Every park is a paradox. Parks are supposed to lend us something of the green splendor we gave up when we decided to live in cites; yet they are wholly unnatural spaces. Nature is wild and messy; parks are meticulous and comfortable. Parks soothe, while nature inspires. Nature is filled with murderous animals and toxic plants; parks have unsanitary public restrooms and malingering teens.
I’m not dismissing parks. I think they’re wonderful. A great park is one of two requirements* for being a great city in my book. But I can’t visit a city park without thinking about how it handles the tension between the natural world it’s trying to recall and the concrete monoliths that surround it. Some parks — like Fairmount in Phildelphia are designed in total denial of urban life. Others like the National Mall in Washington D.C. treat nature as a garnish for gleaming marble. Both approaches are perfectly valid and most parks exist somewhere on that continuum.
Or at least, that’s what I thought until I visited the Park Güell in Barcelona, which turns the entire question into a joke.
The park was designed by an architect named Antoni Gaudi, who is normally associated with the Modernismo architectural movement. But after seeing a few of his buildings, it becomes clear that he didn’t have that much in common with contemporary architects Or with his fellow earthlings for that matter.
His designs flout convention and play with natural forms and layered symbolism while remaining startlingly practical. The things he built in 19 Century Barcelona would still seem shocking if they were unveiled today. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall for his client meetings…
Client: Hi Antoni! I was wondering if you’d like to remodel my townhouse?
Antoni Gaudi: From now on, your home will look like the decaying corpse of dragon with a sword thrust into its back.
Client: I think that might upset my neighbors. What if we just…
Antoni Gaudi: DRAGON BONES! I HAVE SPOKEN!
I’m not kidding. He actually built a house like that. Looking at it gave me a powerful sense of cognitive dissonance. My brain had a hard time accepting what I was looking at. And as strange as that experience was, it was positively banal compared with his park.
Gaudi’s designs are all about mimicking natural forms and the Park Güell takes those ideas to their logical conclusion. It’s filled with spires and caverns and gullies that blur the line between the natural and the artificial. Rather than evoke nature or banish it, the park tries to transform it into something new. It was like walking through another person’s dreams. It makes my earlier point about parks totally moot. Why choose between embracing civilization or running to the succor of nature when you can escape the world as you know it entirely?
I felt like I was being told a story, or maybe a joke the entire time I was there. At one point, I turned a corner and discovered that the plaza I had been standing on was actually an enormous temple that looked like it had been dredged up from Atlantis. The realization made me laugh out loud like a child. I’ve never been told a joke with architecture before. It’s an experience I can’t recommend enough.
Blair and I tracked down as many Gaudi structures as we could in our time in Barcelona — and they’re all every bit as strange and wonderful as his park. I am not an especially gifted photographer, but my snapshots are particularly inadequate this time around. His work really is magical stuff.
*The other one is water. If a city isn’t located on or near a river, lake, sea or some other body of water, I just don’t see the point.