of which are rare and threatened, that are soon to call it home.

  • 10,000 plants (1,500 species), from the world’s temperate zones
  • 5-year project involving 400 staff and contractors, taking 1,731 days to complete
  • 69,000 individual elements removed from building and cleaned, repaired or replaced
  • Scaffolding required was equivalent to length of M25
  • £15m restoration funded by National Lottery, plus support from DEFRA and other donors
  • Aerial performers to fly through building and giant puppets will tell stories of plants
  • Focus on link between wellbeing & connecting people to nature, via launch of Kew Babies, Kew Allotments and many more initiatives

Kew Gardens is in the final month of the largest restoration project in its entire history. On 5 May, the doors of its spectacular Temperate House will be thrown open, revealing 10,000 breathtaking plants, making this magnificent structure the true jewel in Kew’s crown – an architectural wonder, horticulturists’ haven, the most captivating of classrooms.

The Breathtaking Plants

The world’s largest Victorian glasshouse will once again be home – as it had been since its birth in 1863 – to some of the world’s rarest and most threatened plants. In contrast to their sumptuous, romantic surroundings, these plants present a stark message; despite being the foundation of pretty much all life on earth, we are allowing them to fall prey to a variety of threats. When the last plant of a particular species dies out, what might it take with it? A new cure for Cancer? Or Ebola? The Temperate House will tell the stories of the plants that Kew has rescued, and the journeys they have taken to reach the sanctuary of their new home.

Entering the glasshouse, visitors will embark on a round-the-world adventure. They might find themselves in Mauritius, where they will see Dombeya mauritiana, a tree that was thought to be extinct in the wild until Kew’s renowned ‘plant messiah’ Carlos Magdalena found one growing in the Mauritian highlands. After many trials and tribulations (including forming a human ladder to reach the lowest branch!), Carlos was able to gather and return with cuttings, and Kew is now the only place in the world with this tree in cultivation. Around the corner, transported to the mountains of Nepal, visitors will encounter the Taxus wallichiana, exploited for the Taxol market (a chemotherapy drug) and now subject to a clonal propagation program to help conserve it in the wild.

Richard Barley, Director of Horticulture at RBG Kew, says:

Over the past few months, I have watched as some of the world’s rarest plants finally reach their home. And what a home it will be – a glistening cathedral, the new glass allowing the sun to stream in, the ironwork restored to its glossy best.

“The Temperate House will be for everyone. From young to old, for budding gardeners or aspiring artists, for those making a pilgrimage from great distances, and for our local community, we hope every visitor will see plants in a new light”.

The Painstaking Restoration

Originally designed by world-famous architect Decimus Burton, heritage architects Donald Insall have updated and modernised key features to enable the building to function as a contemporary working space. Over 69,000 individual elements were removed from the building and cleaned, repaired or replaced. This included the replacement of a staggering 15,000 panes of glass.

Aimée Felton, lead architect on the project, said:

The restoration of the Temperate House has been a complex and immensely rewarding project, recalibrating contemporary understanding of Victorian architecture and the development of past innovations. New glazing, mechanical ventilation systems, path and bedding arrangements all took their founding principles from Decimus Burton’s own drawings, held within Kew’s archives.

The time it will take for the newly propagated plants to reach maturity will offer visitors a full and unobstructed view of the incredible metal skeleton in all its glory: a cutting-edge sanctuary for plants.”

The restoration was made possible thanks to incredible support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Their Chief Executive, Ros Kerslake, says:

We know from speaking to National Lottery players the value they put on protecting and understanding the natural world – a value that also makes the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew one of our best-loved visitor attractions. 

“Our grant of nearly £15m has helped give The Temperate House some much-needed repairs as well as a new sense of purpose.  This extraordinary glass structure has always epitomised all that is wonderful about these gardens – it is a magical place with a massive heart, which makes a huge contribution to biodiversity and natural heritage.”

A Temple of Learning: Engaging with our Community

It has been a priority for Kew to ensure that the re-opening of the Temperate House elicits rich engagement with the local community. Based on significant evidence showing links between health, wellbeing and connecting to nature, the opening of the first ever Kew Community Allotments have been created to engage with a wide range of groups including those with additional needs. Kew is also working with local children’s centres to invite young parents and children to take part in the first ever Kew Babies programme, where they learn through craft and music activities.

Given the unique nature of restoring a building of this calibre, Kew introduced an apprenticeship programme, part-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, with the aim of providing young people from local areas of high deprivation with the skills, training and confidence to succeed in specialist horticultural careers.

Ten young people consequently spent a year carefully removing plants from the building, and since then have been tending to them in their temporary homes and shadowing Kew’s horticultural display teams. In the run up to the re-opening, they have been heavily involved in the re-planting process. The scheme has also equipped an additional six apprentices with the skills needed to work in conservation and construction for heritage sites, learning carpentry, iron work and masonry. All are now all qualified to find employment in gardens and heritage sites across the UK.

Youth Explainer Programme
Kew’s first programme of its kind will see teenagers aged between 14 and 17 volunteer as guides in the Temperate House.  They have each undergone six months’ training on the plants that visitors will encounter– knowledge they will enthusiastically put into practice throughout the summer of 2018.

Schools are also a vital part of Kew’s community and this May we launch the Endeavour Programme, a new online learning platform that will reach schools throughout the UK and engage children in challenge-based activities.

Visitor Activities

Cirque Bijou
Celebrating 250 years of circus performing in the UK and inspired by the magnificent structure of the Temperate House, Cirque Bijou have created an unforgettable aerial show that will be a visual spectacle. Through contemporary choreography and a new musical score, the performance explores the themes of diversity in society, science and nature, focussing on how plants and humans interact and rely on each other for survival.
Weekends and Bank Holidays, from Saturday 26 May to Sunday 2 September. 20 minute performances once an hour between 12pm and 4pm.

Gnomus (Giant puppet)
Families can explore the Temperate House with conservation giant ‘Gnomus’, a larger-than-life puppet who will take them on a story-led walking tour, highlighting the most interesting tales around the vital importance of plants.
Saturday 26 May to Sunday 3 June, and Saturday 21 July to Sunday 2 September. 15 minute performances between 11am and 5pm.


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The Greatest Glasshouse in the World Awaits