Patrick Blanc overgrows the vertical surfaces of buildings in the most beautiful way. What he creates is far away from any fancy horticultural show, his Vertical Garden could rather be called eco-art, or greener architecture consisting of a variety of plants trailing gently up any interior or outside wall. Imagine the Hanging Gardens of ancient Babylon but this time on modern concrete buildings. But Patrick is not just simpy putting green on the walls which last for a day or two: set up with a highly scientific background he studies the many ways plants adapt to extreme situations at the CNRS, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris since 1982. Let’s have a closer look at these organic wallpapers of botanist Patrick Blanc today.
Written by Verena
Twelve years ago Patrick began designing eco conscious architecture for public spaces, department stores or private living rooms. He worked for museums in Paris, Istanbul, Madrid, Seoul or the 21st Century museum of contemporary art in Kanazawa. Besides covering shop interiors like Girbaud’s in Paris with moss and ferns he designed for companies like Samsung or the Hypo Vereinsbank. Next year he will enrich the surface of a skyscraper in Kuala Lumpur and the Doha Office Tower in Qatar with greener beauty. No wonder le Docteur was honoured with several prices like the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’ or recently the gold medal of the Académie d’Architecture.
He even entered the transient realm of fashion and designed for French couturier Jean-Paul Gaultier. Patrick’s ‘Robe Végétale’ was a prestigious wedding dress for Gaultier’s fashion show in 2002 that tastefully stretched its ivory tendrils around the model’s outlines.
Now Patrick, you already told me that you have been visiting tropical rainforest understories all over the world since your first trip to Thailand in 1972. Quite adventurous! How do you actually get to climb up and study the forest plants?
Those explorations were conducted by a Radeau de Cimes, that’s a canopy raft that can be put on forest trees – literally. It then provides an easy access to the plants in order to study them. This canopy raft is even dirigible.
And I thought the days of wild expeditions to unknown places were long over. Please tell me now your secret method: How do you actually glue these plants on the wall?
The Vertical Garden is composed of three parts: a metal frame, a PVC layer and felt. The metal frame is hung on a wall or can be self-standing. It provides an air layer acting as a very efficient thermic and phonic isolation system. A 1cm thick PVC sheet is then riveted on the metal frame. This layer brings rigidity to the whole structure and makes it waterproof. After that comes a felt layer made of polyamide that is stapled on the PVC. This felt is corrosion-resistant and its high capillarity allows a homogeneous water distribution. The roots are now growing on this felt.
Watering is provided from the top with the tap water being supplemented with nutrients. The process of watering and fertilisation is automated. The whole weight of the ‘Vertical Garden’, including plants and metal frame, is lower than 30 kg per square meter. Thus the Vertical Garden can be implemented on any wall without any size or limitation of height.
There’s no soil involved at all?
Plants don’t need soil in any situation because the soil is merely nothing more than a mechanic support. Only water and the many minerals dissolved in it are essential to plants, together with light and carbon dioxide to conduct photosynthesis. Wherever water is available all year long as in tropical forests or in temperate mountain forests, plants can grow on rocks, tree trunks, and slopes free-of-ground.
For instance in Malaysia, 2 500 out of the 8 000 known species are growing without any soil. Even in temperate climate zones many plants grow on cliffs, cave entrances or cracked up rocks. On these rather steep places many Berberis, Spiraea, and Cotoneaster species are able to grow. Their naturally curved branches indicate that they originated from natural steep biotopes and not from flat areas like the gardens where they are usually planted. So – it is possible for plants to grow on virtually any vertical surface nearly free-of-ground, as long as there is no permanent shortage of water.
How did you develop an elaborated device for watering the plants then?
Water delivery is automated. It’s going from the top just as it would in any natural situation on the surface of a cliff or a rock.
How does the Vertical Garden survive in a fully air-conditioned environment like a shop, a museum, or even one inhospitable place like a car park?
It’s creating its own specific climate. It has been proved that the Vertical Garden enhances atmospheric humidity in its vicinity, thus enabling small ferns and mosses to appear and seeds to germinate. Shops and museums turn out to be very suitable places for this kind of implementation indeed. And even though a car park is supplemented with specific artificial light… tropical plants that survive by growing in the shades are perfectly suitable for sunless locations.
What about maintenance, how often do you have to look after the plants?
Whenever the plant selection is correct, there is no need at all to change the plants! This is not like an ordinary garden… looking after it three or four times a year is enough.
What a pity you didn’t provide me with picts of your green laboratory. But as your witty assistant Jean-Luc Le Gouallec put it earlier in his email to me: ‘Laboratory… the whole world is the laboratory. Botany is studied mostly on the field.’. So – what about the definition of your gardens: Do you regard them first and foremost as art or more as green architecture?
The Vertical Garden as it is known in English, is something closer to a living painting than to a garden. Actually I named it le mur vegetal, meaning vegetal wall. I’m a scientist, a botanist and the Vertical Garden is derived from many observations I made in natural places mostly in tropical areas for more than 30 years now…
My scientific approach is essential for designing the whole system and for selecting the plant species suitable for each peculiar location.
While studying the elaborate ways how plants survive in the harshest conditions – is there something in it that humans could adopt, too?
Well… humans should try to develop a way of living that wastes lesser natural resources. For example understory plants receive less than one percent of sunlight… Humans should also try to limit or reduce their own growing population… Don’t get me wrong on that, please. But compare it to a tropical forest: Inside this forest there is a lot of space left totally uncovered without any plant growing on it. Maybe humans shouldn’t use all the space that is still available… I also would like to say that regarding plants, wherever natural resources are scarce, biodiversity is higher and the competition between individuals is lower… Humans should keep that in mind when coping with the exploitation of earth’s resources.
Good to see this from another perspective. But Patrick doesn’t finish the interview before recommending some of his favourite plants for everyone’s sterile office: “Araceae, Begonia, and Ludisia would be nice”, he said. Now go and to turn our white office walls into a wildly blooming orchid garden. Thank you, Patrick!