Global Economics

Redefining the Urban Jungle


Thanks to French botanist Patrick Blanc, Plant Walls—vertical gardens attached to hotels and museums—are sprouting up in cities worldwide

Greenery is the new chic. The latest must-have design element is an indoor (or sometimes outdoor) jungle courtesy of 53-year-old French botanist, designer, and entrepreneur Patrick Blanc. From luxury hoteliers and chi-chi boutique owners to big-name architects such as Renzo Piano and Jean Nouvel, seemingly everyone these days wants one of Blanc's vertical gardens to grace their latest edifices.

Blanc's brainchild, called Le Mur Végétal, or Plant Wall, is a dense sheet of vegetation that can grow against any surface, or even in midair. It works by doing away entirely with dirt, instead growing plants hydroponically in felt pockets attached to a rigid plastic backing. First exhibited in 1994 at the International Garden Festival in Chaumont-sur-Loire, France, the Plant Wall immediately caught the public's attention.

A first commission came from the Paris city council for the capital's Parc Floral. Since then, Blanc has won more than 100 commissions worldwide, from São Paolo to Seoul. His latest and highest-profile: a huge exterior Plant Wall mounted on Paris' new Quai Branly art museum.

"Blanc has single-handedly created a new style of 20th-century garden," says French landscape artist Pascal Cribier, known for his work on the Tuileries gardens west of Paris' Louvre Museum. "He has an incredible understanding of the plant world, as if he were able to communicate with it." Indeed, Blanc's passion for botany is so profound that he has even dyed his hair green.

GREENOVATION.

Born in Paris in 1953, Blanc has dedicated his life to the study of plants. As a child, he was obsessed with aquariums, realizing with surprise that the philodendrons in his fish tank survived without any earth. "The idea that plants need earth to grow is rot," he says with typical excitement. "We've been sold that idea ever since we got thrown out of the Garden of Eden."

At 12, Blanc began experimenting with growing plants sans earth, suspending philodendrons on irrigated fiberglass supports mounted on a wall. By age 19, he was exploring the jungles of Cameron Highlands in Malaysia and Khao Yai in Thailand, studying indigenous vegetation on rocks and tree trunks and under waterfalls, "and generally avoiding tigers."

But it wasn't until 1988, when he trademarked the Plant Wall concept, that Blanc began to make the leap from botany to design. The Plant Wall itself is quite sophisticated, involving layers of plastic, metal, and air to provide a rigid frame, temperature control, and air circulation. The plants grow in small pockets of felt-like plastic that is nonbiodegradable to avoid rotting. They are irrigated through a system of plastic pipes that distribute nutrient solution.

CITY GARDENS.

The choice of plants is different for each project and lies entirely in the hands of Blanc, whose expertise comprises intimate knowledge of plants' growth criteria. "None of my walls resemble each other, as everything depends on location, climate, and aesthetic objectives," he says. In all, it takes about five weeks to create a Plant Wall, at a cost of about €500 per square meter, or $60 per square foot. The walls are designed to last up to 30 years.

Blanc attributes his growing success to a shift in thinking about cities and urban spaces. "We need to reconcile city dwellers' needs and nature's needs," he says. And with space increasingly at a premium in cities, gardens have to go vertical, he says. While high-profile commissions have made Blanc famous, he envisions far more modest applications for Plant Walls: in parking lots, housing projects, train stations, and even underneath bridges.

No doubt, the Musée du Quai Branly has put Blanc into the big time. Conceived by President Jacques Chirac, the newly inaugurated museum features the art and culture of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. The $300 million building was designed by French architect and longtime Blanc collaborator Jean Nouvel. Blanc's south-facing Plant Wall, some 8,600 square feet (800 square meters), contains 15,000 plants from 170 species originating in North America, Europe, Himalaya, China, and Japan.

In the works: an installation for the Contemporary Art Center in Istanbul and a project at the Caixa Forum Museum on Madrid's Avenida del Prado. In 2007, Blanc foresees jobs including an office tower in Qatar and a joint project with interior designer Andrée Putman at the Morgans Hotel in New York.

GROWING HOPE.

Aside from the glamorous world of architecture and interior design, Blanc has a social mission. His latest pet project is to bring Plant Walls to the downtrodden Paris housing projects where youths rioted for weeks in the fall of 2005. Blanc calls these spaces "where man has given up on life," and says he hopes greenery would provide people "an excuse for positive social activity and interaction with each other and nature."

Idealistic, to be sure. But Blanc's success to date suggests that walls of greenery affect people in profound ways. "Whether it's for scientific ends or aesthetic purposes," he says, "nature should be allowed to create surprise where we least expect it."

To see some of Blanc's plant wall projects, click here.

Haq writes for BusinessWeek.com from Paris .

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