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Garden of Eden opens in England

In an abandoned china clay quarry near the southern coast of Cornwall, a former music producer and songwriter has built a modern, $120-million Garden of Eden and says his aim is nothing less than "to change the world."

Seven thousand visitors descended on Cornwall on Saturday for the official opening of the Eden Project, both an architectural and horticultural development that is projected to attract more than 750,000 visitors a year. They began arriving at 4:30 a.m., 5{ hours before the gates opened, and long lines of cars streamed in throughout the day.

The Eden Project is the largest greenhouse in the world, and ultimately will contain 10,000 plants gathered from tropical jungles, California woodlands, Mediterranean vineyards, Himalayan mountain slopes and other regions.

But it is no ordinary greenhouse. It is housed in two huge geodesic domes, the largest 181 feet high, 792 feet long and 363 feet wide.

It is big enough to contain the Tower of London, with space left over for 11 double-decker London buses stacked atop one another.

The inspiration was Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes in America, but these were designed by innovative London architect Nicholas Grimshaw, and they are sheathed in plastic rather than glass.

The Millennium Commission, having seen the $1-billion-plus Millennium Dome 300 miles away in London turn into a financial and public-relations disaster, thinks it finally has found a winner in the Eden Project.

Tim Smit, 46, the Anglo-Dutch founder of the Eden Project, trained as an archaeologist and veered into the music business before he moved to Cornwall and undertook to restore a fabulous old garden, the so-called Lost Gardens of Heligan, which had gone to ruin but now attracts 350,000 visitors a year.

Smit's success with that project led him to conceive something far more ambitious, which he is confident will become as familiar a world landmark as the Sydney Opera House.

What is his goal?

"I want to make people look at their natural environment in a new way, so urban dwellers especially will understand that nature is a part of their life and not an accretion outside the city walls. The message is that, without plants, we would have no life on Earth. Is that trivial? I don't think so.

"The trouble is that environmentalism is being politicized, and many people who want to save the environment have felt excluded. We have to take politics out of it.

"A lot of people in America would like to do more for the environment if they didn't feel they would be branded left-wingers for doing so."

First-day visitors came away uniformly impressed.

"It's awesome," said David Hodge, 60, who runs a guest house for tourists at St. Ives in Cornwall. "I'm not a gardener, and I hate garden centers, but for those who love them, this must be paradise. I appreciate what they are trying to achieve. I learned we can't live without plants.

"And it's like going on a world tour in less than a day."