Father and son team Mark and Gavin West from Charlotte in North Carolina (Gavin is studying architecture and was on a programme in Barcelona – lucky him) have reminded us of the 100th anniversary of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here’s what they have to say:
The construction of Antoni Gaudí’s Park Güell in Barcelona stuttered to a halt in 1914, which means the park is now officially a century old. In Gaudí’s view, however, the project was hardly finished. He and his sponsor, Eusebi Güell, had envisioned an elaborate residential development on the outskirts of Barcelona when they began planning the project in 1899, but the residential aspect of this project never caught on with potential buyers. In the end, only two of the envisioned sixty homes were built, one of which served as Gaudí’s residence from 1906 until 1925. After Gaudí and Güell decided to abandon their larger vision for the project, the fate of Park Güell remained uncertain for several years. Fortunately, in 1922 the city of Barcelona acquired the property and converted it into a municipal park, and it has functioned as a public park ever since then.
In creating Park Güell, Gaudí proved to be a visionary in the field of landscape architecture. Four decades before the opening of Disneyland in 1955, Park Güell provided visitors with the experience of exploring a theme park. Gaudí organized Park Güell around four broad themes: fairy tales, Greek mythology, nature, and spirituality. Gaudí designed the park so that visitors would experience these themes in a progressive pattern.
The first theme visitors experience is the world of fairy tales. The two pavilions near the front entrance look like they belong in an illustrated edition of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. In fact, Gaudí had recently seen an operatic version of Hansel and Gretel at the time that he was designing these buildings, and the influence is readily apparent. As a number of Gaudí scholars have observed, these buildings give the impression of being made of candy, gingerbread and dollops of ice cream. An early admirer of the park, Salvador Dalí described these buildings as “edible architecture.”
After leaving the world of fairy tales, visitors ascend into the realm of Greek mythology via a grand stairway. Drawing on the myths associated with the Temple of Delphi, Gaudí designed a temple complete with nearly one hundred Doric columns. At the base of the temple is a colorful sculpture of dragon-like creature although it is sometimes referred to as a giant salamander. Like the dragon Python from Greek mythology, this dragon stands guard over a fountain.
Atop the temple is a plaza that Gaudí called a “Greek theater.” Surrounding the edge of this open theater is an undulating bench decorated with bits of broken tile forming a continuous mosaic in a style known as trencadís. This bench provides a space for spectators to watch the activity in the plaza area. Nowadays this activity generally consists of children playing, but the space has been used for actual theatrical productions, including a performance of Oedipus Rex.
The Greek theater is situated at the base of a gently sloping hillside, and Gaudí transformed this hillside into a playful tribute to the beauty of nature. He designed whimsical pathways with porticos and viaducts that appear to grow out of the earth. In this part of the Park, Gaudí harmoniously combines architectural features and the natural aspects of the landscape to form inviting play spaces. In some ways, this part of the park is reminiscent of the English landscape gardens of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like the English gardens, Park Güell feature paths, outdoor sculptures, and a wide range of trees and flowering plants. However, unlike the English landscape architects, Gaudí had no interest in subduing nature or imposing a rigid structure on the natural landscape. His goal was to facilitate a celebration of nature.
As visitors make their way up the hillside, they encounter fewer and fewer playful architectural features. The landscape becomes more rugged, the incline becomes steeper, and visitors gradually realize that they are experiencing the park’s fourth theme—the theme of spiritual ascendance. A devote Catholic, Gaudí incorporated religious imagery and themes in much of his architecture. In Park Güell, Gaudi designed a rustic stone mound situated at the highest point in the park. Atop this structure are three stone crosses: a traditional Christian cross, a triangular cross, and a pyramidal point cross. Gaudí called this unadorned structure the Calvary, and he designed the approach to this final destination in such a way that feels as if one is on a religious pilgrimage.
When work of Park Güell came to stop in in 1914, the project was generally deemed a failure, but history has proven otherwise—it was a project that was built before its time. As the years have gone by, Park Güell has steadily gained in stature. The city of Barcelona embraced the park as an artistic monument in 1962, and seven years later government of Spain designated the park a national monument. International recognition came in 1984 when Park Güell UNESCO included it on its list of World Art Heritage sites. As Park Güell enters its second century, historians of architecture recognize it as one of the most innovative works of landscape architecture in the Western world and an early example of what came to be known as theme parks.