Heatherwick Studio recently unveiled a new project, a kinetic greenhouse at the edge of the National Trust’s Woolbeding Gardens. It is also part of a historic estate in West Sussex. This beautiful unfolding structure is at the center of a new garden that shows how the Silk Road influences English gardens even in modern times.

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A view of the greenhouse partially opened.

Heatherwick Studio designed the Glasshouse in a joint effort with The Woolbeding Charity and the National Trust. Inspiration came from Victorian ornamental terrariums, but the greenhouse is far from ornamental. The latest engineering techniques are used to create a protective functional structure that is also beautiful. The design features ten steel “sepals” made of glass and aluminum. These sepals open over four minutes to reveal a 1,517 square foot space shaped like a crown.

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The Glasshouse aerial view with all ten "sepals" open in a spiral.

The Glasshouse opens on warm days using a hydraulic system to give the inside plants sun and ventilation. Then in colder weather, the structure stays closed to protect subtropical plants.

A foggy day showing the Glasshouse unfurled.

“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,” says Thomas Heatherwick. “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 jewel-looking greenhouse and winding garden path.

Further, the Silk Route Garden around the greenhouse walks visitors through a journey influenced by the ancient Silk Road. The trading routes between Asia and Europe brought silk and spices as well as many plant species to Britain for the first time. These plants included modern Western favorites such as rosemary, lavender and fennel.

The winding path of the Silk Route Gardens beside the Glasshouse.

The garden also contains a winding path that guides visitors through the twelve regions of the Silk Road. The path offers over 300 plant species for visitors to see, too. Plant species span from Mediterranean evergreens to Gallica roses that came to Europe thanks to traders from Persia.

A close view of the closed Glasshouse with people tending to plants.

“This Heatherwick Glasshouse represents the cutting edge of technical design and engineering but it’s also a restoration of something that is part of Woolbeding’s history,” Mark Woodruff of The Woolbeding Charity says.

A view looking up at the closed structure from inside.

“It stands as a crowning achievement in contemporary design, to house the flora of sub-tropical south-west China at the end of a path retracing the steps along the Silk Route, from temperate Europe and across mountains, arid lands and high pastures that brought the plants from their native habitat in Asia to come to define much of the richness and glory of gardening in England,” Mark Woodruff adds.

The various rare and delicate plants inside the glasshouse.

Inside, the Glasshouse shelters a rare specimen of an Aralia Vietnamensis that then supplies shade for delicate ferns, umbrella trees, magnolias and bananas.

“The gardens and parklands of the National Trust are as much about the future as they are about the past,” Andy Jasper, Head of Gardens and Parks for the National Trust says. In doing so, he reminds us of the horticultural legacy of Europe and England as well as of our commitment to tomorrow.

+ Heatherwick Studio

Photography by Hufton+Crow and Raquel Diniz