The Environmental Enclosure, from Greenhouses to Phytotrons to Installation Art –
Eu Jin Chua. July 2019, Te Manawa.
To the layperson’s ear, ‘phytotron’ sounds like a made-up word, like a device that Flash Gordon would shoot on the planet Mongo. Indeed it was — made up, that is — though made up not for science fiction, but for actual science. ‘Phyton’ is the Greek word for ‘plant’, for any green thing that grows, while ‘tron’ denotes, also in Greek, any kind of tool or instrument. A phytotron, then, is a tool used in the plant sciences. In fact, it was arguably the most groundbreaking technological apparatus devised in the twentieth century for studying plant life. It was a kind of summum of greenhouse technology. If a greenhouse encloses plants in glass to control sunlight and heat in otherwise adverse climates, a phytotron encloses plant life in hermetic chambers in which every aspect of the environment is manipulable for experimental purposes. Grow-lights provide the phototrophic energy, nutrients are fed into the system, and the air is conditioned down to tiny fractions of degrees of heat, cold, and humidity.