October 1, 2010
To beautify an airport eyesore, all it takes is 27,000 plants, a high-tech maintenance system, and constant vigilance.
DESIGNERS: Sharp & Diamond Landscape Architecture
PROJECT: Vancouver International Airport Living Wall
Vancouver, British Columbia
Flying is a fairly miserable experience even in the best conditions, and the drab, confusing, and downright ugly architecture of many airports certainly doesn’t help. Which is why Randy Sharp, the landscape master planner of Vancouver International Airport (YVR), in British Columbia, felt compelled to do something about a massive blank concrete wall confronting international travelers arriving via the city’s new light-rail system. For this 56-foot-tall, 39-foot-wide eyesore, Sharp envisioned a vertical landscape that would create “a more soothing, relaxing environment for passengers,” he says. “Airline companies want people relaxed, so this is a piece of environmental art.”
Sharp is no stranger to creating living walls. He and his firm, Sharp & Diamond Landscape Architecture, built Canada’s first one, at the Vancouver Aquarium, in 2006. But that piece spanned about 500 square feet. The YVR wall is more than four times that size—indeed, at 2,173 square feet, it is the biggest green wall in Canada and one of the largest in North America. More daunting than its sheer size, however, was the location—facing north. “Heavy shade on a north-facing location is a limiting factor for most green-wall plants,” Sharp says. “Climbing plants in the heavy shade are too thin and do not produce lush, dense foliage.” And fruiting plants were out of the question, since the airport does not want to attract birds. So Sharp, inspired by a lush canyon wall he saw on a trip to nearby Saturna Island, selected a range of hardy native species—including green and silver versions of Japanese euonymus and licorice fern—and arranged them in long curving patterns that reference the flight paths of planes.
But this diverse mix of plants also meant varying water and nutrient needs. “Keeping it looking gorgeous is a big challenge,” Sharp says. To do so he employed a drip-irrigation system from the manufacturer G-Sky and designed an electronic maintenance control system with seven irrigation zones, keeping the top wet and the bottom not too wet. Temperature sensors and water-flow meters relay information remotely to a maintenance hub. And an added concrete slab will hold a crane, so workers can continually tinker with the plantings. (Since the installation was completed last year, there have already been casualties: clusters of mondo grass and ferns died and had to be replaced by other species.)
John Lenahan, YVR’s director of engineering projects, says the wall has gone from a blight to something resembling a tourist attraction. “We have people wanting to take photographs in front of it,” he says. “We wanted to put something in there to draw attention away from the concrete, and it has certainly done that. It’s not so much like an airport.” And that may be the ultimate compliment.