As spring flies by, a last chance to catch Patrick Blanc's incredible orchids at New York Botanical Garden
For last year’s Broadway-themed Orchid Show at the New York Botanical Garden, guest designer (and Tony Award winner) Scott Pask filled the exhibition rooms of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory with brilliant pastels, supplementing the grandiosity of his stage-inspired site architecture with flowery chandeliers, faux-drapery, and plenty of Vandas.
Despite the presence of curiosities like the Darwin’s Star Orchid (named for the man who first predicted its unusual evolutionary development) the vaulted arches that lined the exit appeared more suited for the upcoming royal wedding than one of most important botanical events in the city.
Those expecting similar things from this year’s show will be in for a surprise.
“Every designer works very differently,” said Marc Hachadourian, the New York Botanical Garden’s orchid specialist and manager of their Nolan Greenhouse. “Scott created the architecture then filled in the orchids, painting the structures with flowers, whereas Patrick had very set ideas on how he wanted each wall to look, in terms of not just the color but even the plant habit itself.”
“Patrick” here, refers to Patrick Blanc, the French botanist whose vertical gardens have provided the facades for buildings around the world (most notably Jean Nouvel’s Musée du quai Branly in Paris) and was recruited by the Garden to design this year’s show, the latest in an annual series that mixes flowers from the greenhouse with top specimens from nurseries across the country. This weekend is your last chance to see it.
As is custom, that show begins not with rare flowers or cutting edge designs but by leading the visitor into the tropical rainforest wing, where a handful of orchids mingle with papaya and bloom in accordance with the event. Although these flowers would be reduced to role players in the main room, in this facsimile of their natural habit they appear nothing less than stunning: a group of Butterfly Orchids, those said to have started Europe’s 19th Century “Orchidmania” craze, immediately catch the eye (and nose) before it quickly drifts towards some aptly named Dancing Ladies epiphytes that dangle just above eye level. Rarer, more delicate orchids like the miniature Oberonia can be found two rooms ahead, layered behind a glass case that keeps the climate regulated and purists satisfied.
The main room, however, is dominated by Blanc’s cube, a plant-covered box into which visitors can walk and read more about the designer’s life and work. That work, whether the aforementioned Musée du quai Branly or the recently completed lobby for Hong Kong’s Ronald Lu and Partners Building, differs from the ongoing New York Botanical Garden show primarily in its preference for greens. Speaking from Malaysia, Blanc explained that for most of his designs, “the problem with orchids is that the foliage is usually quite uniform,” devoid of the textures that define his walls.
“For this exhibition, it was quite exciting,” he said. “I wanted to add plants with interesting foliage to enhance the beauty of the orchids.” Meanwhile Hachadourian, speaking as Blanc’s co-conspirator, notes not how many orchids were used in this year’s show but how few, echoing the designer’s remarks when speaks of how “the emphasis this year is not just on the orchid but on the many other plants that play an important role and complement their beauty.”
Blanc first visited the garden in 1996 and enthusiastically recalls how much its collection impressed him, both for its diversity and the presence of a few very rare or very old specimens, singling out a group of tropical blueberries in particular. When he returned last year to prepare for the show, Hachadourian describes the designer’s demeanor as like that of a “kid in a candy store.” It then became Hachadourian’s team’s mission to facilitate, tweak, and optimize Blanc’s plans, helping the him add a new plant to his repertoire.
That partnership, it seems, has more than paid off, resulting in a display that is beautiful without being obvious and subtle without being obscure. Just as Blanc intended, the greens of the foliage accentuate the richness of the blossoms, while its relative flatness emphasizes the flowers’ often dynamic shapes. And yet, the space occupied by the supporting plants is not entirely negative—as one looks closer, it becomes clear that these areas have their own rhythm, with, for instance, the small sharp leaves of the Myers Asparagus Fern contrasting its softer Delta Maiden cousin.
“Patrick is very interested in the way plants grow and the architecture of their form, like whether they have pendant or cascading growth habits, to give the image a waterfall or green curtain effect,” Hachadourian said, and after the literal waterfall that greets visitors on the backside of a vertical garden in the lobby, the form begins to reveal itself both in the waves that flow through Blanc’s walls and the Vandas and Dancing Ladies that dangle fall overhead.
While Blanc’s orchid displays contain the sort of blossoming color that the rest of his work often lacks, the price of the color is an unfortunate impermanence. “It was fun to work on a temporary installation, up only for two months,” he added, but as the exhibition enters its final weeks, that impermanence begins to seem like its only flaw.