The Vertical Gardens of Paris
Pershing Hall is one of those Paris hotels that the ‘in’ crowd likes to frequent. With its Andrée Putman interiors, specialised champagne bar and Champs-Élysées address, it’s always going to be a crowd puller. But the real celebrity here is the 30-metre vertical garden that looms above everything like a gigantic, living cinema screen. And, here I am, seated in the hotel’s restaurant, joyfully gazing at the garden and feeling more sunny-side-up than the egg on my plate. And no wonder. I am obsessed with vertical gardens and this is the one that has crowned the vertical- garden inventor Patrick Blanc as king. So, for me, breakfasting here is akin to making a pilgrimage. Since devising his method, the French-born botanist has gone on to create many vertical green masterpieces all over Paris, in Asia, Brazil, America, Australia, London and the Middle East, and to inspire landscapers around the globe to plant up. The one here at Pershing Hall is like an expansive, thickly textured, skyward-climbing tapestry. There are patches of short ground cover, stretches of exuberant leafy growth and, at the top, small trees growing outwards. It’s huge, lush and very, very green. Comprising more than 300 plant species, it’s a perfect example of just how beautiful the vertical garden concept can be. Blanc was inspired to create vertical gardens after seeing plants in nature growing everywhere – on rocks, walls and in tiny crevices – seemingly without the need to be rooted in soil. His patented structure – the Mur Végétal – involves a layer of rot-proof polyamide felt and PVC fixed to a metal framework, which is attached to a wall. There is no soil, but the fabric is ‘loose enough for roots to weave into yet tight enough to transport water through’.* Nutrients are contained in the water that drips down from the top of the wall, collecting in a trough below. Constant irrigation is vital.
Blanc first devises a planting plan for each wall, allocating shade- and moisture-loving plants to the bottom and others that can withstand higher temperatures or more light to the top. Biodiversity is key. He can incorporate hundreds of species in one wall and combine the rare, exotic and familiar.
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Pershing Hall was Blanc’s first really large vertical garden. ‘This is his best place in Paris. This is his house,’ says the hotel’s public relations manager Eva Assayag. ‘He chooses to show people this place.’ The hotel was built at the end of the 18th century by the Count of Paris as his home before being gifted to his mistress. In 1917 it was the residence and headquarters of General John Pershing who led the American troops in the First World War. It became the club of the American Legion and extra storeys were added. Plaques and assorted symbols of its American occupants remain to this day. It’s built around a square courtyard that is open to the sky with the three walls that house the suites and lounges all facing the wall of a neighbouring building – which is now enveloped by the vertical garden. Ten years ago French designer Andrée Putman was brought in to reinvent it as a hotel. With the rooms, bars, balconies and restaurant all opening onto the central space the big, blank wall presented a design challenge. ‘It was a blind wall, a handicap that needed to be transformed into something of interest,’ Eva explains. ‘Patrick had only made a small vertical garden … so for everybody – the owner, Patrick and Andrée Putman – it was an experiment.’ The bet paid off and now the garden is a major attraction. A huge transparent roof, a third of the way up, was added three years ago. It slides closed when the weather is poor and yet doesn’t affect the light or the view. (I get to enjoy a bad- weather day and, as the rain splatters on the roof, it’s like being in an ultra-glamorous glasshouse – magical!) At night the atmosphere is totally different. The mood is romantic and sultry. The DJ has opted for an ambient sound. Lighting is layered. There are glowing red Murano glass lamps combined with soft purple lights in the champagne bar, while on the balconies and in the restaurant downstairs, candles throw shadows on the fashion set as they nibble on their haute cuisine. But the star of the show remains Blanc’s garden, which, under the strong spotlights, seems even more verdant and gorgeous. By contrast, his vertical garden for the BHV store’s Pour Homme department is located on the back end of the Marais. Approximately five storeys high and wedged between two apartment blocks, it’s elevated above street level atop the graffiti-covered roller door of the entrance. The unexpected presence of such a mass of vibrant greenery generates a metamorphosis of the street. What can be viewed as a dirty, shabby thoroughfare is actually a landmark worth catching the Metro across the city for. But not everyone notices it. Our tripod and camera are positioned on the opposite side of the road so I can observe how passersby interact with this vertical garden. Most simply hurry past without seeing it. Others, alerted by our setup, stop, crane their heads upwards, exclaim, admire, and move on. It’s a lucky populace that has such living masterpieces so publicly accessible. In the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and bordering the River Seine, the Musée du quai Branly is an underrated attraction. Yet its somewhat unruly gardens of bamboo and overgrown trees, the striking Jean Nouvel architecture and the art and cultural collections housed inside make it a memorable destination. And it’s also the site of one of Blanc’s most astounding vertical gardens. Growing 200 metres lengthways and 12 metres high, it’s like the building is wrapped in a cloak of many shades of green, punctuated by flowers and broken only in its intensity by the square panes of the glass windows. Then there is 11–21 Rue d’Alsace: a perfect marriage between nature and urbanism that you’d never know existed unless someone told you. It’s in a run-down district in Paris’ 10th arrondissement and spans the length of an insalubrious alleyway used as a short cut by pedestrians focused on meeting the timetables of the nearby Gare de l’Est train station. Covering 15 000 square feet it’s one of Blanc’s biggest. Like the others, it’s free and created for public enjoyment. It typifies his aim to bring nature into cities and to revive forgotten spaces, ‘creating a destination, a spectacle and a statement that these spaces are not beyond saving’.* verticalgardenpatrickblanc.com; pershinghall.com; bhv.fr; quaibranly.fr/en.