The Largest Vertical Garden in the Country Debuts with the New SFMOMA
When SFMOMA reopens on May 14, it will have the honor of being the largest museum devoted to contemporary and modern art in the U.S. But it can also lay claim to another distinction: the largest vertical garden (a.k.a. “living wall”) in the country. Designed by David Brenner of Mission-based Habitat Horticulture, the 30-by-150-foot work transforms the third-floor terrace into an urban oasis. Notes Lara Kaufman, project architect at Snøhetta, the international firm responsible for the museum’s renovation and the general concept for the vertical garden, “The living wall brings something different to the museum experience.” Not only does the fresh air and lush greenery help visitors rejuvenate, the latter acts as a visual palate cleanser after an afternoon in the galleries.
The 31-year-old Brenner, who specializes in living walls, has designed lush plant tapestries for numerous Bay Area companies, including Tesla and Autodesk, as well as for the new luxury apartment building Jasper in Rincon Hill. He studied horticulture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and did an apprenticeship at London’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where he worked with orchids, bromeliads and other epiphytes—commonly known as air plants—in the tropical nursery. “I minored in psychology, and I knew I wanted to bring the therapeutic effects that plants provide into an urban setting,” says Brenner. He started Habitat Horticulture in 2010, and developed a special synthetic felt that would allow plants to grow without soil as the foundation for his vertical gardens.
The scale of the living wall makes it feel less like a garden and more like a mountainside. Indeed, in designing the layout of the plantings, the team avoided geometric shapes or anything that would look consciously designed. “I wanted to capture the essence of the understory of a California native forest, something super-lush with different shades of green,” says Brenner. Drawing upon Fern Canyon in the northernmost part of California for inspiration, he created massings of ferns and ornamental grasses. He also included flowering plants such as magenta Fuschia glazioviana and scarlet Mimulus cardinalis to offer “the subtle surprise of flowers throughout the season.” Altogether, the wall features nearly 40 species of plants, about a half of which are California natives.
“I just think there couldn’t be a better backdrop to the art in the museum’s world-class collection,” says Brenner. “It provides that serenity and tranquility, and is an art piece in itself.”
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of SFC&G (San Francisco Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: A Growing Medium.