When I asked Webb Chappell about his favorite sentiment from a recent assignment for Wellesley Magazine detailing the school’s state-of-the-art Global Flora Conservatory, this is the excerpt — courtesy of article writer Catherine O’Neill Grace — he shared:
“For visitors accustomed to the Victorian glasshouses that had held Wellesley’s botanical specimen plants for so many decades, the new space is nothing less than mind-boggling.”
Indeed, Webb’s cover shot does a marvelous job of showing just how different this conservatory is from the 19th century architecture that dots the Wellesley campus and formerly housed the school’s impressive collection of plantae. This futuristic edifice is home to one of the most varied collections of flora on the planet — no small feat considering it’s tucked away in chilly, often rainy New England. Fortunately for Webb, he got the shot he was looking for just in time.
[The cover shot] had to be a statement of how state-of-the-art the greenhouse is, so I planned to photograph the building at dusk on a clear, blue-sky night. The forecast changed on the day I scheduled to go and predicted rain, but I decided to take my lights anyway.
I had several lights, a camera, and a tripod outside. The moment I felt I had the cover image in hand, the raindrops appeared slowly. Then, just as I got things indoors, the rain broke into a biblical deluge. The sound of rain on the greenhouse is unforgettable.
I love the deep, gray tones; the sharp, futuristic feel; and the transition to the lush, green interior images.
That transition would be jarring if it wasn’t for the ethereal nature of the conservatory, which adds new plants to its agglomeration at a dizzying pace. Though it will be close to a decade before the plant life truly fills in, there is still plenty for Wellesley students to study during their fours years in school.
It’s a well conceived, beautifully executed space as far as interior floral ecosystems go.
Great architecture expertly mixes a nod to the past with an eye to the future. In the case of this conservatory, the nod to the past comes in the form of a tree that has been around for years and continues to thrive in this brand-new building because of the way the greenhouse is constructed.
The Durant camellia was donated by Wellesley founder Henry Durant in the 1870s and loves its new (ahem) digs. This living, breathing piece of history is literally older than the patent for the electric light bulb, a funny thought considering what encases it these days.
See that glass-looking material above the plants? It’s actually a thick plastic called Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) that’s lighter and more flexible than glass. Its composition allowed the architects to use about half as much steel as opposed to if they had built the conservatory with glass, which means they can add more height and volume to the greenhouse and fit more flora.
Even still, ETFE is strong enough to withstand bitter New England winters and the snow that comes with them. As Kristina Niovi Jones, the Director of Wellesley College Botanic Gardens, puts it: “nobody anywhere has built a greenhouse of this shape and material.” The harmony between age-old plants and cutting-edge technology is palpable.
The wall of epiphytes and hanging ferns is wonderful for its variety of structures, textures, and colors. The lines of the architecture are beautiful. The overall feeling of light [expresses] the airiness of the structure.
Webb’s only pitch was to “wow” readers with images, something he definitely accomplished considering the client was thrilled with his work. Part of what made this project a breeze is that the Boston-based photographer spent a good chunk of time chatting with passionate students and faculty members, establishing an infectious energy that carried the day.
I worked solo the whole time, other than interacting with staff, students, and visitors spontaneously. Everyone was engaging, fun, and excited to be there. This is a beautiful, serene space, and it was wonderful spending time in it making pictures.
Check out more of Webb’s work at webbchappell.com.
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