The Palm Temple – a beautiful new installation with a poignant message

The University of Bristol has been actively involved in addressing environmental and sustainability issues for many years.

I’m proud that we’ve made considerable progress at an institutional level including the provision of clean energy, the introduction of more responsible consumption practices, a significant reduction in carbon emissions (even pre-COVID), as well as wider progress across a host of other key areas aligned to UN Sustainable Development Goals.

We are also taking active steps to improve biodiversity across all 1,000 acres of our estate. For example, the Life Sciences Building, one of several buildings designed to foster biodiversity, has a ‘living wall’ along with two sedum roofs and bat and bird roosts. We have also received a ‘Bees Need’ champion award for the contribution of our meadows to bees and pollinating insects, and we are now committed to becoming a Hedgehog Friendly Campus as part of a national accreditation scheme funded by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

I am particularly proud that we were the first UK University to declare a climate emergency last year, reaffirming our strong commitment to act on climate change.

Sustainability must be rooted in all that we do – from our world-leading research, our teaching, and the way we operate as an institution – the concept underpins our aspirations to be a global civic university. We also want to use our position to raise awareness of sustainability and the climate emergency by other means, including through our art, our public engagement, and our presence in the City.

To that end, I’m delighted that internationally renowned Bristol-based artist Luke Jerram this week very generously donated his latest installation, ‘The Palm Temple’, to our University.

Luke Jerram's The Palm Temple

Many of you will be familiar with Luke’s past work including his ‘Museum of the Moon‘ installation; his ‘Park and Slide’ project, in which he turned Park Street into a giant water slide for one day; the ‘Impossible Garden‘ exhibition at our Botanic Garden; and ‘Gaia‘, which was hosted by the Cabot Institute for the Environment last year; and, of course, his street pianos installation ‘Play Me, I’m Yours‘, which has been presented in over 60 cities and enjoyed by more than 10 million people worldwide.

The Palm Temple, which is now permanently located outside the School of Chemistry, was originally commissioned by Sky Arts in Italy as a celebration of the 600th anniversary of Brunelleschi’s dome of Florence Cathedral (Duomo di Firenze). It is based on a spiralling lamella dome structure cut in half, with the two halves placed in parallel, like two palms of each hand coming together in prayer. However, while Florence Cathedral is a temple for contemplating God, this new artwork is designed for contemplating nature.

The Palm Temple outside the School of Chemistry

Made of cedar wood and dichroic panelled windows (a reference to the stained-glass windows of its Duomo di Firenze inspiration) The Palm Temple’s floor is mirrored to reflect the dome above, providing a surreal and spectacular experience from multiple vantage points.

Suspended in the apex of the dome is an ‘Extinction Bell’, which tolls once, 150 to 200 times a day, at random intervals, every 24 hours (a representation of the number of species lost every day according to a 2007 UN Environmental Programme). This provides us all with a poignant reminder of biodiversity loss and the impact of human activity on natural habitats around the world.

It is a real joy for us to accept this generous donation from Luke and the piece resonates so well with the shared values and research of colleagues and students across our University, and our City. In particular, its theme reflects the work of a number of our colleagues, including research by the Cabot Institute and the Urban Pollinators Project which is studying insect pollinators in urban habitats in the UK.

Professor Squires inside The Palm Temple

The Palm Temple is a truly remarkable and aesthetically beautiful work of art. Alongside our teaching, research and wider civic activities, I hope it helps engage different audiences across our City on the importance of sustainability – a public art installation for students, staff and the public to explore, reflect on and enjoy.

Bringing our climate change commitments to life

I cannot think of a single issue in my lifetime that has so rapidly achieved a dominant position in the public conscience and the media discourse than the current climate emergency movement.

Significantly, at the end of a summer which was dominated in equal measures by record temperatures and the seemingly endless political stalemate surrounding Brexit, a Christian Aid survey showed that a majority of Britons feel that climate change is a more important issue for the future of the country than Brexit, and two-thirds of the public feel that it should be the government’s top policy priority.

This Friday’s climate strike, which the University fully supports, is the latest expression of the public’s (and in particular the younger generation’s) anger and impatience with what is perceived as a lack of urgency in dealing with the causes of climate change.

The University of Bristol was the first British university to declare a Climate Emergency, and we have been taking a broad range of actions to ensure that we demonstrate real leadership in the university sector in responding to the climate crisis. This response will be overseen by our new Sustainability Council (which I will be chairing), composed of staff and student representatives,  which will hold its first meeting during the week of 23 September. The Council’s terms of reference and work plan will be made available to staff and students, and there will be opportunities for the University community to engage with and advise the Council throughout the year.

A significant amount of engagement with our student community is already under way, and specific discussions have been held with the Extinction Rebellion group to create a forum which will generate ideas, create agency for change and involve constituents across the University. One outcome is the upcoming ‘People’s Assembly’ scheduled from 1 to 4pm on 23 October. Further details will be circulated nearer the time.

Over the summer, over 900 staff members took part in our Be the Change’ initiative, and together saved an estimated 59 tonnes of CO2 by making behavioural changes that included travelling more sustainably and adjusting their consumption habits. During the course of the 2019/2020 academic year we will be working with all of our academic Schools in the development of School-specific climate action plans. The University has already allocated £5 million of expenditure for its Sustainable and Efficient Buildings programme, supporting low-energy lighting, greater efficiency in our laboratories and the use of renewable energy on our estate. In addition, the new BREEAM Plus environmental building standard will be applied to all our new projects.

Other key initiatives under way include the exploration of carbon offsetting opportunities and a critical review of our business travel behaviours. As someone who regularly travels overseas as part of my role, I will of course need to take a critical look at my own behaviour as an individual and as a leader within the University.

Throughout this process we are eager to share our experiences with the rest of the higher education sector both nationally and internationally, and recently our Head of Sustainability, Martin Wiles, held a webinar with 20 other universities explaining our decision to declare a climate emergency and outlining the steps that we are taking as a consequence.

Finally, as ever, a wide range of research groups across the University continue to progress hundreds of projects that have the potential to lead to a more sustainable future for all of us. Much of this activity falls under the auspices of our own Cabot Institute.

I encourage all of our staff and students to participate in the climate strike this Friday. Standing together in our resolve to see real change affected will put us in the strongest possible position to make a real contribution to the sustainability movement.