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Were there Armadillos in Eden?

Hazel Marshall on the Cornish Environmental Botantical Project

"It takes a very churlish soul to diss Tim Smits' vision for the Eden Project and I am guilty of curdling the milk of human kindness which helped to develop this great project."

Snuffling towards each other like giant armadillos, the two biomes of the Eden project greet their visitors from the bottom of the pit in which they lie. Architecturally and aesthetically astounding they are greenhouses of glory gleaming in the sun.

The Eden Project has become one of Britain's most successful Millennium projects. Despite its Dome-like appearance it has managed to avoid the fate of its similarly shaped London predecessor. The project, set in a disused china clay quarry near St Austell, Cornwall, has already had more visitors than it planned for. It had planned for a lot. The new road and the plethora of car parks sit slightly at odds with the sustainable tourism which Eden represents, but it is a difficult balancing act. Approaching the Project in my car reminded me of visiting Niagara Falls in Canada. There, the natural beauty of the Falls was obscured not only by the multitude of car parks but also by the distinctly gaudy town built virtually on top of them. The car parks at the Eden project fall far short of the number at Niagara, and the biomes are man made, but it shows the difficulty of creating a sustainable tourism project which relies on large numbers of tourists. However, there was one flaw in the Garden of Eden, so it is only fair that there is one here.

In his introduction to the guide book Tim Smits remarks that 'if this place becomes no more than an upmarket theme park then it will all have been the most gigantic waste of money' and I know he means it. It is going to be difficult to avoid however. In some ways it already is a theme park. Many people like to have the messiness of nature served up to them in neat domes, with structured pathways and signposts marking the way. Large car parks, high admission prices and an inexorable push towards cafes and gift shops throughout the project also make it hard to avoid comparisons with theme parks. However, it takes a very churlish soul to diss Tim Smits' vision for the Eden Project and I am guilty of curdling the milk of human kindness which helped to develop this great project. These are elements that I am sure Smits is aware of and has probably already agonised over.

Embracing a wide range of remits from architecture to botany, the arts to education, the Eden Project has set itself an enormous task and is on the road to achieving a lot of it. The one remit which has been completely fulfilled is, of course, the architecture of the biomes. Structurally and architecturally amazing I could fill this paragraph with figures and information about their construction and design but will content myself with only a few to titillate you with. The Humid Tropics Biome, which is the largest, could accommodate the Tower of London, or, if you prefer to imagine it in smaller components, is 11 double decker buses in height and 24 in length. The fact which most amazed me, however, was that these huge biomes weigh only slightly more than the air they contain.

Dr Tony Kendle, Mission Director, states that, 'Our gardens and displays are about plants, but we use those plants as a lens to focus in on the amazing worlds that each one represents, how the politics of the world lie within a cup of sweet tea.'

One of the most admirable aspects of the Project is its intermingling between education, the arts and botany in the description of what is contained within the biomes. Boards explain the way in which people live in the different areas that the biomes cover and some of its history. This is enhanced by the arts projects, created by local artists, scattered around the area. This is a fantastic idea and does bring the plants much more to life than dull, typed up boards containing lots of information. My one quibble would be that the information is quite teasing in its manner, hinting at so much more which could have been made available. It was also slightly simplistic. Cotton was not the one and only cause of the American Civil War.

The Eden Project is unfinished. Arguably it will never be finished, and that is one of its strengths for people will always want to come back to see it further down the line. The third, uncovered, biome is still very much in production. The other two biomes will also develop over time, when the plants will start to crawl and cover the soil in which they lie. However, it would have been nice to have seen a reduction in the astronomically high entrance fee (9.50) given that one third of the project is still in production. Granted, for an extra 3 you can return time and again until the end of March 2002, but that is only useful if you live in the vicinity.

In the guidebook, Kendle states that 'Eden remains a project, always in evolution' and if you visit it at this stage then you will see that this is very much the case. What is amazing about seeing it now is to look forward to coming back in five years time and remembering it as it is now. Its beauty definitely lies in its promise.

I may have nitpicked my way to this point, pillorying the good intentions of the many people who have brought this project to fruition, but actually I did enjoy the Eden project and I look forward to watching it develop over the years. Smits claims that this project belongs to the people and I can't help wondering if that is why so much of it feels unfinished. Is he waiting for feedback before putting in more information rather than starting with too much? That was certainly how it felt to me.

I will leave the final words to Tim Smits and would emphasise once again, that despite my complaints, which relate largely to the problems of tourism rather than to just this project, this is an amazing dream and one in which everyone who has taken part so far can feel proud. I think this project will come to symbolise a new beginning in tourism and I agree with Smits when he says that, 'Eden isn't so much a destination as a place in the heart.'

© Hazel Marshall, 2001
For Cornwall 's Eden Project Directions Click Here

Feedback from readers

1:First, I have to admit that this is my first visit to your web site. I was directed to
your site from the "Fifty on" site, which I had just signed up to.
Having been to, and been ashamed about, the Dome in London, I have watched with interest at the development of the Eden Project. While it may appear to be altruistic, perhaps, I think this is one of the finest attempts at genuine, honest innovation in a world which seems to be going down the road of populism, as regards entertainment, in a headlong rush to make money. I agree that, at first sight £9.50 appears to be relatively expensive - but is it really? 4 Pints of beer or just over 2 packs of cigarettes is maybe a bad comparison, but the £20 Dome entrance fee is probably more appropriate, as it pales into insignificance when comparing the real value of either. I suppose, like all new ideas, it will also be tarred with the wrong brush due to the apparent commercialisation of the project, but if this is an ongoing and (hopefully) sustainable site, then perhaps it really will improve the populous' perceptions about nature, the environment and the future of the planet. More than that, it is an intrepid vision that deserves all the accolades possible for the sheer audacity and courage it must have
taken to bring to fruition.

I can't wait to have the time to visit Eden despite the apparent commercial hype that one expects to find, and hope that it is as successful as it deserves
to be. For those who want to see a mini version (without the biomes), which we found equally fascinating, there is a gem of a place called Wylde Court (I think it's in Berkshire, near Pangbourne). The seeds we bought there are flourishing tropical trees, now outgrowing the house!
Chris Corbin

Another view from Chris Sivewright who has some problems with the concept.
2:The Eden Project - a missed opportunity?
The Eden Project Mission Statement is: To promote the understanding and responsible management of the vital relationship between plants, people and resources, leading towards a sustainable future for all... Great play is made of the role of this Project in Education. It is supposed to 'inspire us into action'. Exactly what is the message being given out? Sure the architecture is excellent. The plants are varied, but wait if this is a once-in-a-lifetime educational opportunity we have to look also at what is missing.
It is my opinion that: a. serving meat in the restaurant
b. allowing an exhibition of Shaminism (the 'occult' mentioned as being in part for the decline of Christianity???)
c. displaying tea plants with no health warnings
d. displaying tobacco plants with minor health warning
e. selling Coca Cola (multinational etc) sends out the wrong message, given the Mission Statement.
Where were the anti-smoking, pre-sustainability leaflets? Where were the insects? the birds? why not play a Suikinkutsu in the Tropical area? Aren't the information signs just a little simplistic? where can people go for further information? why were there no banks of (free) leaflets available on the benefits of certain lifestyles? what about conservation? It's an excellent visit, sure but also an opportunity missed.
The Which Report says: "Here is a theme park that might actually change the way we think. "...about as far as the restaurant or the souvenir shop?

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