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The vertical garden at the Musée du Quai Branly

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The vegetal walls of Patrick Blanc are French gardening fantasy at its finest.

The vertical garden at the Musée du Quai Branly

Walk along the Quai Branly, the thoroughfare that runs along the left bank of the Seine between the Pont d'Alma and the Eiffel Tower, and you'll see a site that will make you rub your eyes in disbelief. A building four stores tall, parts of it still under construction, whose walls are entirely cloaked in living vegetation from roof to sidewalk. You're looking at the new Musée du Quai Branly, and what you're seeing is the latest hallucinatory creation of Patrick Blanc, world-trotting botanist, heavy-weight scientist, inventor, and designer of these stupendous vertical landscapes.

For nearly ten years, Patrick Blanc, a resident scientist at the prestigious CNRS (Centre National pour la Recherche Scientifique), has been creating vertical gardens of a complexity and scale never before realized. Inspired by the plant communities that thrive on wet vertical rock surfaces in nature the world over, Blanc devised an ingenious system to replicate this natural situation on the walls--both indoor and outdoor--of urban buildings. Drawing from a palette of plants adapted or adaptable to this environment from all over the world, he has installed his murs végétals (vegetal walls) in at least eighteen different locations, many of them in and around Paris.

A passionate proponent of biodiversity, Blanc has proved that even the most inhospitable environment imaginable--a vertical urban wall--can be transformed into a living tapestry including hundreds of species in a single 'wall'. The planted face of the Quai Branly museum (which, when open, will house Paris' collection of primitive art from Africa, Oceania, Asia, and the Americas) comprises 15,000 plants and 150 different species.

Blanc's unique (and patented) technology apparently was his answer to a challenge to find unique ways to protect and insulate building faces. To create the substrate for his vertical gardens, two layers of polyamide felt are stapled to 10mm-thick plates of expanded PVC. These are afixed to a metal scaffolding which ensures an airspace between the wall and the plant layer. It is in this felt layer, with its strong capillary- and water-retaining capacities, that the plants are established at a density of 10 to 20 plants per square meter. A drip irrigation system at the top of the wall delivers a continuous flow of dilute fertilizer solution containing a complete complement of macronutrients as well as oligoelements to the plants.

A gutter at the foot of the wall collects the overflow. The result is a vertical garden that requires little but nevertheless regular maintenance.

While the technology is fascinating, the aesthetic of Blanc's vertical gardens is what captures the imagination. He directs the selection and disposition of plant species in each installation, creating diverse green tapestries rich in texture and tonalities of green, and often punctuated by flowers.

While Blanc's indoor vegetal walls feature largely tropical species tolerant of low light levels, such as plants indigenous to zones below tropical forest canopies, his outdoor installations present more brutal challenges. Nevertheless, the choice of plant possibilities remains vast, and includes perennials such assaxifrages, campanulas, geraniums, heucheras, ferns, ivies, and sages; shrubs such as shrubby veronicas, buddleias, viburnums, hydrangeas, and honeysuckles, as well as grasses and sedges. And just as on a natural moist rockface, these plants are interspersed on a base of thick emerald mosses and liverworts.

The vegetal wall at the Quai Branly museum faces north, protecting it from brutal sunlight which undoubtedly poses a serious challenge to these vertical plantings, especially in summer. Among the species I was able to see at ground level, I noted bergenia, pachysandra, and a rich array of heucheras, as well as ferns, sedges, mosses and liverworts.

There's something defiantly wonderful about this vertical garden at Quai Branly. The wall of the building is gently curving, following the arc of the street, which in turn follows the arc of the Seine at that point. It is a contemporary building, which makes it all the more intriguing to see it entirely cloaked in a seemingly impossible layer of vegetation. The juxtaposition of an array of large windows opening into busy museum offices just enhances the intriguing paradox.

It's not surprising that Patrick Blanc's vegetal walls are all the rage of Paris. They have all the essential elements of French gardening: crazy exuberance contained within geometric boundaries, using high tech to make fantasy reality, and not a small dose of French pride at accomplishing what might seem impossible to us lesser beings. At the very least, Patrick Blanc has daringly redefined the meaning of "garden wall."

Le Musée du Quai Branly, 55 Quai Branly, 7th arrondissement, Paris.

P.S. After you've viewed the vegetal wall at the Quai Branly, you've undoubtedly worked up an appetite, right? Why not head over to the nearby Poujauran bakery--or the "Pink Bakery" as my daughter Gabrielle calls it. One of Paris' finest, it remains a truly artisanal affair, unlike the plague of industrial chain bakeries like the much touted Eric Kayser. Poujauran remains one-of-a-kind, a tiny neighborhood place stuffed with gustatory treasures. It looks exactly like the Parisian bakery of your imagination, its interior walls faced with ancient etched mirrors and turn-of-the-century ceramic tiles hand-painted with garlands of roses. It's always full of customers, most of them regulars and some of them pouting that their favorite confection is not in evidence today. Occasionally, a sweaty baker emerges from the back with a burning hot tray to replenish the quickly vanishing stock.

The breads are excellent, especially the hazelnut-raisin and the fig-walnut, as well as the fragrant olive fougasse. But the pastries are what I come for. Forget the perfectly glazed, cloying and characterless confections that are tastelessly and industrially produced in bakeries all over Paris. Come to Poujarain for his boules au coco, irresistably chewy coconut balls; the tiny, custard-filled gâteaux basques, the croquants aux noisettes, a sort of giant cakey biscotto stuffed with whole toasty hazelnuts and some sort of elusive mocha nugget that I'm unable to identify, and the very best cannelés in town--the signature pastry of Bordeaux, small, tall, fluted cakes that are chewy and caramelized on the outside and rum-infused custard on the inside. Once outside, as you shamelessly rifle through your bag trying to decide what you want to stuff into your salivating mouth first, take a moment to admire the vintage turquoise-blue Citroên delivery truck with its basket roof rack for loading up with baguettes hot from the oven. It's always parked outside and is the very icon of the bakery. From the Musée du Quai Branly, turn south on Avenue de la Bourdonnais, take your first left on rue de l'Université. Follow that across avenues Rapp and Bosquet to rue Jean Nicot. Turn right and the bakery is on your right less than a block down. Just look for the old Citroên.


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