This truly extraordinary example of urban renewal, situated at the corner of Sophie-Tauber-Strasse and James-Joyce Strasse just north of the Oerlikon railway station, is well worth hunting down at any time of year.
The park was created in 2002 on a disused print works, the Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon. The word “park” doesn’t really describe the space adequately. It’s a large structure, 100 metres long by 25 metres wide and 17 metres high, with walls of sturdy metal posts and stainless steel cables to create an airy and open building. There is a second floor with a gangway reached by stairs.
And all of the posts and wires are covered a by huge variety of climbing plants.
The structure is bright and welcoming, open to the sky, and the climbers help to make the building feel very natural and green. Raderschall worked with another landscape firm, Burckhardt + Partner, and steel cable manufacturers to create this super-green facade.
The team couldn’t even see the park when the competition to win the commission was launched as the original building was still there. But “it was just a fantastic space,” Raderschall says, “an idle, industrial room, flooded by light and empty. We thought about doing something like that. Having a huge room that is good for end use but that is basically just a beautiful space.”
They wanted to create something in the same scale as the previous building and those around it, but covered with green plants.
“We wanted MFO Park to sit in there like one of these surrounding buildings, but of course with a totally different use. This hybrid, it’s a house and it’s not a house. It’s a room, it’s got walls, it’s got a roof, but it rains inside and birds fly through it.”
Not only could they not see what the final site was going to be like, the newly proposed surrounding buildings were not defined either. Moreover, the site was badly polluted.
Challenge #1: The Site
Solution: They carefully studied the integration of how the structure touches the ground and the sizes of the gaps between the hardscape elements, keeping in mind that the site needed to be accessible from all sides. Enormous quantities of polluted soil had to be removed and replaced.
Challenge #2: Upkeep
Engineers and architects also had to find a way to separate the plants from the structure itself, in case any of the plants died and needed to be removed, but also for maintenance purposes.
Solution: They designed a high-tensile web for the plants that is 50 cm away from the structure itself. Raderschall worked with the manufacturers of the high-tensile cables to provide the perfect knots and growing support to allow the plants to thrive.
Challenge #3: Plant Choice
Many typical climbers, such as Hedera helix (English ivy) stick themselves onto walls, and are not suitable for climbing up cables. The initial plan was for a limited plant palette of only three or four different plant varieties, but this was quickly abandoned when they considered the three different facades with different exposure and the differing requirements of the plants on the inside and the outside of the facade.
Solution: Instead the team worked with plant producers to create a kind of living plant laboratory of all the climbers available on the market at the time. At 17 metres high, it was clear that plants of differing heights would be required in each planting hole: small (under 3 metres), medium ot tall. The planting scheme on paper, is a thing of beauty, colour coded by variety and size.
Then & Now
Raderschall is still passionate about the capabilities of climbers. “Climbers are really fantastic plants. You’ve got all different kinds of leaves. You’ve got hardy ones and evergreen ones, with all sorts of different flowers on them and many of them have a very nice scent. After all, they also need very little space on the ground, but they can grow up to 40 metres tall. You can guide them with your wirework and have them where you want them.”
A yearly update follows the fate of the plants. If they die, they are only replaced twice. So far, the wisteria and roses are doing particularly well, but some of the clematis varieties have not been quite so successful. Raderschall and his team expect that this process of elimination will whittle down the original 130 plant varieties to something more like 30 or 40.
In the meantime, the living plant laboratory is of great interest to professional growers, other architects, and anyone planning to plant some climbers. Every plant is well labelled and you can find plenty of inspiration here.