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Stanton Williams' hopeful Millennium Seedbank

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Clare Melhuish reviews. . .

'Hopefulness nestled in our soul when we embarked on this project, ' said Paul Williams as he began a presentation of Stanton Williams'Millennium Seedbank building at the RIBA. But as client Roger Smith pointed out, the crucial factor in determining its future, from the Millennium Commission's point of view, was 'what will it mean to a Sun reader with a Lottery ticket in his pocket?' His answer to that was equally to the point: 'If it doesn't happen, the world will stop.'

According to Williams, the Seedbank was unique among Millennium projects because it 'didn't put the architectural shell first and the contents afterwards'. For a start, the Seedbank already existed and had done so since 1974 - but since the Rio convention on biological diversity the client had formed a strong commitment to doing more with it. As Roger Smith explained, a decision was made to focus on collecting species that could be useful to future generations of people living in dry lands.

This programme, and the commitment to achieving its aims, clearly drove the project rather than an architectural image that could be sold more readily to the general public. Indeed, the whole way in which the design has been handled has emphasised a low-key, low-visibility approach: what Williams describes as 'the spiritual nature of the project'.

One compelling practical reason for this was the fact that the local planners were extremely reluctant to allow any construction to take place on the site at all, due to its location in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in High Weald. The decision to sink the building into the ground was made partly for this reason, since it means the height is still within the horizon line.

But the poetics of a restrained building 'sitting quietly in the landscape'were inspired by the notion of 'depositing the seeds' in the earth and 'enjoying the movement downwards'. The architect felt strongly that it should be 'a grounded building' and was adamant in its opposition to the Royal Fine Art Commission's suggestion that it should have more 'vertical emphasis'. So the Seedbank is literally buried in the ground while the rest of the lower level accommodation opens out to lateral daylight and the public heart of the building (the winter garden) is a glazed, light-filled structure.

The 'plainness' of the York stone exterior seems to evoke the sound ecological regime of the whole project and the distinctive series of barrel-vault roofs was directly inspired by the form and structure of a pea pod. But, as Williams observes, the concept of the 'plain' is very much up for discussion: as Mies van der Rohe said of his own chapel, 'despite its plainness, it is not ordinary', and his sentiment is evidently one with which Stanton Williams (and many others) would concur in relation to their own building.

Roger Smith OBE, of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, and Paul Williams presented Saving the Future: the Wellcome Trust Millennium Seedbank Project, at the RIBA

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