The Genteel
November 22, 2017
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Patrick Blanc's work at the Genoa Aquarium. Source: verticalgardenpatrickblanc.com.

Legend tells us that neo-Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to soothe the sadness of his wife Amytis, who was homesick for the lush greenery of her native Media. Although no one knows for sure where the gardens were, or exactly what they looked like, today's modern green wall architecture can probably give us a good idea.

Lush, colourful and exotic are just a few words that describe green walls - a growing trend in urban architecture and interior design. These ingenious vertical gardens are self-sustaining and can be integrated into the interior or exterior design of any building. The key to their visual and enduring success is choosing the right plants; they should include many varieties (both for aesthetic and practical reasons), with shade and moisture loving plants at the bottom and heartier types (more resistant to wind and weather changes) at the top. Flowering perennials, evergreens, colourful shrubs, lush ferns and fragrant mosses can all be integrated to form a multi-textured landscape, as beautiful as anything painted by Monet or Gauguin.

A large green wall with a variety of plants can reduce the temperature of a room in summer significantly.

Like these two great artists, the father of the modern green wall, Patrick Blanc, is also French. Inspired by waterfalls and the tropical jungles of southeast Asia, this maverick botanist (who dyes his grey hair green) has been beautifying the world's cities with his work for over a decade. Private homes, spas, airport lounges, corporations and public institutions have all been given a lush and sultry makeover by Blanc. Anyone who has seen his vertical gardens draped over the Genoa Aquarium in Genova, the BHV Homme shop in Paris or the Athenaeum Hotel in London - to note a few - will feel instantly transported to a fresh, tranquil Eden; even if only for a few moments.

Whilst ancient scribes believe something similar to an Archimedes screw was used to irrigate the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, modern green walls are kept alive through water, nutrients and light sources delivered through vertical support systems - rather than being planted in the ground. In most cases, no soil is used to grow the plants - as it is quite heavy and can attract insects and pathogens - and a layer of air between the building and the panels ensures that the building can breathe.

This layer of air can provide insulation for homes, making green walls not only beautiful, but practical too. According to Nick Miles of the energy company The Green Age, "Most of the focus on insulating homes has been to insulate from the inside, especially insulating floors and roof space, but green walling offers an external solution too: the layer of air that it creates reduces the amount of heat escaping from the building, and the amount of cold air that comes in."

Miles continues, "There are energy savings in the summer too - through the process known as transpiration, plants actually slightly cool the environment around them, and a large green wall with a variety of plants can reduce the temperature of a room in summer significantly."

Patrick Blanc's work on the 
Athenaeum Hotel in London.
Source: verticalgardenpatrickblanc.com.

Green Over Grey, a Canadian green wall design firm inspired by Blanc's work and environmental preservation, has served many corporate and institutional clients. The aim of these customers is usually not only to boost their eco credentials, but to also improve the well-being of their employees and clients, through the strategic placement of green walls around public and work spaces. There is solid ground for doing so: the company's website claims that the average person in North America spends 90 per cent of their time indoors, exposing themselves to interior pollutants such as formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, benzene and countless others. Whilst most houseplants will absorb these nasties to some degree, Green Over Grey claims that a green wall can contain over a thousand plants, all of which filter air and create energy-rich, mind-clearing oxygen.

The same pollution-absorbing effect occurs outdoors, of course. If every building in every large city were to be covered in green walls, they could reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases. This would have a cooling effect, countering the heating effect of tar and cement that cause cities to be one or two degrees higher, on average, than nearby rural areas.

Miles even suggests that it is possible to create small scale urban agricultural projects through green walls, thus providing apartment blocks, office buildings and the like with their own freshly grown vegetables and herbs. While this is not likely to happen any time soon, turning concrete jungles into jungles on concrete would be a welcome aesthetic and environmental transformation for any urban landscape.

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