On the trail of Gaudí – Park Güell

This is perhaps the most surprising fact about Park Güell: it wasn’t originally planned to be a park at all. Another trivial: Gaudí actually stayed there.

The view from Park Güell overlooking Barcelona

Antoni Gaudí’s plan was to create a modern housing estate far from the smog and chaos of the city down below. It was 1888 and his vision included houses with modern conveniences such as running water as well as facilities such as a market, a laundry room, a church and a public square. He should simply named it “Parc” instead of the English word “Park” – just see how well all the condominiums starting with “Parc” sell in Singapore.

Park Güell Map (2018) – Unfortunately the Viaducts were closed for renovations

Park Güell covers a total of 12 hectares. Construction began in 1900 but was abandoned in 1914 because they never managed to sell the different plots of land. Park Güell became a big private garden instead and Count Eusebi Güell decided to give it up for public functions. Its historical, architectural and artistic uniqueness was recognised by the Spanish state in 1969, when it was declared a Monument of Cultural Interest. Together with other Gaudí buildings in Barcelona, they are preserved as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The Güell trencadís emblem seen along the wall of the park

Count Eusebi Güell (15 December 1846 – 8 July 1918), Catalonian entrepreneur and billionaire, came to admire Gaudí’s genius after the Paris World Fair of 1878 and decided to commission the young architect to work on some of his building projects. Among Güell’s early commissions for the aspiring architect were the Bodega Güell (winery) at Garraf, the Pabellones Güell de Pedralbes (more commonly known as Güell Pavilions) and Park Güell. Reportedly on one occasion Gaudí said to Güell, “Sometimes I think we are the only people who like this architecture.” Güell replied, “I don’t like your architecture, I respect it.”

Olot Pavilions

The main entrance to Park Güell is on the south side, on Carrer d’Olot, from which visitors can enjoy the spectacular view of the stairway with the hypostyle room. 

Olot Pavilions

Pavelló de Recepció or The Reception Pavilion (left) and the Casa del Guarda or the Guard’s House (right with the spire) are two pavilions at the entrance of Park Güell. They were said to be inspired by the fairytale “Hansel and Gretel”.

The Reception Pavilion serves as a small exhibition of the relationship between Güell and Gaudí, and how the Park came about, while the Guard’s House is now a souvenir shop.

Escalier du Dragon

After entering from the main entrance, you will find a grand staircase that leads to the Hipóstila room. Called Escalier du Dragon or “Staircase of the Dragon“, it is the first of many monuments left behind on the site after it was abandoned as a residential lot.

Escalier du Dragon

These days, you have to pay to see the monuments while the park area behind the monuments remained free for all. The stairway is divided into three sections, along which the water from a fountain runs, once supplied from the tank under the Hypostyle room.

On the first landing are some capricious shapes like goblins, while halfway up the steps is the emblem of Catalonia with a colourful snake surrounded by the Catalan flag. Many believe that the snake represents Nejustan, the snake on the staff of Moses.

The salamander

One of the most photographed features of the Park Güell is the colourful salamander which guards the staircase in the monumental area. This creation is also a fine example of the style of mosaic-work which Gaudí would become famous for: trencadís. Meaning ‘chopped’ in Catalan, the technique involves using small pieces of chopped ceramics cemented together.

The cobra-like head of the sea serpent from the Nature Square

The Hypostyle room and Sarva Fountain

The Sala Hipòstila or Hypostyle Room was designed to be the market for the estate.

It is made up of 86 Doric columns, the same columns that form Sala Hipòstila supports half of La Plaça (The Greek Theatre) on top of its domes. The fountain of Salva was closed for renovation. Gaudí eliminated four of them and, in the free space left in the ceiling, he placed four large circular panels in the form of rosettes, 3 m in diameter, representing the four seasons of the year, with drawings of suns with 20 points, of different colors.

Inside the room the absence of columns in some sections creates spaces that simulate three naves, like a great church. The ceiling is formed of small domes constructed using the traditional technique of clay bricks decorated with original tile-shard mosaics made by Josep M. Jujol, one of Gaudí’s assistants.

Laundry room portico

Pòrtic de la Bugadera or “The Portico of the Laundrywoman” has this curious name because one of its columns was sculpted to imitate a woman with a laundry basket over her head.

Located on the eastern side of the Plaça de la Natura, this gallery of sloping double columns resembles a giant wave and is one of the finest examples of organic architecture idealized by Antoni Gaudí.

Casa Larrard
Casa Larrard (or Casa Muntaner de Dalt)

The Pòrtic de la Bugadera gives access to the former gardens of Casa Larrard (or Casa Muntaner de Dalt), a mansion that existed before the creation of Park Güell. In 1906, Eusebi Güell chose Casa Larrard as his official residence, but the building was converted into a primary school in 1931. Today, it’s called Escola Baldiri Reixac.

One of the most characteristic features of Antoni Gaudí’s work is how it translates his fascination with the natural world. Everything from the patterns he uses to the way he constructs his designs is inspired by nature.

For one, the park’s design works with the natural environment on which it was situated, taking advantage of the mountain’s topography rather than fighting it. Many of the columns are inspired directly by the shape and structure of the trees which surround them. Even Gaudí’s magnum opus, the Sagrada Família, is designed to imitate the natural world.

Austria Gardens

What we now know as the Austria Gardens was one of the zones to be used as plots in the estate. When the Park Güell was turned into a public park, however, the zone was used as a municipal plant nursery. This part of the precinct has a completely different look to the rest of the park, and it got its name through a donation of trees from Austria in 1977. 

Greek Theatre or Nature Square

Climb over the stairs and you will find yourself in Plaça de la Natura or The Nature Square, which is circled by the colourful, undulating bench, from which you get the imposing city views.

Right at the centre of Park Güell is the large esplanade which the original plans called the Greek Theatre and which has more recently been rechristened as Plaça de la Natura (Nature Square). Its original name was due to the fact that it was planned for staging large open-air shows that could be watched from the surrounding terraces.

Although Gaudí always respected the lie of the land, this large square is artificial. Part of it is dug into the rock, while the other part is held up by the Hypostyle room. I was very lucky to be able to see how the square was propped up as they removed the top surface to work on the waterproofing.

On the outer edge, which serves as a balcony to the stairway and the entrance to the park, there is an undulating bench, 110 m in length, covered with small pieces of ceramic and glass by Josep Maria Jujol, acting as a balustrade, with one of the favourite techniques of the architect, trencardís.

The rolling bank is formed by a succession of modules concave and convex of 1.5 m, with a design ergonomically adapted to the human body. It was said that Gaudí used actual naked men to sit on wet concrete to form the curves.

The base is made of white trencadís and is crowned with a ceramic decoration reminiscent of Dadaist or Surrealist collages, with generally abstract motifs, but also some figurative element, such as the signs of the zodiac, stars, flowers, fish or crabs.

Jujol also included roses and allegorical phrases in homage to the Virgin Mary, in Catalan and Latin, as well as crosses and the letter J for Jujol. The trencadís was built with waste materials, tiles, bottles and pieces of china. The colors blue, green and yellow predominate, which for Gaudí symbolized Faith, Hope and Charity.

Corners of Park Güell

These days most people who visit the Park Güell only explore the main area, also known as the ‘monumental area’, where much of Gaudí’s work can be seen. However, the park itself extends to the back of the monumental area and includes some nice walks among native trees and plants. What’s more, only the monumental area charges for access while the other area is free of charge and offers equally impressive views of the city.

The wall of the park is made of rustic stone topped with ceramic tiling and medallions bearing the name of Park Güell. The iron gates, designed in the shape of palm leaves, do not form part of the original plan, but came from Casa Vicens

Turo de Tres Creus, Gaudi’s monument to the Cavalry for some great views of the city.

Turo de Tres Creus is the highest part of the park, from here you can see most of Barcelona. Currently there are three crosses on top of a hill of stone, named “Calvari”. But this was not the wishes of Gaudí, he wanted to build the chapel here in the top of the Park Güell, but they found some prehistoric remains. So he used the remains as an inspiration and build this monument with some similarities with the caves.

Gaudí and Barcelona

Seven buildings designed by Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) in Barcelona or its surrounding area were included in the World Heritage List in 1984 and 2005. These buildings bear witness to the exceptional contribution of Gaudí’s creations to the evolution of the architecture and construction techniques in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They are the expression of an eclectic and very personal style that their creator employed not only in architecture, but also in gardening, sculpture and many other decorative arts.

The seven buildings are: Park Güell, Palau Güell, Casa Milà, Casa Vicens, Gaudí’s work on the Sagrada Família’s Nativity façade and crypt, Casa Batlló and the Colònia Güell crypt.

Visited Aug 2018

3 comments on “On the trail of Gaudí – Park Güell

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