Patrick Blanc and le Mur Végétal

Patrick Blancand le Mur Végétal’

By Tom Hulston When people the world over think of the famous gardens of France images of gardens such as those at Versailles, Villandry or Monet’s garden are instantly conjured in imaginations as the quintessential French Garden. A French botanist by the name of Patrick Blanc has however, been changing the face of gardens and botany, not just in France but the world over with his vision in creating city gardens in the most unusual of places.

Without knowing at the time, I first encountered one of Blanc’s gardens back in 2008. I was in Aix-en-Provence, just off from the famous Fontaine de la Rotonde and I noticed a beautiful bridge. Not the type of bridge you would usually associate with a historical city like Aix, but a bridge entirely given over to a vertical garden or as the French call them ‘le Mur Végétal’ (The Vegetable Wall). The bridge, which I later found out to be named Pont Max Juvenal, was a kaleidoscope of different species and colours of plants, all carefully arranged to create an impressive display. What I found so fascinating was that the garden covered what wasessentially a rather basic and ugly concrete bridge, not just beautifying it, but transforming it into a masterpiece.

I again unknowingly came across another of Blanc’s ‘masterpieces’ in Avignon, where the façade of Les Halles (the food market) in the historic old town added an impressive splash of colour amongst the neutral colours of the historic buildings. It wasn’t until his newest work in my hometown of Sydney that I realised the similarities to the gardens I had come across in France and recognised they were all the work of Blanc.

Blanc, known by many as ‘the green man’ owing to his green hair and wardrobe, first became fascinated as a child living in Paris with vertical gardens due to his aquarium full of tropical fish. According to an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Blanc at the age of 8 in the early 60’s read about purifying the water of his aquarium using the tips of plant roots dangling in the water. He became fascinated not by the way the water was purified, but by the ability of the plants to grow without the need of soil. Living in a small Paris apartment with his parents, where he didn’t have the room or space to grow plants, he revolutionised the vertical garden.By the age of 18 he had built a vertical garden around the walls of his bedroom using the same technique that his vertical gardens over 40 years later still use.

Vertical gardens, although not new at the time Blanc was first working on his, still relied on the use of soil for the plants to grow. Blanc was able to invent a system which mimicked what he first saw in his aquarium as an 8 year old to replace the soil, which, because of it’s weight greatly limited the effect and size of these gardens. Blanc’s system involved replacing the soil with a felt to copy the effect moss has when growing on rocks to hold water and roots. He goes on to explain the process; ‘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’.

This new process has allowed vertical gardens to be grown anywhere and create green spaces in the most unusual of places. As Blanc explains ‘Instead of there being nothing or maybe a scrawl of graffiti, a simple wall can become
something poetic.’ At a time when cities are becoming more crowded and green spaces sparser, Blanc is able to show that urban development shouldn’t mean less greenery. His work in Sydney at One Central Park is testament to this, with the world’s highest vertical gardens covering a 117-metre tall tower, turning it into an oasis.

Paris, being the birthplace of Blanc features many of his works, about 50 in total. A personal favourite is the garden at the Musée du quai Branly. It covers 800 square metres of the buildings façade and another 150 square metres of interior walls. His garden on Rue d’Alsace is another highly recommended garden. It gives the impression of being in a forest and is a perfect example of how his work can transform a nondescript wall into something extraordinary.

Along with his Paris gardens, in France, there are the aforementioned ones in Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, but also dozens more around the country. Many of these are private gardens, but there are still many widely accessible to the public. Vinet Square in Bordeaux was an unremarkable small inner city square nestled amongst residential buildings whichhas been transformed to create another one of his fantastic gardens. Also in Toulouse, at a theme park called the Cité de l’espace, there is an Australian themed part of the theme park which has another impressive garden covering the façade of the building.

Blanc’s gardens can be found all throughout the world, from the MelbourneCentral Shopping Centre, The CaixaForum Madrid, The Athenaeum Hotel London and many other cities on 7 different continents. A visit to his website will give you more information on his gardens and where they can be found.

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