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SFMOMA's New Vertical Garden Is the Largest Living Wall in the United States

A forest’s worth of horticulture in one gravity-defying, 150-foot-long wall.

 David Brenner's living wall at SFMOMA contains 37 varieties of plants.

 

As you exit the elevators on SFMOMA’s third floor, there’s a change in the atmosphere—a subtle but unmistakable freshness. On the open-air terrace, beyond the great metal stabiles and twirling mobiles of the Calder Gallery, it hits you: David Brenner’s verdant, 4,400-square-foot vertical garden, the largest living wall in the country. Visible from points on six floors, the 150-foot-long wall has become a touchstone of the building, says deputy director of curatorial affairs Ruth Berson. “After white box after white box after white box, it’s an incredible thing to see the sculptures against this rich, green, leafy backdrop.”

Brenner’s wall has an uncanny magnetism, designed to draw gaping, bleary-eyed visitors out of the museum’s galleries and onto the patio overlooking Howard and Minna Streets. In its intentionality and its impact, the wall is akin to a finely detailed sculpture. At 31, Brenner, the founder of Habitat Horticulture, is rapidly becoming one of the country’s most in-demand landscape artists. The green-thumbed guru formed his company in 2009 with a specialty in living walls. It’s Brenner who created the 12-by-18-foot living stage at the California Academy of Sciences, the lobby exploding with 12,500 plants at Neustar’s financial district office, and the 90-foot-tall garden scaling the side of the Jasper building in SoMa.

The SFMOMA wall has been two and a half years in the making. “We wanted it to feel natural and lush, like something you might find hiking up Mount Tam,” Brenner says. He began by sketching swaths on his iPad in the art app Brushes; each tract signified a different plant species. After laying out the broad strokes, Brenner consulted his ever-expanding index of nearly 500 plants. Habitat Horticulture’s custom living-wall structures feature metal backbone, a polycarbonate sheet, and two layers of custom felt—composed partially of recycled plastic bottles—that are fashioned into pockets. The wall is watered automatically through an internal irrigation system that draws city water, storm water, and condensate.

The installation took three weeks to plant, much of it spent in a scissor lift. The sowing began at night, when Brenner projected his pattern onto the wall to provide a guide. Each plant species corresponds to a numbered pocket, a process Brenner calls “plant by number.” The installation contains 37 varieties of plants, 21 of them native. As with any garden, the first year is the most important in ensuring that competing species thrive. “They all keep me up at night,” he says. In the months leading up to the big reveal, he has been visiting the wall every other day, measuring, pruning, and filling in holes. A horticulturalist’s job is never done. “You want to be ready for showtime,” Brenner says, “but when you’re working with living things, the creative process never really ends.”

 

Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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