Vertical Greening in Cities: Patrick Blanc Lectures in Chicago
The renowned botanist and designer Patrick Blanc’s work seemingly defies logic; entire gardens grow vertically without soil, and stand out dramatically against the traditional facades of the city. Blanc though, has been defying logic his entire life. As a child, he was fascinated by plants, yet his favorites were the epiphytes and succulent tropical species that lived in trees and on rocks, untethered to nutrients from the soil.
As he collected plants throughout his childhood, his collections filled his bedroom, and he was forced to stack them vertically. The combination of his expertise and imagination has created some of the most striking designs of the last two decades. In his lecture at the Alliance Francaise in Chicago, Blanc outlined his prolific portfolio and spoke about his philosophy for the integration of nature and urbanism.
Blanc’s presentation included an array of installations ranging from small gardens above doorways to entire skyscrapers. His larger designs will include hundreds of species of plants, some rare or exotic, while familiar garden species, such as hosta, grow vertically with ease. Blanc developed a synthetic “felt” that is loose enough for roots to weave into yet tight enough to transport water through the fabric from irrigation pumped to its support structure. This technology allows for a multitude of configuration for vertical gardens, and his work has found a niche in the ever-blurring line between landscape and architecture. Many times in his lecture, Blanc declared he “wanted to bring nature into cities.”
The contrast of his vertical gardens to the typical urban vernacular does make for a captivating experience, yet “bringing nature to cities” is a familiar mission to Landscape Architects. Rather than draw a boundary between Blanc’s work and ours, the vertical garden can be an asset to the larger challenges that landscape architects, architects, planners, engineers and artists all contribute to tackling.
The most stirring photos in Blanc’s lecture were the before & after photos of blighted areas, forgotten alleys, and dreary infrastructural interchanges. His vertical gardens revived the spaces, creating a destination, a spectacle, and statement that these spaces are not beyond saving. The vertical garden could be the spearhead for renewing blighted areas or invigorating a proposed project or an underused public space. The unique potential of the vertical plane could be the first volley in a larger endeavor to bring nature into cities.
Blanc’s larger vision for his designs did not pervade his lecture, however. Blanc focused mainly on his numerous installations, speaking about them as isolated commissions offered by architects and patrons. He focused primarily on describing the forms he was experimenting with, the hurdles of varying climates in his international work, and the general fun he has working with his favorite species.
I was left with the question of scale; what are the possibilities for widespread implementation for carbon sequestration, air quality, gray water systems with buildings, habitat generation, and so on? The vertical garden takes up relatively little real estate, there is minimal disturbance for construction, and the result both obscures any possible eyesore and offers a living, whimsical spectacle.
Blanc eschewed hot-button ecological topics during his lecture. Rather than delve into the possibilities for the vertical garden on a large scale (as green roofs are often touted), he presented a series of isolated installations.
But had Blanc pontificated on the ecological possibilities of greenwalls in cities, it could have descended into the hypothetical. Perhaps the widespread use of vertical gardens would dilute their impact, but as a designer, I think their potential for the future of our cities is too great to ignore.
I don’t think Blanc would be swayed by anyone’s critique that his approach does not really address the greater urban context; he has found huge success with small-scale installations. I’m sure his work will continue to defy the norm and deliver even more fascinating designs. And as you can see, he’s quite an individual.