HACKNEY ROAD: OPEN IN SERIES
Image 01 - Hackney Road, 2018; view through the inner door into the small room.
When Hackney Road first opened, it was very much a space in development. A small store selling vintage furniture and plants, which quickly evolved into a busy plant store packed top to bottom with tropical species that seemed all very new. Describing it as a “plant shop” was met with confusion by inquisitive passersby; “Do you mean a garden centre?”.
When the words came about or whether they were used before is difficult to pinpoint, but it just felt the most accurate way of describing the function of the space at the time.
Eight years on, the company has expanded into something bigger and the small store that defined Conservatory Archives for many years became unfit for purpose; too small to accommodate both the project or online operations and no longer a standalone plant store with many other plant businesses opening in numbers around. Outgrowing the very first space that a company inhabits is a frequent occurrence in many growing industries, and the obvious decision is to move on. But through the emotional attachment to this little shop, a new challenge presented itself: how to re-think and give purpose to a space that as a retail premises isn’t performing as it was? How to imprint the same spirit of the company, free from the need of sales or from the necessities of a work environment?
The answer was to just simply do what Conservatory Archives aimed to do from the beginning: transform a characterful space using plants. And so Hackney Road: Open In Series was born. A changing display of temporary exhibitions, a permanently evolving billboard where anyone can explore inside, ask questions and find unusual plants to take home.
For the first Iteration, the initial concept was to look to the past and draw a parallel with the early days spent in the shop. To capture that original sense of Hackney Road but on a completely exaggerated scale, almost as if visitors are stepping into an overgrown, full size tropical terrarium.
As a direction that is new both conceptually and in practicality, the install process itself served as a significant learning experience; sometimes the very best way to learn is just to try. With a vision of a vast canopy full of mature palms overlooking an understory overspilling with moss and dense foliage, before planting could commence the first and most essential task was to consider how to protect the structures within the building that had survived through time.
Image 06 - Construction phase of Iteration 1, November 2022; pond area.
Showcasing a diverse array of plant species, maintaining a consistent level of humidity and housing a fully functional water feature at the centre were not elements that necessarily go hand-in-hand when working on an aged, wooden floor. To protect this integral feature of the building, the ground was protected with reinforced pond liner and the install team placed individual, watertight liners around each plant to allow for specific watering requirements. The need for isolated watering was as crucial here as it is within the stores or commercial sites; although seemingly planted together visually, each species has its own watering needs, particularly during colder winter months.
Image 07 - Construction phase of Iteration 1, November 2022; overflowing sink.
Constructing an undulating, naturalistic landscape that would not be too weighty for the floor was also a primary concern. Knowing that the mounds would need to be of varying heights to accommodate the difference in plant size and ultimately covered with rich, loamy sand, shoveling mountains of dense material onto the Victorian floor not only raised a concern in terms of weight, but also how best to use resources.
Image 08 - Iteration 1, November 2022; pond area.
Many materials often discarded as waste were repurposed to create a lighter base layer on which could then be built upon, creating the underlying structure and pockets within the landscape that could then be planted into.
Image 09 - Iteration 1, November 2022; building the landscape structures.
When open as a plant shop, the watering station in Hackney Road was characterised by the antique farmhouse sink that would often be perpetually in use, especially during those sweltering summer months spent behind the south-facing glass windows. Rather than conceal this intrinsic feature, the intention was to instead highlight that significance in this first Iteration. Having experimented on a smaller scale at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, the team had a foundation on which to base the technicalities upon; a pump that would create a soft, continual flow of water which could gently overflow from the sink.
Image 10 - Hackney Road sink area, 2016.
Flowing over the boulders and small cushions of java moss into the pond below, the spring became the centrepiece of the display; an ode to the many hours spent watering in the same area during those very first years in the building. Those with an affinity for the natural world know how plants can completely transform not just the look, but also the character of a space. Whether it’s beautifully curated planting or just one overgrown weed sprouting in a concrete desert, there is the palpable feeling of something alive and growing there, something more than a static space filled with unchangeable objects.
Image 11 - Iteration 1.2, January 2023; pond area.
During the shop days, many of CA’s personal plants were left to grow according to their own devices, naturally intertwining with the many facets of the building. A very old Selenicereus sat atop the sink for many years, annually producing a new stem from the one grown the previous year, each new ‘arm’ clinging to the metalwork; the beloved Sedum burrito quietly grew to an astonishing length, soaking up the sun from hot summers behind the floor to ceiling glass facade. This feeling of age and living is inherent to the company’s design practice across each space and something that the team wanted to recreate when envisioning the look of the current Iteration.Image 12 - Planting Iteration 1.
Image 13 - Conservatory Archives' Hackney Wick studio, 2018.
Image 14 - Macrozamia moorei.
Image 15 - Macrozamia moorei at sunset.
The very first plant to be moved into the room was the ancient and very special Macrozamia moorei; a gigantic cycad and ancestral descendent of pre-Jurassic plant life. Beneath its arching fronds, the shrub-layer of the miniature forest began to be assembled; installing mainly genera described as ferns, including mature Blechnum gibbum, Cyathea and Dicksonia. At first, there was a concern about incorporating species known to be quite delicate within an indoor setting, like many of the younger ferns planted for groundcover (for example Pteris straminea and Asplenium dimorpha), particularly during the coldest and most trying period of the year. As is often the case, the plants in situ taught some interesting lessons. Planted so densely and combined with moisture from the pool, the enclosed space generated enough humidity to keep the plants growing well, even during the sub-zero temperatures of December. Much of the understory is carpeted with live moss (which does require frequent misting) and many of the team have been surprised to find that even these areas are thriving, encapsulated within the pocket-sized ecosystem.
Image 16 - Iteration 1, December 2022; underplanting, Phoenix canariensis and Blechnum gibbum.
Image 17 - Iteration 1.2, January 2023; Orchidaceae underplanting.
Before closing the curtains on the current Iteration, the objective was to showcase a period of florescence, filling the display with an abundance of plants in full-flower to mark the end of this Iteration and the beginning of a new. Nestled within the moss-covered mounds and cascading from the ceiling, species within the family of Orchidaceae spill their flowers across each surface.
Image 18 - Iteration 1.2, January 2023; Orchidaceae underplanting.
Image 19 - Iteration 1.2 installation phase, January 2023.
Image 20 - Iteration 1.2, January 2023; pond area.
Like everything on Earth, things have to change in order to advance in an environment. To Conservatory Archives, this is most prevalent when considering the fantastical adaptations that occur in the botanical world; orchids with methods of attraction so specific they entice only one individual species of pollinator, plants involved in symbiotic relationships with other creatures to the benefit of both parties… the means of survival found within the plant kingdom are endlessly fascinating. But with almost all examples, these adaptations occur through necessity and often something quite unexpected happens as a result. To move forward and keep Hackney Road, a need for experimentation felt necessary, particularly in an industry that has evolved so much since the doors to Conservatory Archives first opened in 2015.
“What I came to understand is that change is not a choice, not for a species of plant, not for me. It happens, and you are different.”
- Adaptation, Charlie Kauffman, 2002