A greenhouse of the future has risen in the center of Philadelphia’s historic district.
Around the corner from Independence Hall, on 5th Street near Chestnut, the American Philosophical Society has constructed a greenhouse from recycled plastic.
Wired with music and sound effects, it doesn’t sound like a typical greenhouse. It doesn’t look much like a typical greenhouse, either. It’s not enclosed, there is no glass, and there hardly any right angles.
It is constructed with white ribs arching around either side of a long platform. They extend up and over your head, as though you were walking through the belly of a whale.
“We use digital tools to produce form,” said Jenny Sabin, an artist and architect who specializes in computational design. “The curvilinear expression of the project is a direct result of our ability to now work digitally. It was a series of algorithms that had to do with mathematical knots unraveling.”
Modern ‘cabinet of curiosities’
Between the ribs are clear acrylic boxes with hinged lids. They look like bulk bins you’d find in a supermarket. En masse, they replicate an update of a “cabinet of curiosities.” Scientists in previous centuries—such as Philadelphia artist and collector Charles Wilson Peale (1741 – 1827)—would display artifacts in the nooks of cabinets.
“One of the things that I was inspired by had to do with the historical shift in how research was conducted,” said Sabin. “On one hand, a researcher out in field, versus the researcher in their cabinet at a distance from nature. I was interested in playing with their inversion: that this greenhouse can be both a field condition, and also be very intimate in the canopy area.”
Some of the boxes hold “future fossils.” These are small sculptures Sabin created as manifestations of mathematical formulae, in the shape of seed pods, ellipticals, and what she calls “mathematical flowers.”
Sabin was commissioned by the American Philosophical Society to create something to accompany their current exhibition, “Of Elephants and Roses.”
Across the street, APS is exhibiting objects from natural history collections of Napoleon-era France, including skeletal fossils, stuffed birds, and pressed plants.
The central attractions are items from Empress Josephine, Napoleon’s wife, who was an enthusiastic collector of exotic flora and fauna. She had greenhouses built to house examples of plants and flowers from around the world.
“People were eating pineapple for the first time, and bananas,” said APS Museum Director Sue Ann Prince, whose programs look at history through a contemporary lens. “Now there’s a locavore movement that’s talking about (how) we really should be eating things that we grow locally. This greenhouse is a place people could be doing that in their own back yard. It’s a greenhouse for everyday people, especially city dwellers.”
Vive la difference: Unlike a royal greenhouse, this greenhouse of the future is designed to be disassembled in December. The bulk-bin boxes will be handed out to those “everyday people” to use in their balconies and back yards.