In mid-August, for six days in a row, temperatures in central London surpassed 34C — the first time this had happened since at least 1961. With parks and lawns left dusty and scorched, and trees defoliated as though it were autumn, it was not hard to see it as evidence of the rising temperatures and extreme weather events that accompany climate change. A newly planted garden would have been dead within a week, says horticulturist Tom Massey. His current crops, however, are not only surviving the heat but “kind of enjoying it”, he says.
The garden designer has been working with architecture practice Studio Weave on The Hothouse, an installation in Stratford, east London, for London Design Festival. The exterior of the structure will be reminiscent of a Victorian conservatory, with an arched, ribbed frame and imposing scale. But the interior will look into the future — 2050, to be precise, when research suggests that London’s climate will be more like that of present-day Melbourne, Australia, or San Jose, California, than what we know today. Massey was brought in to fill the space with the plants of the future: those that might grow outdoors in the capital 30 years from now.
The festival organisers approached Studio Weave to create a project for Stratford, near where Je Ahn, the practice’s founding director, lives. His research into the surrounding Lea Valley showed him that it was once incredibly fertile marshland; in the 1930s, it had one of the largest and densest populations of greenhouses in the world, totalling 1,300 acres at its peak. He wanted the project to reference this history and look at how the area became a multibillion-pound regeneration scheme, with help from the London 2012 Olympics.
The installation will be, Massey says, “lush and green and jungly”. He and Studio Weave hope it will “reference the ingenuity of humanity”, and that the possibility of growing mangoes, avocados and pomegranates in our gardens within our lifetimes will inspire visitors.
This might seem strangely cheery for a project with such a serious — almost apocalyptic — message. But Ahn says the only way to have visitors truly absorb and engage with it is to, first, draw them in. He hopes they will be “happy and joyful”, he says, “but at the same time think about the result of our collective actions”. Combating climate change has to be a positive endeavour. “I don’t want people to have a bitter taste afterwards.”
That taste might even be sweet: there will also be pineapples in The Hothouse.
“I’m quite obsessed with pineapples,” says Ahn of the fruit that was, in the Victorian period, a symbol of hospitality because of its expense and rarity. Pineapples could even be rented for dinner parties. “It’s notoriously difficult to grow [them] in the UK,” he says. But in London it might soon be easy.
Ahn hopes that the space, 7m high and filled with glowing lights and mist, will be mystical and cathedral-like, and will speak to the “simple pleasure of looking after beautiful plants”, he says. “I don’t want to advocate doom and gloom.”
But it is also, inescapably, terrifying. As concern grows about climate change and food security, The Hothouse will give a glimpse into the near future. It raises the question: if the microclimate of historically grey, damp London will, within our lifetimes, resemble Melbourne’s, then what will Melbourne resemble, or low-lying Bangladesh? “With these more extreme weather events and heatwaves becoming more and more frequent,” says Massey, “people are now starting to feel it in reality as opposed to it being this abstract thing.”
Massey is already seeing the effects of climate change. Many of his clients are now asking for plants that are drought-tolerant and require less watering, which leads to him using species originally grown in the Mediterranean and more arid environments. “Increasingly, as designers move in those directions and customers become more in tune with those kinds of planting schemes, it’s going to change the dynamic of the quintessential English garden,” he says.
Post-coronavirus, social-distancing requirements have meant that what would have been an event space is now packed with plants, while talks and events are moved outside. The installation will open on September 12 and be in situ for a year before the “totally mobile” structure will, the creators hope, move to another home.
Studio Weave’s residential projects all have a focus on a long lifespan, and Ahn hopes the inhabitants are able to connect to a living building that is not, like many other developments, “anonymous and hotel-like”. He mentions a social-housing project that he is currently working on, where the building is tiered and sloped on its south-west side to allow its community gardens to receive the best light possible. Residents of social housing are frequently stigmatised, he says. He wants them instead to be proud of where they live.
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Hopefully The Hothouse, while being a warning, will also encourage visitors to understand and care a little more about their immediate surroundings. He mentions the success of the pedestrianisation of Soho, which has invigorated the way that Londoners interact with and inhabit the area.
“That experiment is happening all over the country at the same time. People are seeing their streets and cities very differently,” Ahn says. “I am looking forward to the positive change that this will bring.”
From September 12 at Redman Place, International Quarter London, London E20 1JQW
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