Who is Patrick Blanc?
Don’t you just love a good Before and After. There is a magical element to drastic change that tickles something in all of us. But how does a drab slab of vertical concrete become a lush slab of vertical greenery that you just want to snuggle up to?
Over the weekend I attended the brilliant Intelligence Squared IF Conference, where people who are far too smart talk about things that boggle the mind. One of my favourite talks was given by the charismatic green-haired, green-attired French botanist Patrick Blanc who works at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, where he specializes in plants from tropical forests. Blanc, who lives in Paris, has a thick sometimes impenetrable accent when speaking English, but his wonderful appearance and exuberant gestures are enough to get you excited about whatever he is saying. So that when eventually he brings out the big guns – his portfolio; slide after slide of gorgeous images of his works around the globe, you cannot help but stare open-mouthed in awe. He is a scientist, an artist and a revolutionary, painting our cities green one wall at a time.
For those of you who don’t know Blanc is the founding father of the vertical garden. A vertical garden, also known as “le Mur Végétal” (the vegetable wall), is exactly what it sounds like;
“[a] walls, either free-standing or part of a building, that is partially or completely covered with vegetation and, in some cases, soil or an inorganic growing medium.” (Wikipedia)
But this technical definition doesn’t do justice to the realities of Blanc’s works. His gardens are transformative. There is a pantheism to them that would make Walt Whitman proud. Blanc states, “I gather inspiration every day from nature” which is inspiring to the majority of us who are simply not used to seeing buildings adorned with greenery to such an extent. Blanc uses his profound knowledge of the world’s extensive selection of plant life, particularly drawing inspiration from flora found in Thailand and Hawaii, to create patterns of colour (mostly shades of greens) on what was before dull concrete.
How Does it Work?
As a child, Blanc was already a scientist. He discovered a love for plants and aquariums and that led to him experimenting with the idea of using plants as biological filters for aquariums to extract excess nutrients. This idea was the seed from which the concept of vertical gardens grew. When he was 19 years old he visited Malaysia and Thailand and was inspired by the way plants grew on the rocks, and from that point on he wanted to bring them from nature to cities. Blanc explained that the technique he uses is truly simple, and that the key to success is using only plants which grow on rocks and don’t need soil, and using the right plants in the right place, layering according to their optimal light, water and nutrient requirements. If you reaaaally want to see how he does it, here is a more technical explanation of how the planting process works [Courtesy Wikipedia]:
On a load-bearing wall or structure is placed a metal frame that supports a PVC plate 10 millimetres (0.39 in) thick, on which are stapled two layers of polyamide felt each 3 millimetres (0.12 in) thick. These layers mimic cliff-growing mosses and are support the roots of many plants. A network of pipes controlled by valves provides a nutrient solution containing dissolved minerals needed for plant growth. The felt is soaked by capillary action with this nutrient solution, which flows down the wall by gravity. The roots of the plants take up the nutrients they need, and excess water is collected at the bottom of the wall by a gutter before being re-injected into the network of pipes: the system works in a closed circuit. Plants are chosen for their ability to grow on this type of environment and depending on available light.
You might expect that architects would jump at the opportunity to integrate vertical gardening into their designs, but Blanc recalls that for the first two decades of his experimentation, architectural firms showed little or no interest. It was only decades later, after he had completed a multitude of projects tailored to private homeowners, hotels, museums and brands such as Chanel, that the architectural world has become interested in the true potentiality of vertical gardens. The most impressive architectural concept I’ve seen so far was a project for Architects Adrian Smith & Godron Gill called the ‘Hanging Canopies’ to be built in Dubai. Like most developments in Dubai, however, it’s been put “on hold”. Green Cities adorned on both the horizontal (vertical farming) and vertical plains still remain a figment of the imagination.
For the moment Blanc may be the one of few people in the world who has turned this practice into a viable business, but for the trend to catch on in a big way others will have to enter the fray.
Why Do Vertical Gardens Impact us?
Perhaps we have not had long enough to overcome our innate evolutionary attachment to nature’s greenery; it evokes something primal and deep-rooted within us. Blanc believes that his gardens are a reminder of our old habitat living in caves. And with nature tailored so to the man-made structures of our cities, you really do get the best of both worlds. That’s not even to mention the positive environmental effects that vertical gardens bring with them. Quite simply, plants draw CO2 out of the atmosphere, like poison from a wound, and through photosynthesis, release it as oxygen.
Since being introduced to vertical gardens, I walk through the streets and see the buildings surrounding me in a new way. I add vertical gardens in my mind and suddenly ugly building become beautiful. I hungrily imagine a future where they are everywhere you look.
Below, watch the 2008 ‘CreatureFree’ Interview with Patrick Blanc, and then click on to see a selection of images of his brilliant work. Be inspired!