Volunteer Park Conservatory, Building the Future (Part 1 of 3)

Located in the Olmsted designed Volunteer Park, the Volunteer Park Conservatory is a Capitol Hill nexus to many of the cultural, technological, and scientific endeavors and achievements of the 18th and 19th centuries. I was reminded of this when I recently read Building the Future: Building and Cultural History from the Industrial Revolution until Today, by Ulrich Pfammatter and published by Prestel in 2008. I purchased it at Elliott Bay books (http://www.elliottbaybook.com) during their Capitol Hill grand opening this past summer. The book is organized into 100 case studies, covering works from the early pioneers of iron bridge construction to the latest technological feats of Foster and Partners, Renzo Piano, and Arup, among many others. The book begins, however, with the seemingly humble pre-cursor to their work: the greenhouse. Essentially pioneered in England, and to some extent France, the greenhouse is an interesting case study in itself, with the one in Volunteer Park being a fine early 20th century example of this 19th century harbinger of tectonic change. Inspired by Mr. Pfammatter’s excellent book, the below text builds upon his own and is furthered my own observations and research on architectural and cultural histories.

Appearing in England towards the end of the Industrial Revolution (in the second quarter of the 19th Century), greenhouses were well poised to become an architectural representative of the Victorian Age’s zeitgeist; for greenhouses were not only the material manifestations of the Revolution (beginning prior to Queen Victoria’s reign) in their use of iron and glass, but also reflective of the revolutions in the fields of science and economics, as well  the social mobility of the newly emerging middle class, all creating demands for new types of urban and architectural spaces in which to spend the leisure time resulting from industrialization and its resulting new prosperity.  It is no coincidence that these revolutions were centered in Great Britain, which was not only the age’s leading technological innovator, but also the leader in scientific exploration and, perhaps more importantly, the leaders in creating the cultural conditions that created the consumers of industrialization. The writings of British and Scottish Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke, Hume, Hobbes, and Adam Smith popularized economic and social policies that led to the middle class's prominence by grounding capitalism as a seemingly inevitable evolutionary outcome of a greater western conciseness. The middle-class, and the moneyed interests who fed their appetites for consumption, were given license to turn their attentions away from the travails of day-to-day living, freeing them for social interaction.

By this time Great Britain had developed into the world’s premier naval power and used their maritime prowess to comb the world in search of not only empire, markets and resources, but also advance scientific understanding. Among the fruits of these journeys of discovery were the many exotic, oftentimes tropical, plants discovered in the New World, Africa, and the Pacific by expeditions such as those of the HMS Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin on in his formative years to the Galapagos, the island from which he collected many of the specimens that would inform his theory of Natural Selection.

In addition to a bourgeoning middle class and well-capitalized business enterprises, Great Britain also had the Royal Society, the world’s oldest organization (being chartered by the crown in the late 17th century) in pursuit of furthering – and defining - scientific inquiry and knowledge. The Royal Society was a strong proponent of the so-called voyages of discovery, and provided an important forum for exchange of ideas and financing of endeavors. The Society doubtlessly set the foundation upon which the public at large built an appetite for learning more about the natural world, and the exotic plants and animals it contained. But where to house these specimens so that they could be studied by science and viewed by the public? How could one recreate the environment from which they came, how does one provide habitat for say a bird of paradise, native to South Africa, in the climate of an island in the North Atlantic? By a new type of building made possible by the fruits of industrialization, the greenhouse.

To find out more about the Volunteer Park Conservatory: http://www.volunteerparkconservatory.org/

To find out how you can support Seattle Parks: http://www.seattleparksfoundation.org/

Next: the tectonics of the greenhouse at the Volunteer Park Conservatory and its precedents.