Our need for more urban garden space is driving us up the walls, literally. Vertical gardening used to just mean trellises and arbors, but in the past few decades, it’s become far more interesting than “just” sugar snap vines trained through old peach tree branches. A variety of designers are now experimenting with lifting the soil itself, taking over the structure and substance of the wall, not just the surface. The result can be awe inspiring, curiousity inducing, and deeply refreshing. The innovator of the movement, however, is working on a much thinner canvas.
The peculiar brilliance of horticultural artist Patrick Blanc is bound up in his personal rapture with epiphytic plants (them what don’t need dirt to grow, such as you’d find way up another tree or on a cliff face). This love affair has driven him to reconsider the large blank walls frequent in barren urban spaces.
His passion has come to fruition in such monumental maneuvers as the façade to the Musée du quai Branlay in Paris. Adjacent to the Seine and mere blocks from the Eiffel Tower, the museum’s exterior is so captivating to the steady stream of passersby that they’ve worn little bare spots on the wall from touching. It’s not vandalism, it’s love. It’s a testament to how powerfully humans respond to natural abundance.
Not, of course, that the wall is natural. In layman’s terms, Blanc has taken capillary matting and pinched pockets in it to create a 3D surface. In to this subtle vertical terrain, he has lashed epiphyte varieties uncovered while haunting France’s more dramatic topography.
Blanc’s compositional sense is undeniable; the textures and hues of his plants are coaxed to form undulating and abstract masses.
The sidewalk that passes the Musée du quai Branlay is wet (check the lower right of the window photo). Yes, there is a rill at the base of the wall, and no doubt it captures a fair percentage of the water. It does not catch it all, and it does not take it anywhere meaningful. According to everything I can find, Mr. Blanc’s wall is hydrated with municipal water that does not recirculate.
Imagine if the sidewalk were pervious. Imagine if there were large cisterns below our feet. Imagine if the rain that fell of the roof of the Musée became the water that cycled over and over, down the grand and growing façade, powered by a solar pump, or a wind one, or one powered by a nearby children’s merry-go-round. In that case, Blanc’s wall moves from elegant art in a novel medium to a beacon shining on the immense capacity of that which we currently treat as mundane waste: walls? How boring, how pedantic. Rain? Such a problem, always too much or too little. What if these Mur Vegetal were the new norm? How would our urban spaces feel then?