What would you get if you combined Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes, a botanical garden, and the amusement-park atmosphere of Epcot Center? By our computations, you'd wind up with the Eden Project in Cornwall, England.
Open to the public since 2001, Eden is home to more than one million plants from over 4,000 different taxa (read: biological classifications), spread out over 35 acres. Constructed on a 160-year-old abandoned china-clay quarry, the complex necessitated the creation of 83,000 kilograms of special regenerated soil. And sustaining the kind of biodiversity found at the Eden Project is no small feat (and also requires the help of birds, bugs, lizards and other natural pest controllers).
Just last week the largest flower ever grown in the UK bloomed inside Eden's Rainforest, stopping short of the world record by only 20 centimeters. Native to Western Sumatra in Indonesia, the Titan arum is otherwise known as the 'corpse flower' for its heady aroma of "rotting meat, dead animals, and a slight hint of vomit."
As for the biomes? Well, they're huge. You could fit the Tower of London in the Eden's Rainforest Biome, which was why the Guinness Book of Records named it the world's biggest conservatory. They're also bubble-shaped, because the former quarry site was highly uneven, and the domes could accommodate the irregular terrain. The biomes are in fact based on the Pillow Dome, a structure invented by one of Fuller's students, J. Baldwin. (Bonus points to Doctor Who fans who recognized the Rainforest Biome as the set for The Waters of Mars.)
Today the Eden Project functions as a tourist attraction, social enterprise, and foundation for environmental education. Classes on climate change and sustainable gardening are regular events; while the next few weeks will see concerts by The Flaming Lips, rock-climbing on the biomes' cliff faces, and a talk from the host of BBC's "Grow Your Own Drugs."
It's come a long way up from its origins in a defunct clay pit. You could even say the landing of these otherworldly structures in an unlikely corner of the UK provide a fitting response to one of Fuller's most challenging statements: "The most important thing about Spaceship Earth - an instruction book didn't come with it."
The Eden Project is no book, but through its interactivity and focus on constant learning, perhaps the recently landed hexagonal spaceships will teach us something about our own earth, after all.