Living walls growing in prominence in urban areas

By Design

There used to be a time when plants growing on walls used to be a sign of neglect and aging buildings. But there’s a growing trend that is making use of green in architecture.

CGTN’s Mark Niu takes us to San Francisco, a city that is increasingly embracing the idea of the living wall.


At San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art – SFMOMA-one of the most popular works is neither a painting nor a sculpture. At nearly nine meters high and 46 meters wide, it’s the largest living wall in the United States.

“It’s nice to see something green and alive. We have so much hardscape, so much go-go in life,” Greg Lippe, a visitor to the SFMOMA said. “This is kind of like soft and inviting. It’s inspiring. I would like something like this in my home.”

Another museum guest, Angelo D’agostino, also praised the idea: “We’re in this place of climate change and there is so much going on in terms environmentally. This probably seems like a good idea for everyone. ”

The SFMOMA living wall has 26,000 plants. There are 38 different species. About 20% are native to California. On average, these plants are only getting about one hour of direct sunlight per day.

“I very definitely think of it as a work of art,” Janet Bishop, Chief Curator of the SFMOMA said. “When you get up close you see not green, but purple flowers, pink flowers, yellow flowers and sometimes butterflies in front of the wall. I love that people really gravitate to it.”

Bishop says the experience of seeing the living wall is never the same because it depends on the time of day and the season.

“It was a big commitment to take on something that would need ongoing care and tending. But I don’t think there has been a single moment of regret. It is a work of art that has really become closely identified with the experience of SFMOMA as a whole. And an absolute favorite among our visitors.”

The man behind the living wall is horticulturist David Brenner, who began the project with designs on his iPad.

Brenner served an apprenticeship at the Royal Botanic Gardens in London where he learned about plants that grew naturally on trees and rock faces.

He brought that knowledge to a greenhouse at the University of California Polytechnic State University where he experimented with growing plants vertically. He’s also the founding Principal of Habitat Horticulture.

Brenner and his team visit SFMOMA every week to maintain the wall.

Being in drought-prone California, sustainability is always in mind.

“In this case with SFMOMA, we are using condensate water, which is a byproduct of the cooling tower system,” Brenner said. “And then we are taking that and adding it to a large recirculating tank”

“Then, we’ll send that to the living wall and any excess water is captured and reused again.”

Brenner has helped San Francisco and California become a hotbed for living wall designs.

He’s done about 200 projects in California, including this one inside the lobby of commercial building Foundry Square.

This living wall has two different styles – one serving as a backdrop to sculpture and the other containing 20 different species.

But inside San Francisco’s tallest skyscraper – the home of tech giant Salesforce — the living wall concept takes on a new twist.

On floor 61, the top floor, you’ll find twenty-four living columns.

Combined with a 360-degree view of the city, Salesforce calls this place the world’s greatest living room.

“Here we have 24 different columns with 12 different exposures,” Brenner said.

“We’re basically on a column and then there are columns as we go around. So they each have a different exposure to the natural sunlight. So finding the right palette that would work throughout the year as that sun does change. I love the diversity. You really have 128 different plant species, 48 different orchids, 25,000 total plants.”

Today, visitors from the American Institute of Architects of San Francisco are soaking up information about how the steel structures were turned into colorful plantscapes.

“We’re not taught this in architecture school. We’re taught about metal and glass, not so much living plants and how to incorporate it. I think you need the right partner,” architect Ashley Clark said.

“I just call everything an orchid or a fern. But there’s more to that. So the botany I think would be an important part. I think it would be a great sector for architecture to intermingle those two fields.”

Brenner believes the living wall trend is catching on throughout the country as congested cities search for new ways to transform concrete jungles into natural experiences.

Eric Westerduin talks about living walls

CGTN’s Rachelle Akuffo spoke to Eric Westeduin, president of Suite Plants, about so-called living walls and how cities are trying to be more green.