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