Tim Rich: It hasn’t all gone to seed

Tim Rich visited a science and exhibition centre at Wakehurst Place gardens in Sussex, and was pleasantly surprised by the building’s restrained sensibilities

Perhaps I’m a hypocrite, but I want new buildings in urban areas to create a striking contrast with their physical setting, and new buildings in rural areas to pay deep respect to their ‘natural’ setting. The built environment thrives on an energetic dialogue between old and new – shock, argument and surprise are more life affirming than continuity in this context. But try the same in a natural location and I want to reach for the cordite.

Of course, this perspective wantonly ignores the fact that rural Britain is not really very natural at all. Most fields and hedgerows are as much the result of human design as the local high street, and more woods are farmed than wild. But still I can’t shake a feeling that new constructions in undeveloped areas should sympathise with what’s left of nature, rather than pollute the space with the unbridled self-expression of an architect.

Before my recent and first visit to the Millennium Seed Bank, a science and exhibition centre in the exquisite gardens at Wakehurst Place (Kew Gardens’ country cousin), I wasn’t sure if I should pack explosives or hope for an example of sympathetic design. How could architects create something so forward-focused without adulterating the surroundings? The building was nearing its first birthday, so it seemed a fair time to judge its success.

Like all gardens, Wakehurst Place is a created space, but it offers such an enticing fantasy of nature that you soon forget the authors and simply enjoy the story. There are pathways, bridges and information panels, but these are simply navigational devices to help the visitor experience an extraordinary journey through natural colours, shapes, textures, sounds and smells.

It is in this gentle context that the seed bank was constructed. Underground is a vault where the world’s largest collection of seeds is preserved, at ground level a seed collection centre and laboratory. A sample of almost all UK flora is held here in seed form, and the objective is to gather and store 10 per cent of the world’s dry lands’ flora. This is a Noah’s Ark for increasingly endangered plant life.

Invaluable stuff, but is the building a blight on the gardens? I arrived via a side path and first impressions weren’t good. The reverse perspective is dull and half-hidden by a hump of manufactured hillock that looks as if it failed the audition to be the Teletubbies’ set. But my scepticism melted away as I walked around to the front and saw that architect Stanton Williams has created an elegant, low-profile construction that integrates with the landscape. Nearby trees remain the tallest structures, and thick bushes create a perimeter. Gentle banking leads down to clear glass walls that preview an intriguing interior. Outside the entrance, blocks containing samples of threatened plant life from the UK provide a transition area from garden to building. More could be done to soften the visual meeting of grass and brick, but I assume that this is being addressed.

Inside, a natural light-blessed exhibition area sets the seed bank in the context of the world’s environmental issues and explains its objective

s and methods. Impeccable presentation of objects and images is married with engaging and provoking text. Just one caveat; the clever lighting device positioning Orange as corporate sponsor is invasive and confuses the visitor’s journey.

The interior walls of the exhibition space feature huge windows through which you can watch the scientists at work. Peer in and you see rooms full of lab freezers, microscopes and sacks of seeds. I’m not sure how the lab staff feel about being watched all day, but it left me with a deep impression of good work being done with public money.

The building is proving popular with diverse communities. Purists will know it received an RIBA Award this year; populists that it featured on TV’s Home Front in November. For me, it represents a fine example of architectural design that respects its precious location without being bland or contextually obsequious. If it were in London or Manchester I would think it timid; in Sussex it feels just right.

I wonder what visitors in 100 years’ time will make of it? Perhaps they will see a self-conscious piece of understatement from the age of mass environmental destruction. Or perhaps they will appreciate the refreshingly restrained sensibilities of architects who seem to have understood that man will never design anything as aesthetically complete and functionally faultless as a tree or a plant.

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