Sunday 27 February 2022


It seems to have become the latest fashion in architecture - vertical gardens. The most extreme case to date appears to be Heatherwick‘s 1000 Trees – a vertical forest. Plants are now appearing in most architectural renderings, and also in new projects, sometimes merely as a gesture to the latest ‘style,’ while, in other schemes, the plants seem to have taken over as the core concept, used almost as the cliché ivy to cover rather ordinary buildings instead of mistakes.

Heatherwick 1000 Trees

It all seems very nice and ‘green,’ but are we now using plants in the same casual, ad hoc manner in which they were once plonked onto architectural renderings as bits of fuzzy scribble to add ‘character’ and some idea of ‘style and context’ to the proposal? Here, plans and elevations were drawn up with the plants added later as generic foliage, filling the voids in the plans, and shading in some of the harsher lines in the elevation, almost willy-nilly, with thought only being given to the graphic appearance rather than to any reality. Bold tropical forms were popular irrespective of location. We are now talking about ‘the old days’ when pencil, pen, film and paper were one’s instruments and materials, with T-squares, set squares, and drawing boards being the tools. Once the plans and elevations had been completed, then the fuzz could be added to suggest foliage or people.

Helmut Jacoby renderings

The same process was used in architectural renderings, but sometimes more detail was added, like trunks, branches, and leaves. Although the foliage was purely there for the appearance, some renderings were fastidious with leaves drawn all as separate entities – Helmut Jacoby comes to mind. As technologies developed, Rapidograph pens and Letraset sheets became available. The process was the same, using ink lines of various thicknesses for the drawing, to subsequently be superimposed with the Letraset transfers that came as: alphabets in various typefaces; trees of sundry sizes and species, usually European; people of differing scales and gestures; textures of various shades; and a collection of cars of various makes. The Citroen DS or C2 was the favoured ‘architectural’ illustration. These Letraset transfers could be freely distributed around and over plans, elevations, and perspectives to give a slick sense of place and purpose to the drawings.

Digital rendering

It was a very laborious and time-consuming process when one compares it to today’s digital world, but perhaps only in a different way. One should not be dazzled by the hype of our times that seems to want to present everything as producing a new efficiency. One never heard anyone at a drawing board asking how to draw a line, or a shape of any thickness or colour. Now, every act is a manipulation of a programme, that places a complex, distracting barrier between the body, mind, and the outcome, allowing the print to be admired as something remote; alien, as if made by another hand. This distancing gives rise to a narcissistic tendency involving self-praise rather than any critical review. Is this the worry with the new concentration on appearances? The hand was subjected to a continual review process, allowing adjustments and variations to be made progressively as matters and opportunities became obvious; now the ‘hands-free’ glossy amazement of technology provides a film of grandeur over even silly designs, making everything look like illustrations in an ‘art’ magazine.

Digital rendering

‘Green’ seems to be the new cliché: everything ‘green’ is good. And so we see ‘green’ materials, systems, services, and plants. This strategy really needs to be ‘fact checked,’ as they say today, because it is just too easy to grab every cliché and twist it into convincing hype that shrouds realities with over-excitement. Checking technologies and materials can become tricky and complex because of the ‘feel good’ impetus in the promotion, but we can say more about plants. Are the actual plants being used in the same decoratively visual manner as that which once used fuzzed scribbles and subsequently Letraset? Is real ‘greenery’ being applied just for fashion and style? Does anyone really consider or care for the plant itself beyond choosing a variety that will not die too soon?

Gardening is a complex matter requiring knowledge, care, and sensitivity - see Russell Page The Education of a Gardener; and It involves a detailed understanding of specifics about plant life and its necessities; and plants require gardening – gardeners; carers. Plants need constant attention, especially when potted. The great gardens of the world were not developed by whacking in a few plants as fuzz or Letraset, or some digital alternative just for instant appearances; they are the efforts of many over many years who have shared their lives with the plants: placing them appropriately in the right soils and micro-climates to allow them to thrive; tending them as they are watched growing, being ready to assist in any way to ensure they flourish; then appropriately pruning and replacing them as they cycle through the seasons and the years, developing and dying. The process involves a certain knowing, an empathetic patience, and a true understanding and love of nature: see - Vita Sackville-West Sissinghurst The Creation of a Garden.

Architecturally we are starting to see what are called ‘vertical gardens’ that are illustrated as tall buildings covered with foliage. Has anyone asked the plants what height they prefer? Has anyone considered the caring – the gardening needed; or is this all about ‘green’ appearances now? One fears the latter. One example nearby is a twelve-storey building that has plants draped over the ledges of each floor, just as they might have been attractively illustrated by the architect. The plants used are a single species that must be close to being a noxious weed, such is the resilience and speed of growth that has been exhibited. The worry is that the plants of one level drape over the edge and grow as a green curtain over the glass openings of the floor below. This ‘green’ does very little for the floor it is planted on, but could become an undesirable nuisance for the occupants below. Who becomes responsible for what? It is not the plant’s fault that this is happening.

It looks as though the plants exist in a no-man’s-land, being there perhaps just because the architect had added the green to the preferred elevation for the sake of appearances. Without the green, the building would look like the normal high-rise apartment block with a bit of a twist, with some apartments enjoying an eastern aspect, with others mirrored in plan, left fully exposed to the west – but who cares? This is a ‘green’ building – it has plants all over it: WOW!

Heatherwick 1000 Trees

Heatherwick has boasted that trees are best planted as he has done in 1000 Trees – on the tops of columns. How are these tended; cared for; pruned; replaced? Dare one even think of this? How big might they grow? Then there is the news report on Melbourne’s tallest building having ‘vertical gardens’ - no doubt, ‘the world’s tallest’: see - The illustration shows shrubs collected along the buildings edge, fluffing out luxuriously beyond the stepped structural forms. How on earth are these plants going to be looked after if they survive the rigours of extreme height? Plants grow; one fears that it might be preferred if plants did not behave in this way but remained alive and the same. This is bonsai; it is possible, but only with almost constant and manic attention to detail. Is this planned? Might artificial plants be best?

Is this enthusiasm for covering buildings in plants going to continue? What are we letting ourselves in for? Do we know? Do we care once the photographs have been taken and published? Imagine a high-rise completely taken over by plants. There might be a stage where this could be considered wonderful, but who tells the plants to stop? If the answer is that the plants will be trimmed and managed, how does this happen at any height, and by whom? Does a gardening group have to access plants through private space? Might the residents be responsible for the care? What happens when plants above have an impact on people below, and vice versa? Will we get neighbours arguing about foliage outcomes vertically as some now do horizontally when one prefers tidy, open lawn; the other chaotic, dense bush? How is everything supervised; observed; cared for? What might Russell Page think? How is replacement managed – soils, or growing mix, and plants? There are many questions about the gardener in these situations that look like they are asking about limbo land – a zone yet to be explored. Triffids come to mind. Might this be our future if we are not careful? What is desirable?

Sydney architect, Drew Heath, holds a vision of building and plants inspired by the ruins of Ankor Wat where growth has encompassed structure such as to overcome it: see – This brings to mind an early experiment with plants climbing over walls. It all started well, and looked remarkably pretty. Then, as it became more luxurious with time, trimming was needed. After a couple of years, after a trimming, it was noticed that the plant was bursting the brickwork. The roots has reached into the joints; the wall was being fractured and pushed out. The dream was demolished before it demolished the wall. We must never forget that plants have needs and futures too – consider carefully, lest we forget both the power and potential of growth, and the ethos of the gardener.

2 MAR 22


Plants on buildings might be a new fad, but there are many historical examples of relationships between buildings and plants. These range from the juxtapositioning of plants and buildings, to the more integrated approach where plants are a cladding. These examples display a much more sensitive approach than that seen in new projects that seem to want to take matters to the extremes for boasting, just for MY display. The historical examples are far more modest and subtle. One example is the small chapel at Gostwyck: see -

This beautiful little building is covered in vines and displays a simple nonchalance. The beauty and wonder that this growth gives to this place is remarkable as the leaves change with the seasons. The naked brickwork in winter changes to the fresh lime greens of spring, that mature into the richer, deeper emerald greens of summer, to become the stunning ruby reds of autumn, that fall to again reveal winter’s naked brickwork. This tiny chapel hums with a secret life. Russell Page would have loved it. The unaffected innocence of this place highlights how self-consciously slick and smart most new examples are as they search out things quirky and bespoke. There is nothing ‘smart-arse’ here; the ‘green’ - we should call it ‘growth’ as it is multicoloured - is not a self-conscious imposition; just sustainable beauty that lets one understand and appreciate both the chapel and the vine. We need to learn from this example. There is nothing pretentious here; just a love of nature and place that outshines all the clever, ‘new’ approaches. We have much to discover about the enriching of place – ordinary, everyday enchantment.

 Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.

Le Corbusier

15 MARCH 2022


It is interesting to observe that green displays, the vertical gardens, are mostly published as external exhibits to show how fashionably ‘green’ a project is. There are very few illustrations that show what it might be like to live in a tower that is covered in shrubs. Maybe greenery might become a nuisance, as one of the benefits of tower living is the view from on high, the distant prospect.

Not much is ever said about the purpose of the green other than its current popularity and style: its unspoken environmental credentials. Might the plants be chosen to encourage birds and insects; or are they selected, as at airports, to discourage such potential ‘problems.’ Are the plants chosen from extra hardy species that require a minimum of maintenance while always managing to look good? Are deciduous plants avoided as being too messy, even though they might offer splendid changes – c.f. Gostwyck church? Is there anything in the vertical garden that is done other than for appearance? Are any food producing plants ever used? Might they be too messy, and attract too many ‘nuisance’ fauna species – birds, bats, insects – and demand too much careful attention to avoid diseases? Might plants that drop anything be considered a safety problem?

The idea of the ‘garden’ seems very specific and limited to style alone.

 15 APRIL 2022


The answer to one question was seen just the other day: how is the decorative ‘green’ trimmed? The greenery on the building had regrown yet again; the leaves were hanging down as a waterfall of vines over the storey below. The facade had three ropes draped down its full height; each rope had a person holding a large bag, and, one assumes, a pair of secateurs, as he abseiled down the multiple ledges, trimming the growth back to its original level. Each ledge had a garden along its perimeter that was planted with what looked like a species that one sees growing luxuriously in the harshest of sandy conditions. It has the vigour of a noxious weed that, as was observed, requires abseiling expertise every couple of months for it to be controlled. Do all ‘green’ building use this solution?

 27 APRIL 22

The cliché hype is made evident when the promoted ‘green facade’ is discovered to be a collection of pot plants:

A 'green' facade?