Blog: Preservation & Rejuvenation SECBE Awards 2019 finalist - Great Pagoda at Kew Gardens

31 May 2019

submitted by Austin-Smith:Lord LLP

*** WINNER *** Great Pagoda at Kew Gardens - submitted by Austin-Smith:Lord LLP

The Great Pagoda at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, built in 1761-62, is one of the most important Chinoiserie-style buildings in Europe. It is a ten-storey brick tower, with octagonal roofs and geometric balconies rising in diminishing stages to a decorative finial. Throughout the history of the Pagoda, there have been a variety of repairs, changes and redecoration works carried out. The 1784 repair works were to replace the lower roof finishes with slates and copper and removal of the remaining dragon sculptures. In 1845 there were more repairs that included repointing the brickwork, replacing the finial pole and re-painting throughout.

The 2016 appearance of the building was a reflection of modern taste, deriving from a comprehensive redecoration of 1895, which applied a ‘pillar box’ red paint to almost all the external joinery elements. The last repainting works were carried out in 1989, around the time the building was closed to the public. During the subsequent years, only basic repairs were carried out. At the start of this refurbishment process, a series of building fabric assessments were undertaken to identify the current condition of the building.

Historic Royal Palaces’ (HRP) objective was to return the building as closely as possible to its original appearance using all the historical evidence that was available. That aim guided many of the decisions that were made, from the use of traditional materials to the design and setting out of the dragons and the final colour scheme of the building and reinstated dragon sculptures.

Although the Great Pagoda is a well-known landmark in London, having been closed to the public for nearly thirty years seems to have caused it to have been forgotten in terms of its historic importance. The Great Pagoda was a revolutionary building in its’ day and one of the tallest buildings in the UK. By restoring the building to the original appearance and re-introducing the dragons, HRP is reminding everyone of just how bold the original design was.

In more detail

The process of restoring a historic building begins with fully understanding the significance of the artefact. The most important step was in aiming to find out as much about the building as they could before starting the restoration work on site. This involved historical research, building fabric surveys and opening up work on site to verify that the information found was accurate. Using contractors who have experience in working on historic buildings was also key to the success of the project. They were able to discuss repair works on site with them in detail and as a result of their skills the team were able to retain more of the original building fabric and reduce the extent of brickwork, joinery and copper work repairs. This use of specialist knowledge and skills has been value for money, delivering exceptional quality of workmanship that will prolong the life of the building.

The re-introduction of the dragons also demonstrates the use of both traditional skills and modern fabrication methods. The dragon designs were created by a sculptor, then developed by a timber master carver. The full-sized hand carved timber prototype dragon was scanned to produce a digital model. This was used to produce 3D SLS printed dragon models that underwent a series of UV, weathering, wind and strength tests to prove they would last for more than twenty years. 72 of the new dragons on the building have been SLS printed, with the eight dragons on the lowest roof being hand carved timber created by eight timber master carvers. This combination of traditional and modern skills demonstrates how these two approaches can be combined to deliver unique but appropriate solutions for any conservation building project.

While the project was on site, HRP arranged scaffolding tours for many interested parties. Austin-Smith:Lord also presented a roofing masterclass with SPAB, their structural engineer and roofing contractor, to explain what information they had uncovered and lessons learned while working on the project.

Austin-Smith:Lord has seen first-hand the quality of the original workmanship. That it has stood for 257 years and is still in good condition shows that an investment in skills and materials will deliver a robust and resilient building.

In the four months since the Pagoda has been open, there have been over 28,000 visitors, nearly double the amount that had been expected. The restoration of the Great Pagoda has been a resounding success and brought its’ story to a new generation.


  • Following five years of thorough research and investigation, the Grade 1 listed Kew Gardens Great Pagoda underwent a major restoration, with the aim of returning it to the architect’s original vision, and it has now opened to the public for the first time in 30 years.
  • The restoration work included the re-introduction of 80 new dragon sculptures, one on the corner of every roof hip.
  • Of the new dragon sculptures, eight were hand carved timber and 72 were 3D printed using selective laser sintering (SLS), a printing process that uses lasers targeted at nylon powder to gradually create a 3D object.

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