Within the Orto Botanico in Padua, Italy—a walled garden built by the University of Padua in 1545 for medicinal plant research—survives a 450 year old Mediterranean Palm (Chamaerops humilis) known as Goethe’s Palm. This specimen served as one of the inspirations for Johann von Goethe’s theory on botanical morphology, enumerated in the text The Metamorphosis of Plants from 1790. To protect the specimen over the centuries, university gardeners constructed a series of temporary and permanent palm houses, producing an index of the changing relationship between a living ecosystem and the technical, environmental, and material conditions required for its care. 

Continuing these four centuries of maintenance and cultivation, PALM-HOUSE proposes three future prototypes to house this fragile specimen. PALM-HOUSE #01 produces new atmospheric compositions, expelling clouds of gases and vapor to envelope the palm when external weather conditions are not ideal. Care workers adjust an air schedule to curate atmospheres composed of particulate clouds, molecular swarms, and synthetic ozones, producing an oxygen-rich environment for the plant to thrive. PALM-HOUSE #02 imagines a near future in which the concentration of environmental pollutants in the air have overcome the palm’s natural osmotic defense systems. Composed of a wall system of filters that can be adjusted in response to the current atmospheric conditions, the infrastructure is maintained by workers who continuously replace spent units in the envelope. PALM-HOUSE #03 calibrates the palm’s balance of heat and light, protecting it from extreme temperature as the climate radically shifts. Utilizing movable wall modules installed with panels of grow lights, heat lamps, and thermal greenhouse curtains, the palm house can protect the plant from extreme temperature fluctuations and prevent the harmful absorption of excess solar radiation. 

By adjusting these assemblages, botanical technicians can continuously calibrate the enclosures to mitigate the deteriorating environmental conditions of this indigenous species. By acknowledging the needs and precarity of the specimen, the prototypes center the palm within an ecology of care, producing an intimate encounter between a plant, the people who tend it, and the architecture that houses it.

PALM-HOUSE is an exhibit at Citygroup in NYC, November 2020 - February 2021

Project Leads: Daniel Jacobs, Brittany Utting

Design Team: Jianing Cui, Tiffany Xu, Clara Núñez-Regueiro, Leah Hong

This exhibition is made possible through support from Rice Architecture and Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan.