Nature’s mathematical patterns have inspired the design of a new educational centre at The Eden Project. But Grimshaw has not just come up with a pretty flower-shaped space. Outside and inside, this is an elegant and robustly engineered design

A giant hall roofed in an intricate web of curved timber panels like seeds on a sunflower opens this week at the popular Eden Project in Cornwall. It is the most significant new building at the site since Eden’s original bubble-shaped greenhouses were completed in 2001, although it is markedly different in use and form.

Known as the Core, the £15m building is Eden’s education centre, where visitors learn about the importance of plants within our ecosystem. But instead of a living rainforest, the Core contains classrooms, a double-height exhibition hall and a cafe. And instead of transparent ETFE membrane, it is covered in an opaque top with rooflights punched through at intervals.

Even so, the Core’s design concept by architect Grimshaw collaborating with sculptor Peter Randall-Page was inspired by the universal rhythms of nature. The geometry of the roof was borrowed from phyllotaxis, the mathematical basis for nearly all plant growth. Hence the similarity to the arrangement of seeds in a pinecone or sunflower. And in the hands of structural engineer SKM Anthony Hunt, the geometry has also conveniently generated an efficient structure of criss-crossing timber arches that mutually support each other.

At three equidistant points around the perimeter, the roof grid dips to ground level, where it terminates in concrete “feet” that provide buttressing and roof drainage spouts. The roof is covered in standing-seam copper panelling that should weather over time to shades of greens and browns. The central part of the roof supports photovoltaic panels that generate much of the building’s power. Below the copper lies a layer of recycled newspaper acting as thermal insulation. The openable rooflights take the form of small pyramids that pop up from the roof surface. The perimeter walls are clad in horizontal strips of stained softwood and vertical cedar panels.

As Eden’s director of learning, Jo Readman, says, “The Core had to be a monument to the plant engine that powers the earth. It is designed to provoke curiosity and breathe fresh air into learning.”

Project team

client Eden Project
architect Grimshaw
structural engineer SKM Anthony Hunt
services engineer Buro Happold
quantity surveyor Davis Langdon
landscape architect Land Use Consultants
main contractor Alfred McAlpine, Sir Robert McAlpine joint venture