London’s newest green wall is also its largest. The 3,770-square-foot bio-tapestry cloaks the southern end of the Rubens Hotel at the Palace, just a stone's throw away from the symbolic seat of British rule. The Living Wall, with its dense variety of flora—some 10,000 plants—is a vibrant piece of public art, one with a sustainable ethos meant to be digestible by all.
The work functions as a “sustainable drainage system,” says its designer, Gary Grant, which greatly aids in mediating the divide between urban hardscape and the environment. An ecologist, green consultant, and urban planner, Grant is responsible for pioneering what he calls “building-integrated vegetation” in the U.K. and beyond. The typology, which he explored in his book Green Roofs and Facades, includes living walls like the one at the Rubens.
“The lesson for projects like these is that vegetation is not just an optional extra that looks nice, but that it is functional,” Grant tells Co.Design. This latest work, he adds, best encompasses his interest “in urban greening in order to restore biodiversity and provide ecosystem services—cooling, cleaning air and water, reducing flooding, and keeping us sane.”
That last point is critical. The Living Wall is one green project of many developed under London mayor Boris Johnson’s tenure. Johnson has pushed for SUDS, the sustainable drainage systems Grant describes, which help mitigate the disastrous effects of flooding. Vertical gardens and green roofs offer vital absorptive surfaces, capturing rain and airborne pollutants that would otherwise slick streets and contribute to flooding. “Buildings and streets are made more resilient to climate change through the integration of soil and vegetation,” Grant explains. "Think summer cooling and reduction in runoff of stormwater.”
At the Rubens, he was able to realize this in the form of walls that shore up 16 tons of soil, plus the aggregate weight of the plant life. Rooftop rainwater stores trickle down along the surface of the vertical garden, sustaining green life through all seasons. Rain is, after all, London's greatest natural resource, resupplied frequently and generously.