You might think of a greenhouse as an outhouse, a small structure in a garden for growing plants under glass. It could be considered as a place of agriculture on an industrial scale, enveloping an artificial landscape.
You might think of it as the genesis of modernity, the ground zero of contemporary architecture – a legacy that began with the Palm House in Kew Gardens and the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in the mid-19th century and has continued to encompass the great stations and halls, before shaping the shopping centers, leisure centers, holiday parks, airports and museums which became the architectural expressions of late capitalism.
Or it could just bring hints of global warming, climate catastrophe, greenhouse effect.
Whatever you think, the greenhouse is making a comeback in architecture in the most unexpected way. They appear everywhere, from the work of this year’s Pritzker Prize winners Lacaton & Vassal to the encapsulation by Carmody Groarke of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House. From Moscow to Mars, they become the default signifier of our brand of modernity.
It is a curious phenomenon which seems to recognize the fragility of architecture and our place in the world. There is no more cliché – or better – metaphor for precariousness than the glass house. But its use resists this interpretation, seeking instead a way for the modern era to coexist with older structures, recognizing difference, climate change and cultural change, the nature of mass production, and some futility.
In one of the most influential buildings of recent years, De Vylder Vinck Taillieu’s Caritas Psychiatric Center in Melle, Belgium, the architects inserted seemingly standard greenhouses into the shell of a historic hospital. This can be a commentary on the changing nature of institutions (literally introducing transparency) but it also suggests an attitude to history, allowing the fabric to remain as a romantic ruin while partially and lightly inhabiting it. . The fragility of a greenhouse contrasts with the heavy confidence of the 19th century: it is an illuminated and sheltered place that is uncertain. In the context of a hospital, he asks questions about how we deal with mental illness as a society.
The tradition is not entirely new. Already in the early 1970s, Swedish architect Bengt Warne wrapped old houses in greenhouses, preserving their fabric while modernizing their appearance and thermal performance. He introduced a zone of nature, a buffer zone between landscape and interior that is not quite one or the other.
Jo Taillieu, who has since formed his own practice, continued exploration in the Paddenbroek educational center in Gooik, Belgium, enveloping the buildings of an abandoned fruit farm in a large greenhouse structure that both plays on the agricultural origins of the site and creates an internal landscape of historic buildings as rooms.
OMA Architects had previously wrapped the Garage, a Communist-era canteen in Moscow, in inexpensive translucent polycarbonate, contrasting the fragile layer of the new pearly with the solid and confident modernism of the defunct building to create a striking artistic hub.
French architects Lacaton & Vassal have built their careers on cladding buildings in delicate layers of translucent materials. What is unusual about them is that their attention is not focused on world-class institutions but on social housing. By wrapping the modernist slabs in layers of polycarbonate or glass, they allowed the inhabitants to remain in place during the execution of the work, their communities intact. The new envelope then offers an enlarged exterior, an area between the interior and the city that has itself become a kind of greenhouse, with stacks of gardens in the sky and brightly lit areas that residents can inhabit.
They applied the same techniques to the FRAC gallery in Dunkirk in 2019, where they built a greenhouse-shaped structure to mirror the reused and reused industrial hangar next door. The new structure is clad in corrugated polycarbonate, a ghostly echo of the cracked pewter next to it, a translucent shadow. This is a particularly striking effect at night when the industrial hangar darkens and the new building begins to shine like a paper lantern, a play of positive and negative, of weight and ephemeral and, no doubt, of d industry and art.
Last year, architects Carmody Groarke locked Mackintosh’s Hill House in Helensburgh, Scotland, in a steel box covered with chain mail as part of a conservation project. The effect here, a sort of diaphanous box, is both to protect and to expose. After the shock of the damage to Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art in the 2018 fire, this house, arguably Mackintosh’s best, has appeared extra-precious and the showcase effect suits it well, adding to its mystery. The similarity with the work of Lacaton & Vassal in Dunkirk is clear.
You could argue that this phenomenon in architecture – greenhouses and glass boxes, display cases and poly-agri enclosures – is a manifestation of angst, an idea that either architecture must be protected or we must be protected in its breast. But I would say there is something more.
After astronaut William Anders took the “Earthrise” photo of Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968, the inhabitants of the planet he captured were mesmerized by the delicacy of its glowing atmosphere, the membrane that allows us to live our life. Awareness of the impending climate catastrophe has rekindled this understanding of fragility.
German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has written extensively on his theory of modern architecture as a manifestation of the bubble idea, from the Crystal Palace to the glass-roofed arcades of Paris to the capitalist recreation megastructures. The French philosopher Bruno Latour also sees our understanding of space in these terms, what he calls the “Umwelt”, the world as it is experienced by an organism – that is to say mainly us.
The architects of the 1960s nurtured a fetish for mega-infrastructures, entire worlds under glass, air-conditioned, whose inhabitants never left their personal bubbles. Buckminster Fuller even imagined Manhattan under a glass roof. With our malls, airports, data centers and distribution centers, the prophecy has gone from visionary to mundane; it is the daily requirement for many. But this new manifestation of the bubble is something else. Delicate and intimate, it is a daily showcase where architecture and its users are like objects in a museum showcase.
While half a century ago bubble architecture was a way to create artificial worlds (which themselves recur in the interplanetary visions of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos), this new architecture, rather than d ‘insisting on artifice, highlights the authenticity and value, the uniqueness of the historical object and our separation from the authentic, its inaccessibility in our time. It is a way of remaking architecture as a curator, building without committing. A greenhouse or a polycarbonate box is a ready-made, a deviation from design through the adoption and adaptation of everyday life and the catalog of parts. He makes us understand that the material, the dwelling and the Earth itself are fragile and precarious, a heavy burden for a delicate box.
Edwin Heathcote is the architecture and design critic of the FT