A sweet campaign blossoms

With the help of a bold Modernist architect, a group of irate gardeners hope to win the battle for their horticultural library. Jonathan Glancey reports
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The Independent Culture
Everything in the Royal Horticultural Society garden is far from lovely. At the recent Chelsea Flower Show, Sir Simon Hornby, president of the RHS, announced that the society's world-famous Lindley Library was to be moved from its long-established home in Westminster to the RHS Wisley garden centre near Guildford in Surrey.

Hornby believes the library's move to Wisley will help to nurture his blooming dream of the greatest garden centre in Britain, and possibly Europe. A pounds 25m revamp of Wisley, with half the money coming from the Millennium Fund, would raise the number of visitors from today's 600,000 to a million or more in 15 years' time.

The new Wisley would include new horticultural buildings designed in a glazed superstore-style by Sir William Whitfield and Partners. Visitors driving in their hundreds of thousands to Wisley would walk through these, sniffing and gawping at plants domestic and exotic; each building would be climatically controlled, encouraging visitors to pull on and pull off woolly jumpers as they ambled from the world of Alpine flowers to that of hot-house blooms. A smart new Lindley library would make full use of the latest book retrieval and cataloguing technology. Here nature will have entered into the spirit of the theme park and retail-entertainment business.

This may be exactly what most visitors to Wisley want. However, a group of highly influential RHS members, led by Anna Pavord, gardening correspondent of the Independent, are proving to be a nagging thorn in Hornby's side. Such grand gardeners as Baroness Elles, Lady Salisbury, Lady Mary Keen, Rosemary Verey, Ursula Buchanan and, goodness me, Baroness Thatcher have taken up the cause of keeping the Lindley Library firmly rooted in London. Not a shrinking violet among them, these RHS stalwarts are prepared to fight Hornby's plan tooth and claw.

Why? Because, the Lindley Library is a national asset and is far more accessible in London than in Surrey. The RHS rebels point out that Wisley, although undeniably and justly popular, is three miles from the nearest railway station. Few buses pass the door. All those 600,000 visitors come to Wisley by car. Sited in Westminster, the library is readily accessible to readers on a day return ticket from most of Britain. True, the library is not exactly crowded. Just 14 people a day come to poke their proboscises into its beautiful collection of horticultural books. There are 50,000 of these, dating back to 1514. The library also gives shelf room to 18,000 drawings and an unrivalled run of some 1,500 periodicals.

But more people may come if the RHS rebels prune Hornby's plans and build a brand new library on the site of the redundant Rochester Row police station in Westminster, a stone's throw from its present home, tucked up under the leaking eaves of the RHS headquarters in Vincent Square. The RHS rebels have chosen Rick Mather as their champion. They could hardly have done better - as hopefully the drawings prepared by Rick Mather Architects on this page shows.

Mather is a particularly fine and sensitive architect, well known for the Zen chain of Chinese restaurants in London, but also for the beautiful halls of residence he has built for students at the University of East Anglia. By chance - Pavord, Elles and their fronds in high places did not expect this - Mather is a keen gardener. The roof terrace of his north London home is as lush as his architecture is subtly restrained.

Mather proposes a handsome mixed-use building in Rochester Row overlooking Vincent Square that would incorporate not just a bigger, better library, but also much needed RHS offices, flats for sale and, a great selling point for all 200,000 RHS members, a rooftop garden with a cafe. Here, after browsing through floriated tomes, readers could sniff flowers and sip drinks while looking at clematis-framed views of Bentley's glorious Byzantine Westminster Cathedral, drawing the eye on to the treescapes of London's peerless parks.

The galleried library would be at the centre of Mather's building. One side would offer generous views out, while the other three walls would hide alcoves for readers to bury themselves in 17th-century Dutch floralegia, books on labyrinths, parterres and pleasure gardens. The latest technology would help retrieve these treasures, which would be kept in safe conditions.

To pay for the new library, the plan is to sell flats inside the building and to build a swimming pool for Westminster School in the basement. If this seems an odd bedfellow for the Lindley Library, it ain't half as odd as Hornby's immodest proposal designed to encourage another 400,000 people on to the crowded roads of south-east England in pursuit of flowers and 21st-century gardening experiences at Wisley.

The choice of Rick Mather, a committed Modernist, might still seem strange to herbivorous traditionalists who think of garden buildings as old and as deliciously crumbly as a chocolate Hob-Nob biscuit. But in choosing Mather, the RHS rebels are nurturing a strain of forward-looking, adventurous garden architecture represented, for example, by the Chinese Pagoda and the Palm House at Kew Gardens.

The British are often philistine when it comes to appreciating and commissioning fine new architecture, but they are almost unrivalled in their enthusiasm for gardening. Here, for once, is a project that combines gardening and modern architecture in a happy embrace. The new Lindley Library will be an important step forward not just in improving RHS facilities for its big and catholic membership, but in encouraging townies to take up their trowels and plant. If ever there was a rallying point for those who wish to encourage the greening of our cities, this is it. The Hornby plan for Wisley, like the edge-of-town superstore it resembles, can only promote driving - at the expense of ox-eye daisies and pollution - in a misguided attempt at populism.