Architectural Botany in Vertical Gardens


When seeking out vertical gardens in the city of San Francisco, I am quickly directed to the Drew School in Presidio Heights, whose exterior was created by the self-described architectural botanist, Patrick Blanc. A Parisian who began creating vertical gardens in the late 1970s, Blanc is an energetic visionary who spearheaded a movement that is gaining popularity in our great cities with the rise of public interest in sustainability.

Drew School by Patrick Blanc, Prisidio Heights, San Francisco, CA

The assembly wing the Drew School faces east onto Broderick St. in the Presidio Heights area on San Francisco. Photo taken March 2013.

The benefits of living walls are paramount. Facing a building with a living wall increases energy efficiency by cooling the building in warmer months through evapo-transpiration, providing shade, and surface reflectivity. Additionally, it moderates energy use in colder months by creating an insulating layer on the skin of the structure. This use of a typically disregarded space reduces carbon emissions, extracting toxins from the air and releasing oxygen. The vertical garden is a creative promoter of biodiversity in an urban environment by creating habitats for pollinators and many other species, as well as sustaining plant varieties. Living walls can reduce the urban heat island effect, which creates numerous problems in meteorological effects, thermal mass to water supply, and health effects for people and animals.


Moisture and shade loving plants reside at the bottom of the structure, where they receive protection from the elements and cumulative moisture from the drip feed system at the roof line.

Blanc’s development of a wall is both aesthetically and technically strategic. Using different species of plants higher up the face of the building  is necessary because the climate changes as the wall ascends. Shade loving plants are rooted near the bottom, with condition tolerant plants installed at the top. Working with local species that traditionally are seen growing in rocky conditions, Blanc Creates sweeping, tapered groupings of starts which varies the color and texture  of the layers. Layering is a technique that Blanc uses throughout his projects as a way to diversify the types of plants he uses which creates the wild, impenetrable feel of an equatorial jungle wall.

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Layering: The Drew School’s vertical garden has an area of 1,700 square feet, with more than 4,500 native California plants.

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Ferns, Douglas Iris, Galvezia, and Blue-Eyed Grass are just a few of the 105 species of plants represented on the wall at Drew School.

In the below photo series, pulled from my own photos and from the web, notice the transformation of the facade over three years. From newly-stapled transplants, to defined growth, to what is now a lush divergence from the rest of the architecture on Broderick St., the Drew School’s inventive eco-friendly launch seems right at home on the building. It is remarkable how drastically the climate changes immediately surrounding this structure.. The air has a humidity and the wall a presence that is encapsulating. One can feel it breathing, growing, changing, itself, and our environment.

From 2011 to 2014, the growth of the vertical garden has matured, creating a dramatic ecosystem.

From 2011 to 2014, the growth of the vertical garden has matured, creating a dramatic ecosystem.

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