Patrick Blanc is the world's foremost designer of plant walls, the verdant indoor and outdoor fantasies also known as live walls, green walls or (in his native French) "le mur vegetal."
Like green roofs and other urban landscaping innovations, these lush vertical gardens now grace some of the world's most prestigious buildings. Meet the scientist cum designer who popularized one of the most remarkable green innovations of recent years.
The Life of Patrick Blanc
Blanc was born on June 3, 1953, in the town of -- appropriately enough -- Clinique des Fleurs, France. He was interested in plants from an early age, growing flowers in a mesh frame along the exterior wall of his parents' house outside Paris. Soon the young Blanc was training rhododendrons that were rooted in an aquarium to grow up the walls of his home.
A 1972 visit to Malaysia and Thailand cemented the young Blanc's fascination with plants, and he entered Pierre & Marie Curie University in Paris, specializing in tropical botany -- particularly those rain forest species that grow without soil and with little or no light. His academic work led to a research position with France's National Center for Scientific Research; Blanc is also a laureate of the French Academy of Sciences.
But, like the thriving plants that he loves, a creative intellect like Blanc's can't be easily contained, and he soon found himself at the intersection of science, art and architecture -- in 1986, Blanc created his first plant wall at the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie in Paris.
Climbing the Green Wall
The enthusiasm that greeted his earliest green walls led Blanc to other commissions, and his work now graces the walls of prestigious institutions like the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom Stilwerk, the Pershing Hall hotel in Paris, the Marithé & François Girbaud store in New York City, the Siam Paragon shopping center in Bangkok, the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris, the Athenaeum Hotel in London and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan.
Though Blanc's plant walls appear wild and lush, the engineering behind them is deceptively simple. A waterproof layer of PVC protects the underlying structural wall, while a metal framework supports two layers of non-biodegradable felt (anything biodegradable would, of course, eventually degrade). A network of pipes carries nutrient-rich water to the plants -- there's no soil in most of Blanc's green walls.
Blanc, however, didn't invent the green wall. Nature has been growing plants on rocks walls and other vertical surfaces for eons. Furthermore, Stanley Hart White -- a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign -- was granted a patent in 1938 for a vertical garden, or "Vegetation-Bearing Architectonic Structure and System," made of what he called "botanical bricks."
Blanc: The Lush Life
Success didn't come overnight for Blanc, but as his work has garnered international attention and awards, more accolades are flowing his direction. Andrée Putman, the renowned French interior designer and architect, has referred to Blanc's plant walls as revolutionary. "It's like a magic trick," she said in a 2007 New York Times interview. "There is no soil in this operation, and yet the plants seem to grow faster. It creates a rather miraculous atmosphere."
Blanc himself cuts quite a figure in the normally staid worlds of science and landscape design. With green highlights dyed into his hair, a two-inch long thumbnail painted a glittering shade of green and a habit of dressing in flamboyant botanical prints, no one is likely to mistake Blanc for a suburban accountant anytime soon.
But it's his eye-opening work that speaks most clearly about Blanc's passion for the natural world: "We live in an era where human activity is overwhelming," he told The New York Times. "I think we can reconcile nature and man to a much greater degree. People become much more sensitive to nature when they suddenly see a plant wall in the Métro. It calls out to them much more than plants in a garden."