On the same trip that I visited Regent’s Park in London I also stayed a week in Barcelona where I spent a morning at Park Güell. At first glance these two iconic parks share nothing in common, except for their popularity. However, both parks exist today as the result of failed attempts by visionary patrons and designers to create garden cities, a lucky coincidence with enormous public benefit.
Park Güell was designed by Antonio Gaudi for Count Eusebi Güell,a Catalan textile merchant, between 1900 and 1914 as a hillside private community for wealthy bourgeoise families from Barcelona’s urban center. Modeled after the English garden-city concept, the project was never completed and only two of the planned 60 villas were built. The project aspired to eliminate the boundary between nature and architecture by using the site’s stony and uneven terrain to channel rainwater and provide inspiration for the aesthetics of the structural elements.
The result is a raucous blend of winding paths, unusual architectural and sculptural features enhanced by curvaceous forms, decorative stonework, brightly colored mosaics and vibrant plantings connecting a series of public plazas that provide vistas to the landscape below and sea beyond. Park Güell is unlike any park or garden that I have visited and I couldn’t help but imagine Dr. Seuss using it as a prototype for the fictitious town, Whoville.
In 1922 the Barcelona City Council bought the failed venture to turn it into a public park. Park Güell is managed by Barcelona City Council including the Department of Architecture, the Municipal Institute of Parks and Gardens and the Barcelona Institute of Culture. General information about the management of parks and greenspaces in Barcelona, including Park Güell can be found on the website of the Department of the Environment: http://www.bcn.cat.
Today Park Güell is one of Barcelona’s most popular public spaces affording majestic views of the city and the sea including Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece Sagrada Familia, the spires of the Gothic Quarter, and Montjuic.
Park Güell is approximately 45 acres in size. Much of the activity takes place in the main plaza but there are also many trails that can be explored.
Although there are several entrances to the park from the surrounding neighborhood, the main entrance is from the Carrer d’Olot, with two gatehouses, sporting mushroom-like tops. One gatehouse contains a bookstore and the other serves as an interpretation center with displays containing information about the park and its history.
The entrance leads directly to the Park Güell’s central organizing element, a dramatic staircase accented with sculptural features framed by curving walls ornamented with multi-colored tiles. At the top of the staircase are 86 Doric columns that support the plaza above. The columns create a covered area which was originally intended to house a produce market. Today it is used for performances. The stairs are one of Park Güell’s most popular areas and on the day I visited ( the day after Easter which was a holiday) were extremely crowded.
The central stairway leads to the main plaza with the famous undulating serpentine bench that is often used as the park’s defining feature. Clad in trencadis (broken bits of tile), the bench has been described in Barcelona Turisme as “the longest abstract painting in the world.” It provides a spectacular perch for viewing the city below and Mediterranean beyond.
The richly detailed mosaics have served as a design inspiration for many, including Kate Spade, who has named a line of jewelry “Park Güell.” A pair of Park Güell earrings are below.
The plaza (also called the plaza of the Greek theater) serves as the heart of the park and accommodates multiple activities. Most paths feed into the space which includes access to a cafe and other visitor amenities. On the day I visited a group of neighborhood boys was playing soccer, a reminder that the park serves as more than a destination for tourists. For an interesting overview of tourist patterns in Barcelona, including information about Park Güell, visit: http://www.thedatarepublic.com/projects/tourists-behavior-patterns/.
A series of viaducts, serpentine paths and carriage roads bisect the park connecting entrances on different levels, plazas, public amenities and specials features.
In 1984 Park Güell, along with six other Gaudi projects, became a UNESCO World Heritage site, representing outstanding examples of twentieth century residential and public architecture and human creative genius. Park Güell is cited as a an “outstanding and well-preserved example of the ideal garden cities dreamed of by the urbanists …..exhibiting an important interchange of values closely associated with the cultural and artistic currents of the time as represented in El Modernisme of Catalonia.” For more information about UNESCO and Park Güell’s nomination visit: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list.