Return to Eden

In March this year a feat of architectural technology opened in the English county of Cornwall. From inside one of man's most modern buildings, the Eden Project brings you something as old as the world - Nature.

Back in the 1960s, futurists gave us images of what they believed life would be like in the 21st century. Everyone has seen those pictures of ultra-modern cityscapes with super-clean cars whizzing around on traffic-jam-free roads. Our houses would be filled with gadgets and robots that would do all the day-to-day chores. And of course there would be one of those TV telephones in the corner where we could see whoever it was we were talking to. Well, apart from mobile TV phones (still extremely rare) none of that has happened. But another image you might have seen - that of plants growing in man-made biospheres - has come true. Welcome to the Eden Project.

The world's largest greenhouse

The massive domes of the world's largest greenhouse look exactly as if they have just popped up out of an old sixties sci-fi comic. Built into an old china clay pit near St Austell (mining china clay is one of Cornwall's major industries), the domes - or "biomes", as they are called - cover a vast 13.75 hectares. Outside the biomes there are another 38 hectares of garden. The project is Britain's newest attraction and aims to educate as well as amaze its visitors.

The idea was conceived by Tim Smit, a Dutchman who for a long time worked in London's recording industry, writing and producing pop music. He moved down to Cornwall in 1987 and soon took on his first horticultural project, the Lost Gardens of Heligan, a huge Victorian ornamental garden that had fallen into decay. Smit and his team restored the garden to its original splendour and it soon became one of the most popular tourist destinations in Cornwall. Following this success, Smit decided that his next project would be far more ambitious. And so the Eden Project was born.

After seven years' work, some crazy financial risk-taking and a lot of publicity, Eden opened on 17 March 2001. There are two biomes at the site, the larger housing tropical plants and the smaller containing plants that grow in temperate climates. They are made of a steel frame covered in three layers of transparent plastic. Glass would be too heavy for the steel structure to hold up, as there are no supports holding the domes up from beneath. The plastic, called ethylenetetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), weighs just one per cent of the weight of glass. It also lets more light through.

Hot, humid and humongous

The tropical biome is truly immense. At 240m long, 55m high and 110m wide, the Tower of London could fit inside it! It contains over 2,000 different plant species from all over the tropical world. As you walk around it, signs tell you if you are in the Amazon, the Congo or Southeast Asia. "Weather machines" blowing warm air or spraying wet mists regulate the temperature. It can get very warm - up to 35 degrees Celsius - and extremely humid. One detail that helps add to the illusion of reality is the butterflies. As they flit about from flower to flower it really is easy to imagine you're deep in an actual jungle. But because of the devastating damage caterpillars could do to the plants, they are not allowed to reproduce. All the butterflies in the biome are male.

The temperate biome is not quite so impressive, but will no doubt improve over time as the plants grow and become established. It contains habitats and plants from Mediterranean countries, California and South Africa, with part of it devoted to desert lands. Originally Eden's creators had plans to build a third biome, solely devoted to deserts, but were unable to do so due to financial constraints. They hope, nevertheless, that they will be able to realise their ambitions in the future.

Environmental awareness

The Eden Project stresses the importance of sustainable agriculture and recycling of resources. The Project's creators say that their main aim is to educate people and make them more aware of the natural environment. Throughout the biomes there are references to the fragility of nature and ways in which man uses and abuses it.

In the tropical biome it was amazing to see actual coffee, cocoa and pineapple plants, and banana and rubber trees, while lemon, olive and cork trees grow in the temperate biome. These are all plants whose products we in northern Europe are so familiar with, and yet so rarely see the plants themselves growing.

Outside the biomes the site is yet to be completed. The expanse of mud and clay will soon be a huge area containing plants that grow naturally in Cornwall's mild climate. There will be flowers and herbs, fruit, berries, lavender, sunflowers, hemp and tea, to name just a few. Again we are shown how plants are useful to man, and thus the importance of conserving the natural world. In the middle of it all is an arena with an open-air stage where shows and performances with an environmental theme are put on.

Whether environmental concerns interest you or not, the Eden Project is still a fascinating place to visit. The biomes are an architectural wonder, as well as a wonder of nature, and the trip down to Cornwall to see them is well worth it. Over the seasons and years the site will always be changing as plants grow and new ones are brought in. Because of this, entry tickets are valid for a whole year. Let's hope that Eden attracts all the visitors it deserves, although after the first few months it seems that won't be a problem - they even had to put ads in the local press asking people to stay away as it was getting too crowded. Above all, though, let's hope that the project's environmental message is heard.

- Barnaby Harward