Monday, July 28, 2008

Vertical Gardens - the work of Patrick Blanc (Part 1)

The gardens of Patrick Blanc clockwise from top left - Caixa Forum Madrid, Musee du Quai Branly Paris, Siam Paragon Shopping Center Bangkok, detail Musee du Quai Branly, Paris

I'm not sure when it was that I came across the vertical gardens of Patrick Blanc but I was immediately struck by their beauty and quite intrigued by their construction and the ideas behind them.

The vertical garden probably most known by Australians but ironically the least seen is in the Qantas first class lounge in Sydney. A collaboration with the designer Marc Newson many images of it have been displayed in various publications. Alas alack I am unlikely ever to set foot in the vicinity. So it was with particular delight that I saw as part of the Melbourne International Design Festival that Patrick Blanc would be creating a work in one of Melbourne's shopping centres and in addition giving a lecture on his work.

So one cold Friday night a couple of weeks ago I set off to attend Patrick Blanc's lecture. I had thought that perhaps his work was a bit of a niche interest but no - the lecture theatre gradually filled to almost overflowing with interested Melburnians.

He was duly introduced and took the stage - a visual delight in a black leather suit, fetchingly set off with a white shirt with a green leafy pattern and the whole ensemble topped and tailed by green shoes and black hair with a slash of green through it - it was worth leaving my warm home for the mere sight of him!

Patrick Blanc

With great energy he took the stage and began his talk on his gardens. He was quick to point out that he is not a designer but a "scientist". A botanist in fact who has travelled the world primarily in tropical regions and has studied the plants that grow on steep slopes and in the understory of tropical rainforest.

The fascinating thing about all this is that many of the plants he spoke of are often those most cosseted by us in our gardens and here they were, some living in quite extreme positions and conditions with neither great soil conditions nor constant water. As many of the photos were taken in tropical regions some of these plants are more commonly known as "houseplants" and are used for his indoor vertical gardens in cooler climates but others were quite hardy. Some of these common plants included hydrangeas, begonias, alocasias, cycads and various ferns.

He illustrated his talk of how nature's vertical gardens grow showing us examples of some very common plants which take on a quite extraordinary and somehow more beautiful arrangement when tumbling down a rock wall or similar.

It reminded me of how useful it is to know not only where plants originate but where they naturally exist. And for many it is on steep slopes particularly when they come from countries where any flat land has been cultivated for centuries confining the natural flora to the non-arable land. The other thing to note of course is that with plants taken straight from nature you are working with species rather than hybrids which are often developed to enhance characteristics that we prize more highly in our garden plants such as flower colour and size.

The Vertical Garden at Melbourne Central

So a few days aftern the lecture I visited Melbourne Central to view his latest work. As it had been completed only the day of the lecture I was keen to see it before it was fully grown to see how the entire structure works. I thought it would be a lot more sparse than it was - but it is planted much like a show garden is for a flower show - with plants at a much closer spacing than you would normally plant. Overall I thought it beautiful but was disappointed in the scale of the work. The shopping centre is vast and is dominated by a the central shot tower which is encased in a glass dome. The tower is at the centre of the circular, layered shopping centre and immediately my mind ran away with me thinking how one would look cascading down the side of the tower or around the sides of the shopping centre itself much like the one at the Paragon Shopping Center in Bangkok. Nevertheless I am excited that it is there and look forward to seeing how it grows and develops over time. The vertical garden certainly adds more to a shopping centre than a few mother in law's tongue plants in a planter or even worse dust covered synthetic ones!

Next post in Part 2 I intend to look a little more closely at the construction and the plants used so stay tuned!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Courtyard Gardens

"City Calm" designed by Acres Wild

I love a little garden I think they are a treat they are remarkably easy to transform and this is very satisfying. A little patch of nothingness can very simply and often without tremendous expense be transformed into a place which offers a pleasant environment into which to take refuge, relax and revive oneself whether it be reading a book, sharing a meal, taking a nap or indulging in a little green fingered work.

They are often tricky spaces in that they often have to deal with a multitude of requirements in a very limited space. Not only those requirements of eating and relaxing but also practical ones too such as storage, washing lines, barbecues, sandpits and rain-water tanks.

When I started thinking about what I would write about courtyard gardens my initial thoughts were that it would be a practical discussion on the organization of a space, what works best in a small space, what to keep in and what to leave out and the need often to control one’s lust for plants. However as I’ve started to write I find myself thinking more about how I often find as I leaf through the pages of magazines that courtyard gardens which often require a lot of hard landscaping to resolve the multiple use issues seem sometimes seem to use plants as if they were a hard landscaping material themselves. As a result the spaces feel constrained and almost devoid of natural forms that for me, are conducive to relaxation in a garden space.

English writer Mirabel Osler wrote a book about her garden experiences with the delightful title “A Gentle Plea for Chaos”. Not that she was nor am I suggesting that chaos is suitable for a courtyard garden but I am fond of a little organized disorder if that makes sense. This is not an argument against formality in gardens but personally I love formality in contrast with informality. Courtyard gardens are formal in that they are always very defined spaces and for me the creation of a pleasant environment involves the contrast between the formal and informal or the hard landscaping and the soft.

Colour, form and texture contrast in "City Calm"

One of my favourite courtyard gardens is designed by “
Acres Wild” English duo Debbie Roberts and Ian Smith (who were my tutors when I was studying garden design in London). This design, City Calm successfully combines the formal and the informal into what I consider to be quite an inspired design. Their use of hard landscaping and formal plant forms contrast with the layered textures of looser plant forms such as ferns, bamboos and grasses. This creates a beautifully balanced environment. While Debbie and Ian no longer teach you can still feast your eyes and pick up a few pointers from their beautiful work featured on their website.

Contrast of the formal and informal forms

Sunday, July 13, 2008

To CAD or not to CAD

Oooh I have been a little held up with my post on courtyards - awaiting an approval to use someone else's photos and so thought I better get on with an interim post as it has been so long. I do apologize.

As I've said previously I do use this to download things that are swirling around my mind and this post I fear may not be relevant unless you are a professional or semi-professional designer. The thing that is swirling around my mind currently is CAD or computer aided design.

When I did my design training all of it was done on paper. We sketched, we bubbled (see below) we drafted our plans in pencil on paper then meticulously transferred these into ink onto tracing paper which we then took to the printer and had plan printed. I still use this process but I need to drag myself into the 21st century.
"Bubble" sketch - redefining the spaces in a garden

Partly this is driven by the fact that I have been carrying out some planting plan designs for another designer - they provide me with the concept plan which they draw up using CAD. They then print this design for me on a large A1 sized plan and then I go through my process and hand them a completed planting design on paper which they then have to transfer back to computer. Not the most streamlined process. Aside from this when I'm doing my own work all is fine as long as I don't have to make changes but if I do - everything must be redrawn by hand - an incredibly time consuming process.

So I have decided I must bite the bullet and invest in a CAD program. But what a dilemma - they are on the whole very expensive ranging from about $ 2,000 - $ 6,000 so it is quite an investment. Plus then there's the question of whether I work it all out myself or invest in some training another reasonably substantial investment of time and money.

Overall I prefer the look of hand drawn design - it has a life and an energy that you simply don't get from a computer design but the advantages of computers (like in many areas) are such that they cannot be ignored. Many have linked in plant databases so you select a plant and it will be drawn to the correct size and planting space. You can also add your own plants to the database. And of course when you change a plant it is automatically changed on the plan. Not to mention the ease with which you can make changes to measurements of hard landscaping. Aaah bliss. But getting to that bliss is going to be quite a steep learning curve.
Not to mention the decisions to made between AutoCAD, Land Cad, Vectorworks etc. Oooh my brain hurts just thinking about it.

I am glad however that my training was done without a computer. I will always probably sketch first to work out how something might look from a certain perspective, I will always pace around my house working out the actual physical space of an area and I will still make up plant lists under their visual qualities before I make my decisions on what to plant where and with what. I envy my younger colleagues for their ease with which they can manipulate their computers but a pencil and a sketch will always be the quickest method for me to initially come up with a design solution. I certainly feel that I will never have quite the same direct mental connection to a computer mouse as I have with a pencil. So I feel quite smug that I have this ability but in saying that I look forward to the day when I have more mastery with the mouse.

A hand coloured and hand drawn Concept Plan