Dominic Cole describes storytelling through plants at Eden Project in a talk that he entitled ‘East of Eden’

Dominic Cole
Dominic Cole describes storytelling through plants at Eden Project

In a talk that he entitled ‘East of Eden’ (‘because all of my subsequent work has been east of there’) Dominic Cole showed his thought processes and way of working in a charming presentation shown mostly in drawings. He described the instinctive way in which his ideas developed as well as revealing some of his deep historical knowledge and the way that it imbues even the most contemporary projects.

Tim Smit, the originator of the Eden Project, appointed Cole to design it in part, he said, because when he visited Smit’s previous project, The Lost Gardens of Heligan, and Smit asked him what he thought of it, he said it was a ‘good but not great garden’.

His idea for the Eden Project, created from a china clay pit that was no longer viable was, Cole said, ‘to select plants that would represent key stories and tell them plant by plant, for example in bread and brewing.’ So there are areas devoted to fibrous plants that can be used in rope making, and others to edible vegetables. The aim was not to be too earnestly didactic however, so, for example, the vines in the Mediterranean biome are set among sculptures representing Dionysian excess.

At the time that Cole started working at Eden, China clay was still being mined. Some might be daunted by the vast and seemingly inchoate canvas, but Cole, who had already worked on large-scale reclamation projects, was aware that there was a structure formed for example by the zigzagging haul roads, which he maintained in his final design.

He also resisted too engineering-led a solution, arguing and demonstrating that in most instances it was possible to stabilise slopes through planting, rather than with soil nails and sprayed concrete.

Eden was the last major project that Cole worked on at LUC, deciding to set up on his own shortly afterwards, after nearly 30 years at the practice. ‘By the time that I left LUC I was boring myself,’ he said. He is well aware of his limitations which include, he said, having no understanding of planning and an inability to use a computer. But his instinct for landscape and his ability to express himself in exquisite drawings has led to a satisfactorily diverse range of work.

Cole showed projects ranging from the Aluna project, the world’s first tidal powered moon clock which is a realisation of an idea by artist Laura Williams, to the restoration and rescue of historic landscapes. He even showed two slides of a garden that he was absolutely not meant to have visited. ‘I would have to blow up anybody who tried to show these,’ he said.

You had to be there.

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