Louise McDaidTwo Madrid garden masterpieces

In Spain’s capital, two impressive garden works caught my eye and considerably enhanced my ‘art experience’. In a city justifiably renowned for three great art museums, these outdoor living works offer their own distinctive appeal and artistry.

Caixa Forum Greenwall, Madrid

Caixa Forum Greenwall, Madrid

 

Caixa Forum Greenwall

The Patrick Blanc designed vertical garden known as the ‘Caixa Forum Greenwall’ is alive, thriving and popular in the heart of Madrid. As you emerge from the narrow approaching laneways, you know it’s there, but nothing prepares you for its impact. Suddenly it is right in front of you, and breathtaking. I’ve seen quite a few Vertical gardens, but the artistry of this one peerlessly mesmerises. At four-storeys high, it has transformed a blank canvas on the side of a building into an artpiece fit for the Masters. The plaza it occupies is just large enough to support a full appreciation.

Caixa Forum Greenwall, Madrid, in the afternoon

Caixa Forum Greenwall, Madrid, in the afternoon

 

Swathes of textures are formed by plants with the same leaf shape grouped together. These are in large enough blocks to create a visible pattern, so the proportion to the total size creates a balanced overall effect. This is art. There are large leaves like hostas, grassy and strappy forms like carex and mondo, and small leaves like vinca and ajuga, and ferns as well. The growing habits of each of these enriches and influences the effect too with the flowing forms creating a visual cascade, shrubby shapes providing bulk and depth, small rounded shapes some punctuation, fluffy forms some lightness and so on.

Caixa Forum Greenwall, Madrid, plants with variegated hosta and cotoneaster berry

Caixa Forum Greenwall, Madrid, plants with variegated hosta and cotoneaster berry

 

Then, as in all art, there’s colour. Much of the foliage is certainly shades of green but adroitly variegated with cream, white, yellow, gold and lime. There are red leaves too, from pink to plum to purple to black in all their shades. Add to this the flower and berry colour and it is Nature at work with her infinite palette. She is, after all, the fundamental inspiration of all those gallery Masters! In early October some of the flowers bloom – fuschia, erigeron, ajuga, hosta, begonia. The viburnum and cotoneaster are in full berry adding colourful splashes that change with the seasons. The Prado artwork, in all its genius, begins to seem somewhat immobile.

Caixa Forum Greenwall, Madrid, plants with variegation and berries

Caixa Forum Greenwall, Madrid, plants with variegation and berries

Caixa Forum Greenwall, Madrid, with drip tray at base for water reticulation

Caixa Forum Greenwall, Madrid, with drip tray at base for water reticulation

 

The greenwall forms part of the forecourt for the Caixa Forum exhibition space, and is adjacent to its entrance. The rust coloured weathered steel façade of the building sets off the wall’s verdancy and renders it even more vibrant. The forecourt space and pond in front of the ‘wall’ are a popular meeting point – locals and tourists gather throughout the day, the benches rarely vacant. I’m sure the greenwall and pond provide a cooling effect when the heat is really on over summer, though other perimeter trees would be welcome.

Caixa Forum Greenwall, Madrid, with adjacent exhibition building and forecourt pond

Caixa Forum Greenwall, Madrid, with adjacent exhibition building and forecourt pond

 

It really is spectacular, and made more so considering, in October, it has just emerged from a Madrid 40 degree summer sizzle. Now, it is in sun from late morning til mid-afternoon when the building to its west shades most of the greenery.

Caixa Forum Greenwall, Madrid, close up showing patches where plants have died back and replaced

Caixa Forum Greenwall, Madrid, close up showing patches where plants have died back and replaced

 

If you look closely, sparse patches are visible, I assume where plants have faltered from heat or people brushing up against them – there’s a lot of touching of plants – who can blame them? Popularity has its price! Everyone wants to feel nearer to it. In places plants are very small, looking like replacements yet to grow to maturity like some of their tough neighbours. In a way this adds to its charm, as the cycles do in any garden. It doesn’t look perfect and can’t constantly be at the height of every plants life – it is a truly organic artwork – enriched by all the different stages of flourishing and declining.

Caixa Forum Greenwall, Madrid, with newly planted ferns showing irrigation wetness and maintenance access

Caixa Forum Greenwall, Madrid, with newly planted ferns showing irrigation wetness and maintenance access

 

Bravo to the planners for their foresight! (It may have cost as much as a minor master’s work!)

Retiro Cloud pruned cypress close up with wonderful shadows

Retiro Cloud pruned cypress close up with wonderful shadows

 

Parque del Retiro

The other living artwork I marvelled at was the cloud-pruned cypress in Retiro Park, the city’s largest, also in central Madrid. Entering the park from the gate nearest to the Prado, I saw the distinctive shape in the distance and was compelled to move in for a closer inspection. I was greeted by a row of Cypress sempervirens – their foliage expertly clipped into shapes so pleasing they made me smile out loud.

Retiro Cloud pruned cypress close up

Retiro Cloud pruned cypress close up

 

There is something so attractive about the pebble-like shapes, not perfectly round but smoothly curved creating green ‘clouds’ of varying shapes that enmesh like a puzzle, all snugly fitted. The ‘clouds’ are supported by trunks that are sculptural forms in their own right and complete the overall ‘oeuvre vivante’. The care taken with these pruned trees is impressive, especially considering it is a public park with no entrance fees. Is it part of the park’s general maintenance (unlikely), an expert topiarist, or a committed and quite skilful pruner given licence to create?

Retiro Cloud pruned cypress

Retiro Cloud pruned cypress

 

The rest of the 125ha park is delightful to stroll around, especially in the late afternoon light, although after a session at the Prado you may not make it around the whole park! There are wide boulevards, more intimate paths and plenty of trees and fountains. One of these is a world-unique monument to the devil depicting the Fallen Angel being exiled from Paradise.

Madrid - Retiro Park bare beds in late autumn

Madrid – Retiro Park bare beds in late autumn

 

Many of the garden beds lie bare, their summer flowers removed, and I, for one, am not sorry to miss seeing these gaudy plant displays. In some places they’ve replaced them with red begonias – aaargh! I regained composure by revelling in the autumnal foliage tones, in contrast to the evergreens.

Madrid - Retiro Park monument to devil

Madrid – Retiro Park monument to devil with alarmingly red bedding begonias

Madrid's Retiro Park autumn leaves and rich greens

Madrid’s Retiro Park autumn leaves and rich greens

 

Apparently on Sundays, Madrilenos flock to the park – though for a weekday it was still busy with joggers, cyclists, local families, courting couples and the ‘odd’ tourist or two. It was refreshing also to see people of all ages here. In common with most parks, a horror or two survives from a suitably bygone era. The abominable Monument to Alfonso XII (I cast no aspersions on the man himself, unless he commissioned it) is a good reason to avoid paddle-boating around the small lake – if one is needed.

Madris's Retiro Park Alfonso monument

Madris’s Retiro Park Alfonso XII monument

 

But the cloud trees for me were the park’s exclusive highlight – their quite particular shape distinguishing them from their surroundings – and they’re just so bloody gorgeous!

I’m sure there are many other great living ‘works’, but 7 days of Madrid’s panoply is already exhausting!

 

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Louise McDaid

About Louise McDaid

I’m a landscape designer and enjoy working with most anything botanical in nature. Based in Sydney Australia, I am also editor of Landscape Outlook, journal of the Australian Institute of Landscape Designers and Managers (AILDM) and write on gardens and their design. I have been guest editor of GardenDrum while Catherine escaped for an overdue and well-earned holiday.

2 thoughts on “Two Madrid garden masterpieces

  1. Interesting article, thanks for sharing. Don’t you think that once you see a Patrick Blanc’s green wall the copies look boring?
    Have you been to the Botanical Garden?

    • Louise on said:

      Yes Carlo, I agree that others pale by comparison. His have an artistry that is difficult to describe but once you see one it is obvious and others are dull. I also visited the botanic gardens and enjoyed them a lot. Interestingly what I think is the castor oil plant was looking fantastic in the productive plots, but we cannot use this in Australia due to it’s weediness. Perhaps it’s true restrictions often make things more desirable.

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