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Collaboration On The Integration Of Sculpture And Architecture For The New Education Resource Centre Building At Eden

Early in 2003, Jolyon Brewis from the architects Grimshaw, was commissioned to design a new education building for the Eden Project. Creative Director, Peter Hampel and CEO, Tim Smit had the idea of establishing a collaboration between the architect and myself at the very beginning of the design process. My brief was to contribute ideas that could influence the form and fabric of the new building as well as identifying opportunities for artists to enhance the overall scheme in order to demonstrate the power of human imagination and illustrate the inspiration that can be drawn from botanical form.

In March 2003, I was appointed as artist in residence to work with Jolyon on the concept and design of the new building and the appropriate integration of artwork. When Jolyon and I had our first meeting, at my studio, to discuss the building, Jolyon had only received the brief a week or so before.

The brief was that the building should be like a tree. Jolyon’s initial response was the concept of a lattice roof structure (the canopy) emanating from a central hollow core (the trunk). This lattice produced a pattern of diamond shapes set on a grid of opposing spirals based on concentric circles and radial lines, the diagonals of which created a symmetrical pattern with equal numbers of spirals of the same curvature in both directions.

This concept was enthusiastically received by both the client and the Millennium Commission, but there was a problem - the engineers calculated that the structure would require extremely thick (2,000mm) timber members to support the roof at the outer edge.

My own practice has always been informed by observation and study of living things in general and botanical form in particular. My work has taken me on a journey from relatively literal interpretations of specific forms in nature to an enquiry into the underlying  principles which determine the myriad forms that nature produces.

One of the major areas of inquiry in my recent work has been the way in which plant growth is determined by fundamental mathematical principles such as the Fibonacci sequence and the golden proportion.

The initial roof structure had an organic feel but was unlike nature in the symmetry of it’s radial grid structure. Jolyon and I talked about how nature’s love of economy results in the kind of patterns one finds in flowers, cones and seed pods and how these patterns can be rationalised mathematically in terms of the golden angle and the Fibonacci sequence. The golden proportion has been understood and used in art and architecture for millennia, but it is only in recent decades that it’s relevance to phyllotaxis (the study of the geometry of plant growth) has been fully appreciated.

We started to speculate about how the roof structure might be based more faithfully on the kind of spiral phyllotaxis found in plant forms. Jolyon passed this concept onto the engineers (Anthony Hunt Associates). Their response was very encouraging; based on the spiral phyllotaxis pattern found in plants the structure was far more viable, reducing the depth of timbers at the perimeter of the structure from 2,000 mm to nearer 800 mm. This was an exciting discovery and not so surprising; the sunflower (for example) ‘wants’ to pack as many seeds of a similar size into a given area. Taking the gaps between the seeds as the roof supports was bound to result in an efficient structural geometry.

The design that Jolyon then produced had a genuine connection with plant growth and was also viable as a roof structure combining botanical imagery with structural efficiency. The roof is light and elegant and, unlike the geodesic biomes, has a definite centre (in botanical terms the apex from which the primordia emanate). Architecture of almost all periods and all cultures is redolent of plant allusion and imagery. The lotus flower in the far East, the Acanthus in Greece, European medieval stiff leaf carving, the list goes on.

For me the challenge for this building, and ay associated artwork, had always been how to incorporate botanical  imagery in a genuinely contemporary and meaningful way.

I had long wanted to make a massive, volumetric sculpture to be contained within a chamber with carefully controlled natural light. I showed Jolyon drawings of these ideas and we began to think of this central space as a chamber to house a massive symbolic seed at the kernel of the building; a distillation of the structural principals of the roof.

We thought of this central chamber as a space designed specifically for the sculpture, echoing it’s shape like a giant seed pod. We also wanted to carefully control the transition that visitors would experience when passing from the main body of the building into this inner chamber. Jolyon designed the central core with a double skin incorporating a circular passageway with low light and dampened sound to maximise the drama of moving from the hustle and bustle of the main exhibits hall to the tranquility of the central space.

The Eden team quite rightly insisted that the granite for the sculpture should be Cornish. There are thousands of granite quarries in Cornwall - most of them disused. the majority of working quarries are crushing the stone for aggregates and only a handful still produce blocks on a regular basis.

I visited dozens of Cornish Quarries, many of them abandoned in search of the right stone for the sculpture. I felt that the integrity of the work depended on it being carved from a single piece of stone and the scale of the whole project meant that this stone needed to be very large.

My team and myself investigated a number of different sites but the blocks were either too small or flawed in some way. The problem was not only finding the right block but also finding a way of moving it on narrow Cornish lanes.

Eventually Delank Quarry, near St Breward on Bodmin Moor, took on the challenge of quarrying the enormous block needed for the sculpture and a team of engineers worked out how to manoeuvre 80 tonnes of granite through the lanes and over a narrow bridge.

The quarrymen at Delank identified an area of the quarry where they thought a large sound block might be found. Drilling, splitting and blasting they removed hundreds of tones of granite, eventually leaving a massive megalith 5 meters high. A small charge of gunpowder eventually released the 167 tonne block from the bed of the quarry.

The largest crane in Europe was then assembled on site arriving in pieces on 30 low loader lorries and assembled by two mobile cranes.

Having lifted the block from the quarry the task of making the sculpture began.

Many people have been involved in the realisation of this project from the ancient art of the quarrymen to the latest 21st Century 3d computer modelling. Geologists, quarrymen, stonemasons, engineers, crane operators, computer experts, mathematicians and my own inventive and resourceful team (Ben Adams, David Brampton-Greene, Iain Cant, Matt
Diffey, PJ Dove, Robin Duttson, Jennifer Mullins, Simon Thomas, Tom Waugh, Dominic Welch, and others), have all been vital in bringing this sculpture to fruition.

For me one of the most challenging parts of the process was plotting the Fibonacci pattern of nearly 2,000 circles onto the 3d from. The growth pattern on which the sculpture is based is organic and bears no relation to a horizontal and vertical grid, which made the task particularly difficult.

Working on this scale presents many practical problems and it’s success or failure depends on the subtlety of the final surface.

A great deal of precision has gone into achieving the overall form and plotting the complex pattern on its surface. The final stage of carving subverts this mechanical accuracy in order to create something truly organic; an undulating surface underpinned by mathematical principles.

The sculpture within the chamber will, I hope, be an object of contemplation and meditation, a still quiet hub; both fossil and seed. It is very unusual for an artist to be commissioned to work on the concept and design of a building. Tim Smit and the Eden team had the vision and courage to involve an artist at an early stage in the design process. They also had the integrity and tenacity to support the making of the sculpture from Cornish Granite.

Hopefully the result of this collaboration will unite concept and form, object and structure, art and architecture in a unique and cohesive whole.

Peter Randall-Page
January 2007

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