Worm Space – a soil bank set in Kew Gardens – imagines the imminent extinction of top soil in the face of rapidly dwindling arable land. The project celebrates top soil as a valuable commodity and cultivates it through a contextualised heat microclimate in a new landform. With compost, which conserves moisture and supplies nutrients, this microclimate promotes a conducive environment for Mycorrhizae, a type of plant fungi, to thrive in the root system of a host plant through a symbiotic association, promoting top soil production at the same time. Setting the context as the primary driver of the design, Worm Space envisages a process of growth and decay, letting nature claim its way of rooting the manmade in its context, thus blurring the lines between what was inserted by man and the naturally occurring.
The soil bank aims to treat the soil of chosen sites, hence the highly acidic soil along River Thames seems a potential intervention point for Worm Space. One third of the world’s arable land has been lost to soil erosion. However, soil erosion is not a high priority among governments and farmers because it occurs so slowly that its cumulative effects take decades to become apparent. The removal of 1 millimetre of soil is so small that it goes undetected. But over a 25-year period the loss would be 25mm, which would take about 500 years to replace by natural processes. Worm Space seeks to speed up the production of soil through an engineered process. It will be a beautiful project. Only rarely have we stood back and celebrated our soils as something beautiful, and perhaps even mysterious.
The notion of storing and producing soil in receptacles greatly intrigues me. To emulate a worm’s dwelling space and taking inspiration from the branched network of Mycorrhizae, the receptacles are designed to encapsulate the experience of a worm hole, literally taking a branched form. This unorthodox form of a receptacle renders soil a precious commodity. Like underground connections, the receptacles create an ecosystem of soil, the capillary system of a sunken city. Just as Christaller looked at “representing the fluid, process-driven characteristics of the city” so too does this new dimension look to more accurately respond to the specific needs of the Kew Gardens, rather than imposing. “When architecture and urban design project their desire onto a vacant space, a terrain vague, they seem incapable of doing anything other than introducing violent transformations, changing estrangement into citizenship, and striving at all costs to dissolve the uncontaminated magin of the obsolete into the realism of efficacy.”