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Glass conservatory by Heatherwick Studio

Heatherwick Studio creates unfolding Glasshouse for National Trust

Victorian terrariums informed the design of the Glasshouse, a sculptural and kinetic greenhouse that Thomas Heatherwick's studio has created on the historic Woolbeding Estate in England.

Built for heritage charity National Trust, the conservatory in West Sussex has a pyramidal 10-sided form that opens out like a crown to reveal a variety of subtropical trees and shrubs.

Aerial view of Woolbeding Estate
Heatherwick Studio has created the Glasshouse on a historic estate in England

It was created by London-based Heatherwick Studio as a focal point for the Silk Route Garden, a new outdoor space in the National Trust's Woolbeding Gardens at Woolbeding Estate that dates back to the 18th century.

"This is a place and a project that literally unfolds," said the studio's founder Thomas Heatherwick. "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."

Aerial view of Glasshouse by Heatherwick Studio
The greenhouse opens into a crown-like form

The Silk Route Garden that surrounds the Glasshouse has been curated as a 12-step journey that showcases the Silk Road – an ancient network of trading routes between Europe and Asia – and its influence on British horticulture.

Plant species introduced to Britain via the route fill the structure, including a rare Aralia Vietnamensis tree and a mix of ferns, umbrella trees, magnolias and bananas.

Greenhouse in Woolbeding Gardens
The structure resembles a jewel when closed

"It also speaks of our need to keep creating amazing pasts," added Heatherwick.

"Weaving contemporary inventions into the fabric of historic settings and having the confidence to let each one speak to the other."

Exterior of Glasshouse by Heatherwick Studio
It has a steel structure finished with aluminium and glass. Photo is by Raquel Diniz

The Glasshouse was developed by Heatherwick Studio in collaboration with The Woolbeding Charity and the National Trust.

It is composed of ten steel components that support angled glass panes and were designed to resemble the sepals on flowers that provide protection for flower buds.

Glasshouse unfolding in Woolbeding Estate
The conservatory takes four minutes to open. Photo is by Raquel Diniz

According to the studio, its design references ornamental Victorian terrariums, a type of sealable container made from glass and filled with soil and plants.

On warm days, the "sepals" of the greenhouse open out to create a 141-square-metre space in the shape of a crown. This uses a hydraulic mechanism developed with structural engineers Eckersley O'Callaghan, which relies on liquid under pressure and moving in a confined space.

This opening process, which takes four minutes, is engineered to expose the subtropical plants to sunshine and ventilation. The structure remains close in cooler weather.

Surrounding the sculpture is a winding path, which is lined with 300 species of plants from twelve distinct regions of the Silk Road.

Greenhouse with subtropical plants
It encloses subtropical plants

The Glasshouse joins a water feature designed by British sculptor William Pye and a neoclassical folly by British architect Philip Jebb on the site.

Heatherwick Studio is a London-based architecture and design studio founded by Heatherwick in 1994.

Roof of Glasshouse by Heatherwick Studio
The structure stays closed in cooler weather

The studio often integrates trees and plants into its projects, such as the Tree of Trees sculpture outside Buckingham Palace in London.

Larger scale examples include the 1,000 Trees project in Shanghai and the EDEN skyscraper in Singapore.

The photography is by Hufton + Crow unless stated otherwise.

Project credits:

Architect: Heatherwick Studio
Design director: Thomas Heatherwick
Group leader: Mat Cash
Project leader: Stepan Martinovsky
Technical design leader: Nick Ling
Project team: Peter Romvari, Skye Sun, Ross Gribben, Ning Loh
Client: The Woolbeding Charity
Project management: Stuart A Johnson Consulting
Structural engineers: Eckersley O'Callaghan
Environmental design: Atelier Ten
Building services engineer: Atelier Ten
Garden design consultant: Great Dixter Charitable Trust
Landscape architects: MRG Studio
Cost consultant: Core Five
Moving structures specialist: Eadon Consulting
Lighting specialist: Light Bureau
CDM: Goddard Consulting
Detailed engineering design and construction: Bellapart

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More images and plans

Site plan of Glasshouse by Heatherwick Studio
Site plan
Roof plan of Glasshouse by Heatherwick Studio
Roof plan
Floor plan of Glasshouse by Heatherwick Studio
Floor plan
Section of Glasshouse by Heatherwick Studio
Section of Glasshouse by Heatherwick Studio
Aerial view of Glasshouse by Heatherwick Studio
Exterior view of Glasshouse by Heatherwick Studio
Photo is by Raquel Diniz
Gardener at the Glasshouse by Heatherwick Studio
Photo is by Raquel Diniz
Gardener at the Glasshouse by Heatherwick Studio
Photo is by Raquel Diniz
Exterior of the Glasshouse by Heatherwick Studio
Photo is by Raquel Diniz