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Wonder Walls—Green Walls That Bring Life Into Urban Spaces

Anaha residence in Hawaii living green wall decor

Marion Brenner / Anaha, Honolulu-Surfacedesign

Architects have high hopes for “living walls” and vertical plant wall décor as they add more than aesthetic beauty to public building interiors.

For more than a century, from New York and Chicago to Paris, London, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur, skyscrapers, towers and groundbreaking architects have contributed to making cities iconic. In more recent decades, outdoor green spaces that further enhance a city’s standard of living have made a comeback thanks to locals demanding a greater connection with nature.

Although interior landscaping has existed for decades, green wall technology has only been around for about ten years, according to James A. Lord, co-founding partner of San Francisco-based landscape architecture firm Surfacedesign. He points to French botanist Patrick Blanc as the innovator who perfected the artform with his vertical-garden installations for Paris shopping centers.

“In the next five to ten years, I envision the green wall infrastructure being integrated into interior systems that control a building’s environment as well as its aesthetic,” Lord says. “I see green wall technology as a natural, sustainable replacement for some mechanical HVAC technology based on how well plants survive in different environments. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, how green walls might work in systems that create energy/electricity—for example, algae farms that could be integrated into something visual and beautiful.”

Changi Airport indoor green wall and waterfall

Changi Airport/ Singapore

Singapore, the “City in a Garden,” provides many dramatic examples of how gravity-defying gardens not only enhance the standard of living for its citizens but also add to its reputation as one of the world’s most progressive and forward-thinking cities.

In fact, you don’t even have to leave Singapore’s Changi Airport to see this green wall architectural-horticultural movement—“biophilic design culture”—working its magic on a grand scale. As part of an international team of firms anchored by legendary Canadian-Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, PWP Landscape Architecture plotted and planted the paradise that covers the equivalent of three football fields with more than 2,500 trees and 100,000 shrubs. This “biosphere” is nourished by intricate irrigation and fertilizer systems and features the world’s largest living plant wall decor display and tallest indoor waterfall, as well as walking trails and an impressive vertical butterfly garden in the hit 2018 film “Crazy Rich Asians.”

This heavenly feat, however, is more than just its looks. The green wall and adjoining green space help regulate the internal temperature of the T3 terminal with the occasional misting, making the airport much more eco-friendly. It also provides a much-needed respite from the stresses of air travel and sensory overload of airport retail and restaurants, pointing to various scientific studies, such as one at Stanford University that documented how even ten minutes of immersion into nature can alleviate stress and improve one’s mood and brain function.

Pointing to various scientific studies, such as one at Stanford University that documented how even ten minutes of immersion into nature can alleviate stress and improve one’s mood and brain function.

indoor rainfall and green wall art Changi Airport

Changi Airport/ Singapore

Beyond Changi, other Singapore locales defining the movement include Gardens By the Bay. This can’t-miss “Cloud Forest” attraction features a 35-meter-tall mountain flanked with an indoor waterfall, lush vegetation and tropical highlands plant life.

The 367-room PARKROYAL on Pickering is Singapore’s first hotel-in-a-garden. The property, recently awarded the “Asia’s Leading Green Hotel” designation for its hospitality and sustainability leadership, encompasses 15,000 square meters of four-story tall sky gardens, reflecting pools, waterfalls, planter terraces and cascading vertical greenery.

Noteworthy green wall examples in Switzerland include Lausanne’s Flon metro station, designed by Bernard Tschumi Architects, and Zurich’s MFO park, which repurposes a former factory site called Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon with its impressive living walls.

Stateside, a recent expansion of San Francisco’s MOMA Museum features a huge living wall, and Los Angeles architecture firm RIOS is winning accolades for its work on the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute of Transformative Medicine at USC, set to open this summer. The Ellison Institute’s open spatial experience weaves together plants, wood and earth-toned fabrics to blur the lines between indoors and outdoors.

As this green wall trend grows into something both timely and timeless, it’s not surprising that companies like Future Eco Systems are tapping into the recent zeitgeist and endeavoring to bring “ANS Living Wall” technology to businesses of all sizes. Promised benefits beyond the visual aspects run the gamut from pollution filtering and temperature and noise regulation to elevated employee morale and increased property value.

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It was important for the finished two-story building to use plant wall decor to connect with the natural world in ways that provide patients with a soothing, holistic experience beyond treatments.

indoor office plant wall decor and art

Shockey Construction and Perkins+Will / Valley Health Cancer Center, Virgina

With studies finding that contact with nature is especially beneficial for those undergoing medical treatments, Shockey Construction teamed up with global design practice Perkins+Will to build the award-winning Valley Health Cancer Center in Virginia.

Tatiana Escobar, Practice Leader and Associate Principal for the firm, explains it was important for the finished two-story building to use plant wall decor to connect with the natural world in ways that provide patients with a soothing, holistic experience beyond treatments.

“As patients undergoing cancer treatment are constantly in sterile hospital environments, the living wall at the Valley Health Cancer Center—which can be viewed from both levels of the building—gives patients a welcoming and uplifting experience when they enter the building and as they move between different departments,” Escobar says. “Patient experience was key in the design and resulted in the lobby wood structure and views to nature as focal points.”

indoor hanging plant wall decor in office

Marion Brenner / McGuire Building, San Francisco

Escobar observes that indoor garden settings are becoming more prominent in healthcare design, both on a campus and the rooftop. Beyond benefiting patients, she adds that green wall installations are a nice amenity to retain staff and attract new hires, as they speak to an employer’s interest in employee health and well-being.

As in other public buildings, consistent maintenance is key to low-maintenance plant care. Lighting is also very important for a living wall, so she needed to augment her design with strategically placed artificial lights and figure out the irrigation system. However, she also stresses that extra effort is a labor of love.

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“There has been a great deal of research on biophilia and how incorporating natural elements into building design improves working and living environments,” Escobar affirms. “Incorporating design elements is even more important in healthcare environments where people come to heal, and staff need to stay healthy and positive.”

Surfacedesign’s Lord reinforces the purposefulness of a green wall in interior design by describing a current project at the Uber campus in San Francisco where plantings will be part of the technology of shading and cooling the building’s interior.

First, his team will map the facades of the buildings to determine where hotspots and cool spots are, then create hanging planters and pick the green wall plants based on which grow best in hot conditions and which thrive in cooler conditions depending on the time of the year. There’s a giant window that opens up, and behind the window are plants that provide shade and clean the air.

Anaha green wall decor private residence in Hawaii

Marion Brenner / Anaha, Honolulu-Surfacedesign

Some of Surfacedesign’s highest profile work at the Anaha Condo Complex and the IBM Plaza Office Complex (both in Honolulu and commissioned by parent firm Howard Hughes Corporation) permit Lord to detail the painstaking process required to create green walls or indoor gardens that will thrive and adapt to changing conditions over time.

“Those projects inspired us and our client to think about different conditions in Hawaii for the Anaha residential tower. One thing we wanted to accomplish was blurring inside and outside via a green wall,” says Lord.

“What separates Anaha from other projects is that the green wall is part of a larger narrative. We asked native Hawaiian descendants about the cultural stories they wanted to tell through the landscape. One theme was the juxtaposition of land and water used in native navigation. Instead of ‘north’ or “south,” they say ‘makai’ (‘oceans’) and ‘mauka’ (mountains).”

The challenge then became to create an urban site that symbolically brought together the mountain and ocean. He explains that, to represent ‘makai,’ the courtyard pond was inspired by “a native Hawaiian fishing tradition: letting fish into a harbor, then closing it off.”

Anaha private residence in Hawaii with green wall decor

Marion Brenner / Anaha, Honolulu-Surfacedesign

To create Anaha’s public courtyard, Lord collaborated with Greg Lee of Green Living Technology International to create an abstraction of Oahu’s mountain conditions leading down to the shore and reflecting how native Hawaiians see Hawaii. The green wall within the installation is a 115-feet by 15-feet scale version of a mountain made up of approximately 10,000 plants woven together with a metal cage system that incorporates irrigation but does not use felt or pockets like other walls.

As plant selection is integral to the success of plant wall decor and indoor gardens, the team did research in part by looking on the faces of actual sheer mountain walls near Anaha to build a palette of both native and exotic fern species. Next, Brazilian vermiliads, anthuriums and other plants were brought into the living sculpture that Lord says respects the local environment and the client’s needs simultaneously.

“Something new and interesting grows on the wall every day throughout the year. There’s that wonderful element of surprise when somebody sees something new growing out of it, or even when you give it a ‘haircut’ as things grow fast in Hawaii. On one occasion, a whole section of the wall had to be shaved because there was so much growth,” Lord continues. “While it was initially a shock, less than two weeks later, everything filled out again.”

Changi Shiseido indoor plant wall decor

Changi Airport/ Singapore

With plant wall decor, Lord explains that maintenance is a huge factor that all developers and architects must take into consideration. He claims, “The ecosystem needs to have a built-in flexibility that not only allows for the replacement of plants that may not work well with the others to observe how well the plants mix with the people engaging with them on a daily basis.”

Lord observes that while Anaha is a private residence, the lobby with the wall has become somewhat of a tourist attraction, as it connects the viewer to the larger landscape of Hawaii rather than just being a green wall for its own sake. He notes that Anaha’s wall provides a rich geographic backstory that not only enlightens and entertains, especially among the building’s residents, but also supplies a physical connection to the importance of the wall and why it’s there.

“Hawaii has a very specific climate with a lot of humidity and an extraordinary fragrance from the tropical flowers and plants that grow there. When people are indoors, they want to experience air-conditioned surroundings. While the lobby where the wall would be located is sort of a brass-trimmed open box, we still wanted to find a way to connect indoors to outdoors,” he explains.

The selection of the correct plants for indoor gardens ultimately functions as green lungs and cleans the air, and if one increases the green content indoors, this can also solve environmental issues connected to the building.

Indoor plant wall decor in office space

luchunyu / Shutterstock

“A major consideration in successful sustainability of any green wall is the plant palette, which has to be compatible with the environment where the building is located. If I were designing a green wall for a building in Palm Springs, it would not look like Anaha’s since tropical plants are not sustainable in Palm Springs. We would need to consider a selection of plants that grow naturally in a desert setting.”

The selection of the correct plants for indoor gardens ultimately functions as green lungs and cleans the air, and if one increases the green content indoors, this can also solve environmental issues connected to the building. Lord says this is a prime reason why many tech companies are looking to commission these lush landscapes to provide the aforementioned beneficial effects for their workers. Furthermore, while one won’t always be able to use dirt for growing plants indoors, green wall technology can make it easier to connect people to nature while they are indoors.

While strides continue to be made in urban and corporate architecture to balance progress and conservation, green walls are solidly poised to last, as building and landscape architects regularly prove the plants’ aesthetic values can be matched or even transcended by the benefits they provide to a building’s occupants or users. Even with the technology involved to get these indoor gardens growing, just adding light and water can ultimately achieve many miracles.

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