A Review of
The Vertical Garden:
From Nature to the City.
(Revised and Updated Edition)
Hardback: Norton, 2012.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
You will not forget one of Patrick Blanc’s Vertical Gardens if you’ve seen one, even just in a photograph. Lush and dense, these gardens grow up, climbing the sides of buildings, sprouting off of walls, covering entire facades, situated in lively urban places. It’s as if a square patch of ground was cut out and rotated 90 degrees, taking all of its vegetation with it. It introduces a new, distinctly urban, form of gardens. And this verticality and design makes for an unforgettable image, particularly where it rises to the scale of an entire façade, such as the Rue d’Alsace or Quai Branly Museum, both in Paris where Blanc is from and based, in which different species of plants grow in broad undulating diagonal swathes, hugging around windows and doors, and meeting the sidewalk at the ground; these gardens and more are gathered together in a new revised book, The Vertical Garden: From Nature to the City.
The Vertical Gardens hold their form through a metal support structure, PVC backing, and irrigation cloth into which thousands of plants root. Fed by a watering tube at the top, mineral-rich water trickles down to a tank at the bottom; through this structure, the health of the plants are maintained, as is the building’s structural integrity. In The Vertical Garden, Blanc provides a few pages of other relationships of plants on buildings, some superficial, such as moss and algae growing on roofs and stone walls, others slightly hazardous, and others completely destructive. Blanc’s vertical gardens strive to maintain the complexity of a biotic community and of built structures; furthermore, as is the case with green roofs, vertical gardens help to insulate buildings, lower heat islands, and absorb rainwater runoff.
Often the writing about such things as gardens – vertical or otherwise – in cities devolves into an antagonistic ‘humans versus nature’ cagematch, which is neither helpful nor accurate. Blanc, fortunately, avoids this pitfall, and instead devotes a large chunk of the book to Natural Habitats, which have been the teachers for how his Vertical Gardens work. Studying habitats including Waterfalls, Riverbanks, Cliffs, the Forest Understory, and Epiphytes, Blanc then works to introduce these same basic structures into cities, in a way in which the biotic life, the urban form, and the particular microclimate of the location are reinforced. For instance, “for open-air gardens in temperate regions, I tend to prefer recreating a transect starting with plants from the summit of an exposed cliff… then, lower down, plants from rocky slopes and screes… and, near the bottom, plans from the understory or growing in the vicinity of streams”(102). In this way, Blanc actively enacts how Philip Bess describes “historic Jewish and Christian theology” as it relates to nature: “Cities, buildings, and the cultivated landscape may be regarded properly as the physical and spatial forms of culture; and city-making, architecture, and agriculture can be understood on the one hand as cultural interventions in nature, but on the other hand as in some sense in themselves natural. It is what Aristotle meant when he wrote that ‘art imitates nature,’ i.e., that the artist acts towards his or her desired ends in a manner analogous to the way nature acts” (Bess, Till We Have Built Jerusalem, 60).
The Vertical Garden thoroughly details plant types and habitats, and provides excellent documentation of some beautiful vertical gardens. If I get a little tired of looking at Blanc cheesing it up in the photographs (yes, he’s the guy who buys pre-paint-stained jeans), it can be excused because his work remains a sensitive example as to how we might promote the flourishing of all life – animal, vegetable, or mineral – in a generous urban form.
Brent Aldrich is part of the Englewood Christian Church community on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis and Art Editor of The Englewood Review of Books.