Terrarium X (Unbuilt)
Socrates Sculpture Park Folly Competition 2015

Kamara Projects + Postnatural

Our proposal for the Socrates Sculpture Park is a variation on the enclosed garden — one whose very building blocks enclose miniature worlds that are gardens unto themselves.

Water, earth and plant life are sealed in hollow air-tight blocks of transparent cast resin. Each block holds a different flowering species and each constitutive element of the folly operates as an independent miniature ecosystem. The blocks fit together to create a structure consisting of two bent walls, gradually increasing in height, which frame the park and the waters of the East River beyond. In a hermetically sealed environment with sufficient water and nutrient rich soil plant life is known to thrive with no more than sunlight to sustain them. The clarity of the block enclosure allows for photosynthesis and the carbon cycle to progress in a miniature greenhouse.

As a nod to the most ethnically diverse tract of urban space in the world — Queens, and to the history of the transport of botany in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the folly recalls the global movement of both people and plant life. The transparent units share an affinity with the glass terrariums which transported living plant life on maritime vessels. While the folly stands alone as a function-less curiosity made of materials situated in the landscape of the park, it can also be read as a transient monument to human and botanical movements across history and landscapes rather than to the commemoration of a single event in a single location.

Colonialism brought with it the exploration, extraction and trade in the natural resources of colonies. The eighteenth century witnessed a large increase in the movement of botanical specimens. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward’s invention of the Wardian Case or proto-Terrarium in the early nineteenth century enabled plants that would previously have died from exposure to thrive during long voyages across the ocean. Recognizing the significance of Ward’s invention as an infrastructure for transport, the building material of our folly interprets the terrarium as building unit.

The structure’s relationship to maritime and botanical history occurs at the scale of the unit. At the architectural scale, the folly draws on the history of the archetypal enclosed garden or hortus conclusus. This landscape architecture typology consisted of a four-sided walled garden open to the sky. The folly inherits and deviates from this typology.

If the archetypal hortus conclusus is a garden open to the sky, surrounded by four opaque walls, the cast resin unit encloses a miniaturized garden within a six-sided transparent box. The garden here becomes hermetically sealed yet is made visible.

Spatially, the walls do not enclose but rather frame the water and park like a fragment of a possible larger system. While the unit expresses an inwardly oriented enclosed garden countered by transparency, the walls at the architectural scale express an outwardly oriented variation. The sense of enclosure is turned inside out to draw the observer in and then immediately frame the view with an expansive opening to the water. Thus, at the architectural or landscape scale the park environs become the “garden” framed by the walls. The orientation of the entry is aligned in a westward direction to the Manhattan grid on the far side of the East River. Each vertex of the open “X” figure in plan forms a single corner framing the park environs. At the eastern point of entry the lowest point of the wall drops to a waist-high 3 feet. As the viewer enters the structure, the walls rise at a constant incline and terminate at 7 feet just above eye level.

The dimension of the blocks are as thin as possible to reduce material costs yet allow for the plant life inside to be visible. At 2.5” x 12” x 24” at a consistent thickness of 3/8” material efficiency and visibility are both maximized. The lowest level of blocks are anchored to the ground atop a strip footing of concrete and placed in a typical masonry running bond pattern. The units are held together by strategically placed acrylic rod dowels or other type of steel fastener that are rendered almost invisible in their placement below the soil level within the block. The strip footing, the bend in both walls and the fasteners allow for a rigid system to withstand exterior environmental factors as well as the general handling it may experience from visitors.

At the North East corner of the folly the wall widens to form a two foot wide botanical chamber. Here the walls of the blocks are five sided; open to a larger greenhouse-like zone. The blocks in this area enclose a larger zone of a variety of taller plants. Soil at the bottom level is directly adjacent to the grass of the park itself. The botanical chamber allows for a larger environment for plant life but also connects the otherwise detached organic matter of the terrariums directly to the soil of the site.