I am a landscape designer who went to school with architects and am happy to report that some of my longest friendships have been with some of those architects. After years of admiring their travel photos and longing to visit some of those sites, I finally got to strike an item off my bucket list this spring: A trip to worship at Antonio Gaudí’s structures in Barcelona.
People said “Don’t go alone,” and. “Be careful.” The caution was about fairly aggressive bag-snatching in crowds, which one of my friends had experienced a decade ago. It was suggested that I go to Montserrat and to the amusement park at the top of the mountain. But I didn’t want any distractions from my Barcelona immersion. What I wasn’t prepared for was how extensively the artistic tendency of the Catalan people was reflected in this small city, over the centuries. Other people I have spoken to about Barcelona feel the same way.
Barcelona is a city of neighbourhoods: designer boutique pocket neighbourhoods and lovely mixed-use neighbourhoods, with small shops, grocery and liquor stores, cafes with awnings for alfresco eating, which, in pre-season March is still affordable.
The city’s scale is cozy and human. Its buildings are mostly under 10 storeys and have history splashed all over them. The artistic culture seems endless with numerous museums dedicated to the special icons of various ages: Gaudí, Dalí, Miró, Picasso and Mies van der Rohe. Then, there is the lure of the casino and entertainment attractions to weekenders and holiday-seekers from all over Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Partly as a result of these features, Barcelona is a walking city. And nowhere is this more evident than in the strolling precincts and La Rambla, which connects the city’s waterfront with the city’s centre of commerce and tourism, La Plaça Catalunya. When I was there, the early stages of spring had advanced the blooms of the Western Redbuds causing the wild budgies to fly crazily with mad passion over them. There were people walking, strolling, rambling and absorbing the vibe everywhere, all the time.
But the main object of my pilgrimage lay some three-and-a-half km northwest of the Plaça. After decades of longing, finally, at nine am Sunday morning, I shared the beautiful and intimate spaces of Park Güell, with tourists by the busload, all accidentally photo-bombing each other’s smart-phone snapshots, in narrow spaces and long vistas defined by ornate and organic forms. I wondered if these tourists appreciated the landscape principles Gaudí incorporated in the colonnade. Although they are striking, the columns are also practical channels for draining rainwater off the public square, into reservoirs out of sight.
I also wondered if they appreciated the advanced thinking that went into the “new town” that Park Güell was originally intended to be. In 1900, the site was on the outskirts of Barcelona and the decision to build the development into the side of the mountain was controversial, to say the least. The project was a financial disaster, since. only two houses were ever built: one for the developer Güell and one for the architect Gaudí, who continued to occupy them even after the site was converted to a municipal park.
Despite the financial failure, the park, including the “Monumental Zone” and the trails the mountainside leading into the park, is viewed as Gaudi’s greatest complete work. It perfectly showcases Gaudí’s expression of the beautiful curvilinear synthesis of architecture, colour, nature, space and light.
Park Güell was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1984,
to testify to Gaudi’s exceptional and unique creative contribution to the development of architecture and building technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of those buildings influenced and anticipated the forms and techniques that were relevant to the development of modern construction in the 20th century.” – www.unesco.org
Visiting a magical place that I’ve admired for years and looked forward to seeing and feeling first-hand was invigorating. At the same time, I felt a little sad to see this historic place, so familiar from photos that I had looked at over the years, actually showing signs of age, like an old friend. Acid rain and other weathering changes of the decades had taken their toll. It was not as brightly coloured as in the books. I had a similar feeling of sadness when I visited the Taj Mahal, where signs of raiding, pillaging and general disrespect by the visitors are noticeable. I am reminded that beauty is never perfect. Having the knowledge of hardships of people’s lives as they created and experienced beauty is integral to its appreciation, adding sweetness or melancholy.
From Park Güell, I made my way to the Casa Mila, Gaudi’s ostentatious luxury residence, also heavily attended by lineups of turistas. The detailed workmanship in all areas of this building, – painstakingly carved out of walls, ceilings and chimney flues – made me wish I could have asked Gaudí how much ornament is enough, and how did he decide when to stop?
Park Güell is one of the high points of my Barcelona visit because it contains elements of everything that I find fascinating about Antonio Gaudí and about the city in general –colour, artistry, lots of space for walking and, an incredible amount of unique Catalan ornamentation.
I wanted to bring home all the ornamental items I saw everywhere but I could only do that with the memory of what I had seen.