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The splendid website ThinkinGardens hosted a discussion a while ago on sculpture in the garden. One commenter argued that a garden setting can enhance a sculpture, but that she had never seen sculpture enhance a garden. Instead  “as you drop a sculpture into a garden setting, it takes centre stage shouting ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ … The garden becomes a backdrop.”

It’s an interesting notion, and I decided to test it by an entirely unscientific trawl through my photo archives, looking for images of sculptures in gardens. These are not sculptures designed and installed at the same time as the garden, where you might expect a thoughtful balance between the two; they are pieces added subsequently, most of them as temporary exhibitions in established gardens.

First, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s 16-day display The Gates in New York’s Central Park in 2005 (OK, it’s not a garden, but it’s a good match in other ways). I was lucky enough to discuss the project with its creators shortly before installation (see photo of the duo with their plans). They intended the 7,500 saffron-coloured structures weaving through the park to encourage people to look at this iconic landscape in a new way. Sadly it seemed to me not really to work. The boxy shape of the gates did offer an interesting mirror of the rectangular skyscrapers around the park, but the thousands of structures somehow seemed like they had just been plonked in the park, shouting “Look at me!” without adding any new perspectives.The GatesThe Gates 2 The Gates 3Here’s a more successful example from summer 2011: woven willow and chestnut structures by the American Patrick Dougherty at the chateau of Trévarez in Brittany, northwest France. Some of Dougherty’s works do undoubtedly overwhelm their surroundings, but at Trévarez it seemed to me the organic structures helped you look afresh at the garden.The shape of this temporary shelter offered a sinuous modern version of the adjacent stone building, and the windows framed surprising and pleasing views of the sumptuous planting.

Trevarez 2

Trevarez 3

Trevarez 1

Another set of willow structures, this time by Tom Hare, was installed at Kew Gardens as part of its 250th anniversary celebrations. They represent seeds – some of them more interesting than this one of a devil’s claw – and they have a nice sinuous quality. But for me they don’t really enhance our appreciation of the surrounding garden, especially with that rather naff little barrier to keep the sculpture decidedly separate from its setting.

Kew1Another temporary display in a botanical garden, with another intrusive barrier, is this 2012 example of dancing figures by Zadok Ben-David, in Singapore. The figures are smaller than you might think, much smaller than actual size, and seem somehow fiddly, and disengaged from their surroundings by that distracting chain barrier.

Singapore Botanical Garden3 Singapore Botanical Garden2 Singapore Botanical Garden1Here’s another figurative set of sculptures, but I think these work much more cohesively in their surroundings. These are some fine Rodin figures, installed as a temporary display in the square outside the CaixaForum art gallery in Madrid. The building is a striking mix of oxidised cast iron and brick, set off by a large Patrick Blanc vertical garden to one side. The traditional figures provided a lovely counterpoint to their contemporary setting and make us admire both the building and the green wall all the more.

CaixaForum1

CaixaForum2

A very simple example next, from Le Nôtre’s vast gardens at Sceaux, south of Paris. The sculpture by René Letourneur is not temporary, but it is a late addition – being installed around 1950 in this seventeenth century landscape. Called L’Aurore (dawn), it is positioned carefully to catch the morning light in a shady corner, and makes us notice and admire a quiet space that otherwise would get lost among the grandeur and dazzle of the rest of Sceaux.

Sceaux1Here’s a very different use of sculpture in a Le Nôtre garden, this one by Takashi Murakami at Versailles in 2010. I wrote at the time how much I loved the juxtaposition between the obscene extravagance of the Sun King’s palace and the mad plastic manga creations displayed incongruously in its midst. The snarling Oval Buddha in the gardens offered wonderful visual links with the gilded fountains and gates of Le Nôtre’s great design, and a thought-provoking contrast with its many baroque statues. Not many places could stand up to that vast gleaming sculpture, but it makes us admire Versailles anew that these gardens definitely could.

Versailles2

Versailles 3  Versailles1Versailles 4Le Notre gardens

Here’s my final example: it’s a temporary exhibition in a traditional display space, not a garden at all. But for me it illustrates perfectly how even the most enormous, preposterous installation that shrieks “Look at me!” can still profoundly enhance its surroundings. This is Anish Kapoor’s bonkers Leviathan sculpture that filled the Grand Palais in Paris for five weeks in 2011. It was a vast purple rubber cathedral swelling up into the belle époque exhibition hall, making the visitor gasp at its size and audacity. But it did not overwhelm the setting; instead its mad shape and size drew equal attention to the beautiful ironwork and glass of this most majestic of spaces.

Monumenta3 Monumenta2 Monumenta1These are personal choices and views of course. I’d be interested to know what others think.

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Landscapelover is delighted to welcome fellow blogger Lula Alvarez (aka Camer@Work) from On Botanical Photography as a guest contributor for this post. We have both been visiting and photographing the green walls—or vertical gardens—of master botanist Patrick Blanc.

Vertical gardens are everywhere these days. Seen as a dramatic statement of green credentials, they are trumpeted as increasing biodiversity, improving air quality, reducing energy consumption (as they provide building insulation), absorbing urban noise, and helping manage storm water runoff. Some analysis is going on (for example, here and here) which seems to confirm many of these claims. Paris is one of several cities that has included vertical gardens in its plans for combatting climate change.

Green walls in the 13 arr

Ideas for improving thermal insulation for Paris tower blocks. Image from http://www.paris.fr

Green walls are created in a number of ways. Most obviously, climbing plants are placed at the foot of a wall and encouraged to grow up. Alternatively, plants start at the top and cascade down. Lawrence Halprin, for instance, used this top-down approach to smother concrete walls at Freeway Park in Seattle.

Lawrence Halprin green wall

Green walls at Freeway Park, 2004

We are lucky in Paris to have Patrick Blanc, one of the leading experts on planted walls, or murs végétals. As a botanist, Blanc realised that plants in the wild frequently do not need soil to grow, but can thrive on cliff faces, rocks and the trunks of other plants. So he devised a novel way of growing plants on walls. No soil at all is involved: his designs consist of a layer of felt stapled to a waterproof PVC sheet, which in turn is attached to a metal frame fitted against the wall. That’s it. The plants are established as seeds or cuttings on the felt, and are automatically watered (and fed) from above. He now installs such vertical gardens all over the world, but the French capital has the greatest number of his creations.

Lula and I have been visiting a number of Blanc’s gardens. Perhaps the best known is the 2005 green wall at the musée du Quai Branly in Paris. It is much photographed, with shots often also including a glimpse of the nearby Eiffel Tower.musee du quai branly Musee du Quai Branly Musee du Quai Branly Similar in style is a building on rue Belliard in Brussels. Installed in 2009 for Stam-Europe (a property investment firm), Blanc’s creation covers a windowed façade on a busy street. But Lula says that, in contrast to the lushness of the Paris example, it has been poorly maintained and some of the plants have died. The building is currently unoccupied, and advertised for sale or rent.

Lula's image of Rue BelliardLula's image of rue Belliard

Similar problems have occurred on the Parliament building in Brussels, where Lula reports that she was not allowed to take photos of Blanc’s 2006 installation because the wall is currently in such a bad condition. Restoration work is apparently underway, but it will not be fit to be photographed again until the summer.

Patrick Blanc walls also appear as small squares on the front of department stores, aiming to catch the eye of the passer-by and to suggest the shop’s eco-friendliness. One example is at BHV Homme, installed in 2007, tucked down a side street in Paris’s 4th arrondissement. It contains some surprising plants, including a few tough little mahonia aquifolium. BHV HommeLula found a similar 2008 Blanc garden on the front of Berlin’s Galeries Lafayette, which is housed in a stunning building designed by Jean Nouvel. The first photograph below is from last summer, and shows that some of the plants had died. But by November 2010, in the second photograph, the wall had been partially replanted and was again thriving. Lula's Galeries Lafayette, Berlin, June 2010Lula's GL Berlin, Nov 2010 Blanc started his career creating vertical gardens inside buildings, only later moving on to external sites, and he still installs interior green walls for some clients. The smallest example I have seen is a free-standing display, created in 2006 inside the Weleda store on Paris’s Avenue Franklin Roosevelt, designed no doubt to promote the store’s green credentials.

Such internal walls are less accessible to the casual passer-by — and also to the writers of this post. Lula managed to snap a photo from the street of the vertical garden inside Club Med premises on Avenue Louise in Brussels, after being told prior permission was needed to photograph inside. Her photograph shows that the long, low wall Blanc created in 2007 still looks lush and healthy.

Lula's Club Med

The Pershing Hall boutique hotel, just off the Champs Elysées, has another internal Blanc wall, installed in 2001. Luckily I was allowed to photograph it last month. It theatrically forms one whole side of the small dining room, and then extends up beyond the glass ceiling into an atrium, around which are arranged the hotel’s bedrooms.

Pershing Hall hotelPershing Hall hotel

Sadly, a series of dramatic green columns, installed by Blanc in 2005 in the stairwells of an underground car park at place des Ternes in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, have recently been abandoned. The water and artificial lights were turned off, and the plants have withered and died in the dry, dark conditions. They remain in place, now husk-like, a silent recrimination. Patrick Blanc columnPatrick Blanc column

The most striking example I have seen of Blanc’s work was at the Caixa Forum post-modern art museum in Madrid. This converted warehouse, with its rusty steel façade, provides a stunning contrast with Blanc’s 2007 creation, installed on the wall of a neighbouring building.

Like all Blanc’s designs, the fifteen thousand plants for Caixa Forum were carefully chosen to suit the local climate, and have been arranged in painterly patterns to echo the contents of the museum.

Both Lula and I visited in February, as the plants were just coming into growth; later in the season, the wall is gorgeously lush, almost shaggy.

Caixa Forum

Lula's image of Caixa ForumCaixa Forum

An even bigger example of Blanc’s work runs along one side of the Passage Delanos, a shortcut between two Paris train stations, Gare de l’Est and Gare du Nord. The 1,400m² vertical garden was installed in 2008 as part of the SNCF refurbishment of the area, and it transformed a dark alleyway into an exuberant green space in the city.

In late summer, there are sedums and other plants in flower on the wall, but even in early spring it has ferns, heucheras, grasses and helxine (baby’s tears), in broad swathes of yellow, light and dark green, brown and pinkish purple.Rue d'Alsace

It is hard not to love these lush green creations. But is there a downside? Well, clearly—even from these few examples—like any garden, green walls will deteriorate if not properly maintained.

There are also concerns that vertical gardens may become a way of justifying denser development: some planning departments are already offering more building space to firms prepared to use green practices. It’s known as a “density incentive.” Let’s just hope that these delightful planted walls continue to be additional green space, and don’t become instead a vertical alternative to traditional parks.

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