Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Park Güell, the fanciful failure

One of Barcelona's most iconic attractions was a complete failure when it was built. Commissioned by Eusebi Güell, a wealthy entrepreneur, Park Güell was intended to be a 30-acre planned housing site for wealthy families. Güell (pronounced "gway") was a patron of Modernisme architect Antoni Gaudí. He gave Gaudí total freedom over the project.

Built on a rocky hill without much vegetation, the site featured excellent views over the city to the Mediterranean Sea. It was free from the smog of the city's factories. The homes would be connected by a network of trails, stairs, and viaducts, with a central space for a covered market. Sixty triangular building plots were available. To preserve green space only one-sixth of a plot could be built upon.

Unfortunately, Gaudí's plan was ahead of its time. The rocky slope was tough for building, the pool of potential buyers was small, and no proper transport to the city was available. And, of course, Gaudí's startling and eccentric architecture was not particularly popular in his own time. When construction stopped in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, only two plots had been used (and neither designed by Gaudí). One of those two homes was intended as a show house, but when it found no buyers Gaudí moved in with his family and stayed until his death in 1926. No more homes were ever built.

After Güell's death his heirs offered the site to the city council, which waited until just after Gaudí's death to open it as a public park. Despite its commercial failure, Park Güell has become a beloved city attraction, enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. The surrounding neighborhoods are among the ritziest in town.

The main entrance to the park is between two gingerbread houses, linked by a wrought-iron gate with palm fronds. The houses were intended as a reception area and porter's lodge, the porter vital for carrying things up the steep hill.

Gingerbread-esque porter's buildings at the entrance to Park Güell.
Gaudí's father was a blacksmith, so he enjoyed wrought-iron work such as these lampposts and the palm frond gate.
Just inside the entrance is a grand staircase leading up to large terrace. Its convex walls converge and then open for the placement of fountains. Along the walls are mosaics made from trencadís -- decorations made from small pieces of broken ceramics, usually tiles and dishes, and frequently scavenged for use from demolition materials or discarded objects. Gaudí utilized trencadís on many of his structures, such as Casa Batlló and the rooftop of Casa Milà (see here and here). Most of the trencadís mosaics in Park Güell were created by Josep Maria Jujol, one of Gaudí's collaborators.

The stairs lead up to the columned market, above which rests the terrace.
Naturalistic fountain at the base of the stairs. Unnatural frozen smile on Jackson.
Trencadís on the staircase.
Next up the stairs is a fountain with a Catalan shield and a serpent? dog? what?
Further up the stairs is another of Barcelona's famous dragons. This trencadís dragon has become one of the symbols of the city. To some folks, including me, it looks more like a salamander, but I am assured it is a dragon. Pictures of this dragon adorn all manner of trinkets and gewgaws throughout Barcelona.

St. Jordi wouldn't struggle too much with this dragon, methinks.
At the top of the stairs you come to a large columned hall that was intended to serve as a market for the mansions in the community. Called the Hall of 100 Columns, it has . . . umm, well, sorta-kinda . . . only 86 columns. Besides providing a covered hall for a market, the columns support a large terrace for public events (see below). Rainwater drains through the terrace through natural filters, slides down inside the columns, and empties into a 300,000 gallon cistern. Since this water was far from the city's pollution, it was considered healthful. A bit of the water powers the fountains.

The hypostyle marketplace of 100 . . . er, 86 . . . columns.
The gargoyles and stone droplets hint at the function of the terrace and columns.
Before you ascend to the terrace, you can wander down the Portico of the Washerwoman. While cars can drive on the upper level of the viaduct, pedestrians can stroll below in a funky covered portico.

The washerwoman carries the basket on her head.
Totally rad surfing tube, dude.
The terrace atop the Hall of 86 100 Columns is the centerpiece of the Park Güell. Called the Nature Theater, around its perimeter runs a sinuous, continuous bench, stretching 360 feet and covered in brightly colored trencadís mosaic. Supposedly, Gaudí used a worker as a model for how to comfortably design the back support on the bench. From the terrace you can overlook most of the park, and see over the city toward the sea. The terrace was and is used for large public events, such as concerts and dances.

The sandy floor of the terrace provides a flat space for entertaining and allows water to drain into the cistern below.
The crowd cleared away from Kate. Was it something she said?
Something she ate?
Bench on the opposite side of the terrace. Note the upper and lower levels of one of the viaducts in the background.
The holes at the bottom of the bench allow rain water to drain away.
Jackson made good use of the open space on the terrace. He followed the charms of an older woman and raced strollers all over the expanse, to the amusement of onlookers.

Double wheelies.
The tongue isn't for panting, it's for concentrating.
He moved on to an even older woman and helped her construct a stone circle. She was the builder, he was the delivery man.

When she left, he tried to carry on, but couldn't bear to do so.
Further up the hill is another double-level viaduct, top for cars and bottom for pedestrians. Below the viaduct is a twisting and meandering paved path that, after dozens of turns and switchbacks, finally arrives at the park's entrance.

Jackson descending on the path. He likes the daredevil feel of no hands on the stroller, but the grading is generally shallow enough we could walk alongside without worry.
Rough, unhewn stones clad the viaduct.
The portico provides excellent acoustics for musicians.
Gaudí, ever the naturist, endeavored to work around existing trees in building the park.
At the upper reaches of the park, you encounter the model home that never found any buyers and into which Gaudí eventually moved for the last years of his life. Though he didn't design the home, it houses a small museum about him. Also from the top of the park you get fine views over the city to the Mediterranean, as well as to other large hill in the city, Montjuic.

The model home is pretty, but it obviously wasn't enough of a draw to entice wealthy Barcelonans to build their own homes in the community.
The big hill in the far distance is Montjuic.
From the top, it's easy to glide down the meandering path to the exit, enjoying the plantings and gardens integrated into the fanciful architecture designed by Gaudí.

You can follow the wide main path or take one of the shortcut trails or stairs that branch off into the gardens and plantings.
Starting with a scrubby, leanly-vegetated hill, Gaudí transformed the 30 acres into a colorful, leafy garden village -- just without the village. The hoped-for occupants never came. Their loss is our gain. Park Güell is one of the jewels of Barcelona, a highlight of any visit to the city.

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