Arcadian idyll or suburban tearoom? The English garden pavilion gets a rethink.

We English – I’m not talking about the Celtic lands here – just love a bit of well-manicured nature. The more manicured the better, in fact. How else to explain the baffling popularity of the gruesome Chelsea Flower Show, a horticultural Crufts and just as natural? Truly we are a nation of Titchmarshes. But architecture is savvy to this. Architecture too is in love with the idea of nature tamed. Put the two together and you get some of the best buildings to emerge from the English psyche.

From the 1848 Palm House at the Kew botanic gardens (Decimus Burton and Richard Turner) to the 2001 Eden Project in Cornwall (Sir Nicholas Grimshaw) the English have always loved to mix up buildings with growing stuff. They’re still doing it at Kew, with a dandy little admiral’s hat of a new Alpine House by Wilkinson Eyre, promenade bridge across a lake by John Pawson, and other interventions coming along. But to understand fully the English garden mentality, you must grapple with the concept of the visitor centre.

Millions of us visit gardens, but we don’t really want to be out in the open, particularly not if there’s weather or insects about. No, we want to be slightly separated, looking out at the greenery over the rim of our teacup. Just as we do in our own homes, in fact. Gardens to the English are just like big window boxes. Which explains why domestic garden makeovers are generally little to do with plants and much to do with concrete. Translate this into the public realm and you get the Savill Building in Windsor Great Park.

This is a building of verve and imagination, high architectural thinking applied to the ineffably mundane. This bit of Windsor’s royal park contains the Savill Garden, begun in the reign of George V. It’s very nice, but let’s not be fooled: it is essentially a superior park for suburbanites, an escape valve for the folk of Egham and Staines and Virginia Water, the way Kensington Gardens are for Londoners. What people need in such places is a building for bodily needs and desires. Café, toilets, shops, perhaps a bit of undemanding educational stuff to tell you about the gardens you probably won’t bother to go and look at directly. The remarkable fact is that the majority of visitors to such gardens never get beyond the café. Which is fine for the garden operators, since these places coin money.

I visited the Savill building, designed by architect Glenn Howells, the day it opened to the public. It was a weekday, there had been no fanfare or announcement, yet the paying public turned up in their hundreds and filled the place as if it had always been there. Always intended to be the focal point the garden previously lacked, this £5m structure has now become its reason for existence. It is as if the garden is there to serve the building, rather than vice-versa.

Howells is an excellent architect of the generation of new modernists that emerged during the 1990s. Generally a man for the finely-detailed right-angle, an aficionado of pale steel and smooth white concrete, here he has poured his energies into something quite different: a virtuoso timber gridshell roof. The building is all about this mesmerically undulating roof, made from the harvested larch and oak of the Great Park. At the back, rather like a greenhouse in a walled garden, it emerges from a tall brick boundary wall that gives way to a planted earth bank. This conceals some surprisingly large rooms – a top-lit greenhouse selling plants, a lecture theatre, offices and toilets. But the main space – column-free for 320 feet from end to end, rising to 30 feet at its highest – is what it’s all about.

It is a noble anteroom to the landscape beyond – Howells clearly sees it as a portico on a processional route – and inside the revealed latticework of the roof is a tour de force. What it shelters, however, is rather more humdrum: shops one side, café and restaurant the other. To distinguish the functions and mark the central route through, Howells has designed big space-divider units in Corian, the hard white substance usually found in kitchen worktops. At the front, overlooking the gardens, the roof is simply joined to the ground with glass. So what you have is effectively a great big weather-sealed canopy, perched on dynamically angled steel legs. It is the ultimate summerhouse, the granddaddy of gazebos.

Such buildings are always collaborations with structural engineers, and here Howells worked with gridshell specialist Richard Harris of engineers Buro Happold. The complex timberwork was done by the Green Oak Carpentry Company under the eye of Verry Construction. And it’s all very nice that the most visible part of the building – plus its floor – should be made from the local timber. Just a slight shame that there is no local sawmill so it had to go to Northamptonshire and back to be cut. Still, in eco-terms that’s better than buying your wood from France or America or the Tropics.

A gridshell is a technique as much as a physical thing, a particular way of making a three-dimensional building out of a two-dimensional latticework – usually, as here, long strips of jointed wood. Other examples come right down to the ground, forming walls as well as roof. A key example is the Downland Gridshell at the Weald and Downland open-air museum in Sussex, designed by Edward Cullinan Architects, again with Buro Happold. That one was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2002. In contrast the Savill Building is a hybrid of timber and steel, and depends upon a massive steel edge beam, plus some invisible below-ground linkages, to keep it all from flying apart.

Engineering here is in the service of architecture rather than vice-versa. The slightly oriental little kick up at its pointy ends is a purely architectural conceit, and it works visually. Where Cullinan’s Downland Gridshell is a creature of the earth, Howells’ Savill Building is of the air. It looks as if it will flap its wings and rise into the sky imminently. Indeed, that roof is designed to move a few centimetres up and down a little in the wind, and has sliding connections with its walls to handle the movement.

High summer is here and the English are on the move, from garden to garden. Such is our hunger for man-made nature that new examples are being made to feed it. The immensely popular new formal garden at Alnwick Castle in Northumbria is doing such wonders for the economy of the region that there is talk of new air routes and railway stations just to serve it. Alnwick now also has its high-design visitor centre, in that case by architect Sir Michael Hopkins. But it is Howells, I think, who has captured the essence of the English obsession most perfectly. The Savill Building is a shrine to the art of pottering.

Text and photos © Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, London, on June 25, 2006, as “Grounds for optimism”.

Note to non-Brits: the Chelsea Flower Show is the biggest horticultural and garden design exhibition annually in the UK, while Crufts is its equivalent pedigree dogs’ show. Alan Titchmarsh is a popular media gardener and television presenter.


Glenn Howells Architects:
The Savill Garden: