Patrick Blanc is one of the more unlikely personalities of the French design world, with his Planted Walls at the Andrée Putman-designed Pershing Hall Hotel, Jean Nouvel’s Musée du Quai Branly, the covered market hall in Avignon, and M&F Girbaud fashion shops in Paris, New York and Osaka. But the spectacular exhibition Folies Végétales, currently at the Espace Electra in Paris, concentrates on his alter ego/ the dedicated botanist who is part of France’s highly respected CNRS, a national scientific research institute.
In the exhibition, conceived by Blanc along with designer Alexis Tricoire, a tunnel of long creepers tumble as if from the entrance to a cave, plants grow up chair-like structures to recreate the limestone landscape of the Halong Bay in Vietnam, aquatic plants cling to the pebbles in fast-water rapids (here water pumped through glass tubes), iridescent begonias glow in the dark, and two installations contrast the different environments of a tropical forest. Taking us around the show after a night putting in the finishing touches, Blanc resembles a hyperactive, Gallic version of David Attenborough: jungle jacket and arms and legs everywhere, only here it’s his obsession with plants, rather than animals, that is infectious – he has even written a book from the perspective of a plant.
Blanc began perfecting his concept of vertical gardens when he was 12 years old – long before they became a showcase for luxury hotels and corporate headquarters – first as a teenager trying to grow the plants he had seen in glasshouses in Paris, later with the plants he discovered in tropical forests. ‘I am interested in the idea of disassociating plants from the earth, and breaking the myth of nutritive soil,’ he states. The patented system, comprising a layer of rot-proof polyamide on top of a sheet of waterproof PVC attached to a metal framework, and tap water supplemented by nutrients pumped from the top in a closed circuit, reproduces the sort of damp conditions in which plant roots can attach and grow.
The turning point for what had been a private obsession that Blanc tinkered on at home came almost 30 years later, with the innovative International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire in 1994, an international showcase for landscape designers, architects and town planners. ‘The wall at Chaumont had an impact I had never imagined. I suddenly had a different vision of my work, because I realised that the design I had done also really interested a world that was totally different from that of botanists. It led me to think more and more about how planted walls could be integrated in the city.’
Is there a limit to where you can put his walls? Not really, says Blanc, as long as you realise that water will choose the shortest route to descend from top to bottom. One of his most recent projects is a wall of the BHV department store on a narrow street in Paris, with little light at the bottom, but plenty of light and stronger winds higher up. Another project is a car park in Lyon. ‘It shows that plants will adapt to even the most inhospitable of places, if you give them water and light, even in a car park where there is carbon monoxide and toxic emissions,’ says Blanc. Additional environmental benefits include improved insulation in winter and natural cooling in summer. As well as recently completed walls, including the Herzog and De Meuron-designed Caixa Art Foundation in Madrid and the newly renovated Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Toulouse, some 50 projects are underway around the world from Kuwait, Australia and Bangkok to the Athenaeum Hotel in London.
‘No matter where you are in the world, people live more and more in towns. People are increasingly cut off from nature, but, at the same time, we talk more and more about the problems of nature and the environment. Vegetal walls are like a fragment of nature directly integrated within the urban environment, just where you least expect them’, he says.
‘It is reassuring in a period where people are completely alarmist and pessimist. I think the planted walls bring a little optimism when you realise that, despite the setting, where nature has been most modified you can reintroduce not just nature, but an enormous diversity of species into the city.’
Folies Végétales runs until 18 March at the Espace Electra, 6 Rue Récamier, Paris