Essential Architecture-  London

Palm House at Kew Gardens


Decimus Burton and Richard Turner 


Kew, west London


1844 to 1848




glass and steel. 363 feet long, 100 feet wide, 66 feet high. 


"Sir Joseph Paxton (1801-65), who achieved fame with his all-glass, prefabricated — and incomparable — Crystal Palace Exhibition Hall of 1851, was the protagonist of glass in architecture. His conservatory at Chatsworth (1837; now, like the Crystal Palace, destroyed) was one of the great glass pioneers.

"Inspired by Chatsworth, and by the eager searching of the times, Decimus Burton and Richard Turner designed the much larger Palm House in London's Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where they were the supervising architects. Palm House is 363 feet long by 100 feet wide and rises to a height of 66 feet. Besides educating visitors in the natural world, one of the functions of English greenhouses at the time was to display the exotic range of plants and flowers that flourished in the British Empire."

— G. E. Kidder Smith. Looking at Architecture. p128.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Kew Gardens originated in the exotic garden at Kew Park formed by Lord Capel of Tewkesbury. It was enlarged and extended by Princess Augusta, the widow of Frederick, Prince of Wales, for whom Sir William Chambers built several garden structures. One of these, the lofty Chinese pagoda built in 1761 still remains. George III enriched the gardens, aided by William Aiton and Sir Joseph Banks. The old Kew Park (by then renamed the White House), was demolished in 1802. The "Dutch House" adjoining was purchased by George III in 1781 as a nursery for the royal children. It is a plain brick structure now known as Kew Palace.

In 1840 the gardens were adopted as a national botanical garden. Under Kew's director, William Hooker, the gardens were increased to 30 hectares (75 acres) and the pleasure grounds, or arboretum, extended to 109 hectares (270 acres), and later to its present size of 120 hectares (300 acres).

The Palm House was built by architect Decimus Burton and iron-maker Richard Turner between 1844 and 1848, and was the first large-scale structural use of wrought iron. The structure's panes of glass are all hand-blown. The Temperate house, which is twice as large as the Palm House, followed later in the 19th century. It is now the largest Victorian glasshouse in existence.

Kew was the location of the successful effort in the 19th century to propagate rubber trees for cultivation outside South America.

Princess of Wales ConservatoryThe year 1987 saw the opening of Kew's third major conservatory, the Princess of Wales Conservatory (opened by Princess Diana in commemoration of her predecessor Augusta's associations with Kew),[2] which houses 10 climate zones.

In October 1987 Kew Gardens lost hundreds of trees in the Great Storm of 1987.

In July 2003, the gardens were put on the list of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.

Kew Gardens today

The lake next to the Palm House at KewKew Gardens is a leading center of botanical research, a training ground for professional gardeners and a visitor attraction. In 2005 Kew received 1.48 million visitors, which was the most since 1949 and is the largest number for any paid entry garden in the United Kingdom.[3] The gardens are mostly informal, with a few formal areas. There are conservatories, a herbarium, a library and eating places. In the winter months there is an ice rink.

Kew is important as a seedbank. It co-sponsors the Millennium Seed Bank Project inside the Wellcome Trust Millennium Building at Wakehurst Place in Sussex.

With the Harvard University Herbaria, and the Australian National Herbarium, they co-operate in the IPNI database to produce an authoritative source of information on botanical nomenclature.

The Temperate House. This greenhouse has twice the floor area of the Palm House and is the world's largest surviving Victorian glass structureDespite unfavourable growing conditions (atmospheric pollution from London, dry soils and low rainfall) Kew remains one of the most comprehensive plant collections in Britain. In an attempt to expand the collections away from these unfavourable conditions, Kew has established two out-stations, at Wakehurst Place in Sussex, a National Trust property, and (jointly with the Forestry Commission) Bedgebury Pinetum in Kent, the latter specialising in growing conifers.

Library and archives
The library and archives at Kew are one of the largest botanical collections in the world, with over half a million items, including books, botanical illustrations, photographs, letters and manuscripts, periodicals, and maps. The Jodrell Library was recently merged with the Economic Botany and Mycology Libraries and all are now housed together in the Jodrell Laboratory.

The nearest combined rail and London Underground station is Kew Gardens station (District Line and London Overground) to the east of the gardens.

Bus routes: 65 and 391


Guided Walks
Free tours of the gardens are conducted by trained volunteers and leave from Victoria Gate at 11am and 2pm every day (except Christmas Day).

Vehicular Tour
Kew Explorer is a gas-powered 72-seater people mover that takes a circular route around the gardens. A commentary is provided by the driver and there are several stops. Tickets cost £3.50.


The PagodaIn a corner of Kew Gardens stands the Great Pagoda (by William Chambers), erected in the year 1762, from a design in imitation of the Chinese Ta. The lowest of the ten octagonal storeys is 49 feet (15 metres) in diameter. From the base to the highest point is 163 feet (50 metres).

Each storey finishes with a projecting roof, after the Chinese manner, originally covered with ceramic tiles and adorned with large dragons; these were reputedly[citation needed] sold by George IV to settle his debts. The walls of the building are composed of brick. The staircase, 253 steps, is in the centre of the building. The Pagoda was closed to the public for many years, but reopened for the summer months in 2006. Renovation is under way for permanent opening to the public to celebrate Kew's 250th birthday in 2009.

During the Second World War a hole in each floor was cut so there was a hole running down the inside from top to bottom. Model bombs were then dropped to test the way that they fell.

Standing near the Pagoda there is a replica of part of a Japanese temple. Built in 1910, it is a copy of the Karamon (Chinese gate) of Nishi Hongan-ji in Kyoto.

Sackler Crossing
The Sackler Crossing bridge made of granite and bronze was opened in May 2006. Designed by Buro Happold and John Pawson, it crosses the lake and is named in honour of philanthropists Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler.

Museums and gallery

Chilean Wine Palm at Kew, the world's tallest indoor plant.Near the Palm House is a building known as "Museum No. 1" which was designed by Decimus Burton and opened in 1857. Its aim was to illustrate mankind's dependence on plants, housing Kew's economic botany collections including tools, ornaments, clothing, food and medicines. The building was refurbished in 1998. The upper two floors are now an education centre and the ground floor houses the "Plants+People" exhibition which highlights the variety of plants and the ways that people use them.

The Marianne North Gallery was built in the 1880s to house the paintings of Marianne North, an MP's daughter who travelled to North and South America and many parts of Asia to paint plants. The gallery has 832 paintings.

Following the Japan 2001 festival, Kew acquired a Japanese wooden house called a minka. It was originally erected in around 1900 in a suburb of Okazaki. Japanese craftsmen reassembled the framework and British builders who had worked on the Globe Theatre added the mud wall panels.

Until March 2008, there is a major exhibition of 28 Henry Moore sculptures. The Nash Conservatory contains a display of some of Moore's found objects, maquettes, photos and quotes.

Compost heap
Kew has the largest compost heap in the world, made from green waste from the gardens. The compost is used in the gardens.

There have been three series of A Year At Kew filmed in the gardens for the BBC. These have been released on DVD, including a box set of all three programmes