One thing you can’t escape (and nor would you want to) when you visit Barcelona is the work of architect Antoni Gaudi. His name is synonymous with the city and vice versa.
Gaudi really came to the fore during the late 1800s when Modernisme (the Catalan version of Art Nouveau) flourished in the city. In 1855, faced with a city whose growth was restricted by its old Roman walls, Barcelona did what today would be almost unthinkable – it began to demolish them. A plan was then drawn up to build a new city and refurbish the old. This included planning and building the district known as Eixample (literally ‘extension’ in Catalan), set out in a grid structure, and it was a chance for the city to show to the world that it was a dynamic and creative place. It was a city ‘on the up’ and Modernisme became the architectural style that represented this. The rapid outward growth of the city provided plenty of work for aspiring architects, and there are many who rose to the challenge, but none would prove to be as famous as Gaudi.
Gaudi was born in 1852 in Reus in Tarragona. In 1868 he moved to Barcelona to study architecture and in 1878 received his first commission to build a house for Manuel Vicens Montaner in Gracia, which at the time was adjacent to Barcelona but separate from it. During this same year, he designed a small window display for the glove retailer Esteve Comella that was featured in the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exhibition in Paris. This was the year that the Trocadero Palace was built for the occasion, electric street lighting was first demonstrated, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was displayed and the completed head of the Statue of Liberty was showcased. One of the visitors to the exhibition was Eusebi Guell, who was particularly taken with the originality of Gaudi’s design and asked to be put in contact with him. From this point onwards, Guell not only became Gaudi’s main client, but the two men became close friends. Over the next 40 years, Guell commissioned Gaudi to design many buildings and other works for him and this helped Gaudi to develop his style and originality as an architect. One of these commissions was Park Guell.
Park Guell is in the north of the city, just beyond the district of Gracia. The area was originally intended to be a residential neighbourhood for well-off families and work started on it in 1900. There were sixty triangular plots available and Gaudi was commissioned to design the infrastructure around them. He built a monumental entrance that led to the central square and a complete network of paths viaducts and steps that led around the site. Work continued until 1914, but the area just didn’t take off and in 1926 it was acquired by Barcelona City Council and turned into a public park.
Free app and audio guide
There is a brilliant (free) app by the Ajuntament de Barcelona that includes information about the park and about Gaudi, maps, recommended routes and an audio guide so you can listen to the information if you want to instead of reading it. It is available in seven different languages and, once you have downloaded the app, it works without an internet connection.
When planning a visit to Park Guell it is best to book your tickets online first. I mentioned this in my blog post about my first impressions of Barcelona and how to get around. If you leave it until you get to the park, you will not only have to queue, but you may also find that the next entry time available is 2 or 3 hours later. All entry is timed, so once you have booked your slot you simply turn up at the allotted time and show your QR code on your phone at the entrance.
All the information you need about how to get there, how to buy tickets etc is on the Park Guell website.
I should mention here that you only have to pay to visit the ‘monumental zone’ of Park Guell. The rest of the park has free access and there are plenty of areas and paths that feature Gaudi’s unique designs, including the supports for the various viaducts and paths.
There are three entry points and with the app you can start your tour from any one of them.
We started our visit from the famous Placa de la Natura (Nature Square). This is a huge open public space right in the centre of the park and was designed to be used for open air shows and social events. It has a beautiful, curved mosaic bench around one side which is one of the most photographed sights in Barcelona so I was surprised to discover that it was actually planned by Josep Maria Jujol, one of Gaudi’s most faithful collaborators and not by Gaudi himself. It is a lovely spot: you get an incredible view down across Barcelona and the undulating waves of brightly coloured seats around the edge invite you to sit and rest a while. The vibrant colours and different patterns of the mosaics give it great character and make it endlessly interesting.
Portico of the Washerwoman
From here we passed to the wave-like Portico of the Washerwoman, held up by sloping columns that seemed to grow from the earth like tree trunks. It is constructed from pieces of stone from the park itself and is typical of the organic, nature-inspired architecture for which Gaudi is famous. At the far end it curves into a spiral ramp descending to a lower level of the park. I didn’t really care for the rough, unfinished look of this area, preferring the smooth, polished surface of the mosaics above it, but the shape of the portico and ramp were really beautiful. The supporting columns were twisted and sloped and seemed to flow around the edge of the space and down the hill.
Main Entrance and Porter’s Lodge
The main entrance to the park, from Carrer d’Olot at the bottom of the hill, is pretty impressive. There are huge iron gates, either side of which are two buildings – the Porter’s Lodge and the Warden’s House. The girls thought that these looked like gingerbread houses, the rough reddish stone being the gingerbread and the bright tiled roofs being the icing and sweets on top.
The Porter’s Lodge had a spacious waiting room and was designed as a place to receive visitors to the estate. The roof of both this and the Warden’s House are covered in beautiful mosaics. This style of cladding surfaces using broken shards of tiles, is called trencadis and is a technique that was used a lot by Gaudi. The Catalan verb trencadis means ‘to break’. The fragments of tiles often came from demolition materials and disused objects and it is believed that some were brought by workers employed in the construction of the estate.
Leading up from these two building is an impressive double flight of steps, divided into three sections with gargoyles, a fountain in the shape of a snake’s head and a brightly coloured dragon or salamander at the intersections along its length. It leads up to the Hypostyle room immediately below Nature Square and makes the entrance to the park visually very dramatic.
Your ticket for the monumental zone also allows entry to the Warden’s House, but space inside is very limited and entry is not guaranteed – you simply have to join the queue and wait.
This area is beneath Nature Square and was designed as a covered space that could be used as a marketplace or retail area. It has an incredible 86 columns, the outer ones of which lean outwards slightly. Their lower portions are tiled, whilst the upper parts are bare and striated and I particularly liked the juxtaposition of the smooth, cool tiles and the rough, warm stone. As well as a structural role in supporting the upper square, they also have a practical function: a pipe running inside them gathers the rainwater from the square above and channels it into a large underground tank. Gaudi thought through all of the practical aspects of the neighbourhood he was designing, collecting rainwater to prevent run-off from eroding the ground after a Mediterranean downpour and providing water for the estate’s inhabitants. The beautiful tiled mosaic ceiling was made by Josep Maria Jujol, the same architect who created the tiled seating in the Nature Square above.
The pillars are laid out in a regular pattern, but in three places there are pillars missing and this creates three open spaces, one larger central one and two smaller ones, like the naves of a church. The ceiling is formed of small domes built with Catalan vaults, an old technique that was being reintroduced by modernista architects like Gaudi and used alongside newer building styles.
Idealism and vision
Walking around the park, it is hard not to be impressed by the idealism and vision of Gaudi and Guell. The ambition of their project to build this utopian, exclusive neighbourhood looking out across the city to the Mediterranean is remarkable. I would’ve loved to see it finished and lived in!
Gaudi really set the future residents of this estate at the heart of his designs. He set out to provide practical solutions for the people who would live there, planning and building footpaths and viaducts so that they could easily move around the steep terrain, setting up water collection systems and providing sheltered areas for residents and their visitors when awaiting their car or carriage. At the same time though he aspired to create a work of art, giving them aesthetically beautiful surroundings in which to live. So, it made me wonder why it didn’t succeed. Why didn’t wealthy families jump at the chance to live in this beautiful wonderland? When work was halted in 1914, only two homes had been built.
It is thought that the lack of a suitable transport system was a factor, as well as the restrictions placed on anyone choosing to build there. The plots were being offered on a lifetime leasehold basis and they also had very strict building conditions: only one-sixth of the plot could be built upon and the height and position of the houses was fixed so that they didn’t block the view of the sea or deprive their neighbours of sunlight. These seem fairly reasonable conditions for such an exclusive development, but obviously they were too much for the wealth families of the day. Or perhaps they just didn’t want to live in an area that was, at the time, so far out of the city? We will never know for sure, but it is testament to Gaudi and Guell’s idealism (and the depth of Guell’s pockets) that they invested so much in the infrastructure and surroundings without having any firm buyers for the land.
Beyond the Monumental Zone
The ‘Monumental zone’ probably only occupies about a third of Park Guell and, as I mentioned earlier, there is free access into the rest of the park. There are no cars allowed in the park today, but Gaudi built a wide roadway cutting all the way across it and a series of interconnecting viaducts and paths to allow access for carriages and pedestrians. It is definitely worth taking a stroll along these and climbing higher into the park. You will be rewarded with more of Gaudi’s unique architecture as well as breathtaking views across the city.
For the children
Our children thought Park Guell was ‘a bit interesting’, but it didn’t really float their boat, so they were very happy when, on our walk back down the hillside, we found two great playgrounds. With hindsight, as an introduction to Gaudi it probably wasn’t the best site to choose and they enjoyed much more the other two places we picked, the Sagrada Familia and Casa Battlo, which I will blog about next…