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Conservatories – Overview & History

Dating back to the early part of the Nineteenth century, the tradition of conservatories, orangeries and greenhouses has always been one of connecting people with nature. Now enjoying a substantial revival of popularity, these unique glass structures warrant our fresh look. The inventive state-of-the art engineering, architectural novelty and sheer grandeur they showcased can serve as inspiration in an era similarly devoted to the development of mass-production building technology yet starved for the engaging, detail-rich architectural forms of our past.

Conservatories, Orangeries and Greenhouses
Since the early days of the ancient Chinese and Roman Empires, we have sought ways to protect fragile plants throughout the cold winter months and to display our collections of exotic varieties. Today’s greenhouses, orangeries and conservatories originated with the special shelters designed in Europe to house newly discovered and collectible plant species – orange and lemon trees, rare and precious spices that were brought back during the great Age of Exploration.

From Italy, citrus trees and the simple shelters that were built to house them were brought northwards.
Later, the Dutch developed more sophisticated structures and the concept spread throughout Europe culminating in the architectural splendor, an example of which is Louis XIV’s orangerie at Versailles.

Trend Toward Great Public Structures
In the early part of the nineteenth century, conservatories along with the glasshouses and orangeries which had been the exclusive plaything of the aristocracy, made their way into the public life of the great cities of the time. The Industrial Revolution, coupled with the Victorian vision of improvement for the masses led to the building of these magnificent public conservatories and indoor gardens.

There was a growing interest in the study of natural history by men such as Charles Darwin and an ensuing interest in the study of plants – particularly exotic species.

Along with the demand for grand public leisure spaces, the development of the engineering capability needed to build large-scale glass and steel construction made the great palaces of iron and glass possible.

Transition from Home to Garden
The conservatory or glasshouse, while originally conceived primarily for plants, soon evolved into an elegant setting in which patrons might enjoy the delights of a palm forest, a desert landscape or lotus pool in mid- winter! At its height, the popularity of conservatories led to an explosion in demand for conservatory designers and builders and a dazzling array of architectural forms in glass and steel.

A Return to Private Homes
The nineteenth-century stands as the golden age of conservatory building. Industrial advances together with the love of gardening produced an interest in exotic gardens under glass not only in high society but among the middle-class as well. The social climate was changing and wealth flowing from the Industrial Revolution was becoming increasingly more widely distributed. The newly affluent built villas on small patches of land and attached conservatories to them as symbols of their newly achieved status in the contemporary social order.

The Loss of Interest in Conservatories
However, by the early part of the twentieth-century, the fascination with conservatories began to fade and eventually disappeared. The austerity of the war years and the Great Depression left little in the way of funds or free time for the enjoyment of indoor gardens and the great glass houses of the day were left abandoned in disrepair or destroyed as superfluous icons of a glamorous age gone by.

The costs of building and maintaining great expanses of glass became prohibitive while interest in the classical architectural idioms gave way to modernist views of sheer concrete, glass and steel devoid of their familiar and fanciful details. Over the next decades, the archetypical “old-world” conservatory virtually disappeared from the built landscape.

Spurred by the advent of high performing insulated-glass, an interest in “solar energy” as a response to energy conservation and a desire to find our way “back to nature”, the 1970’s saw the sleek glassy shapes of modernist architecture sprout small “greenhouses” and “sunspaces” in response.

Postmodernism and a return to architectural classicism paved the way for the stoic lines of these 70’s and 80’s “sunrooms” to morph into more stylized “conservatories” harking back to an old-world sensibility and charm.

The conservatory: returning as a lifestyle statement
In the early nineteenth century, the hostess of a diner party in a conservatory would gain social points if her guests could reach behind their chairs to pluck an exotic fruit from a nearby tree. Today, a conservatory used as a dining room can still provide a unique sense of theatre, with candlelight flickering against the glass, music wafting and flowers such as tobacco plant (Nicotiana) or night-scented jasmine adding a heady fragrance.

The conservatory of today is usually more a living space for people than simply a showplace for plants. Modern technology has made possible a balance of temperature and ventilation that allows a multiplicity of functions. What remains constant is the distinctive magic and beauty of spaces filled with light and living things.

Greenhouses and Conservatories, Olivier de Vleeschouwer, Glasshouses and Wintergardens of the Nineteenth Century, Stefan Koppelkamm, Living Under Glass, Jane Tresidder and Stafford Cliff