Exploring the imagination of Gaudí: Park Güell & Sagrada Familia
After our disappointment of the previous day’s attempt to visit Park Güell we were happy to reach the park and find that the weather was much better than the previous day. Someone was smiling down on us from above – praise be!
Eusebi Güell gave Gaudí the assignment of drawing up plans for developing an estate for well-off families on a large property he had acquired in the zone known popularly as the Muntanya Pelada (bare mountain). Its location was unbeatable, in a healthy setting and with splendid views over the sea and the Plain of Barcelona. Güell wanted to recreate the British residential parks, which is why he named it Park Güell, in English.
Gaudí respected the vegetation that was already growing on the property, such as the carob and olive trees, and when new species were introduced, he opted for Mediterranean plants that did not require much water. He also designed various systems for collecting and storing water, based on the irrigation systems he had learned about in the rural setting of his childhood. Both the vegetation and the management of the water resources thus helped to prevent the erosion of the land caused by the heavy Mediterranean downpours, while at the same time helping to provide the water needed by the estate’s inhabitants.
The first person to buy a plot in the Park, in 1902, was a friend of Güell, lawyer Martí Trias i Domènech, who commissioned architect Juli Batllevell with building his villa. At the same time, the works contractor, Josep Pardo i Casanovas, built a show house, designed by Gaudí’s assistant Francesc Berenguer, to encourage sales. Gaudí himself moved there in 1906 to live with his father and niece. Shortly afterwards, in 1907, Eusebi Güell converted the old mansion (Casa Larrard), that was already there when he bought the site for development, into his usual residence. Over those years, a large number of civic events were held in the great square, with the owner’s approval. Unfortunately, the complex conditions of sale at the time and the lack of a good transportation system led to a lack of buyers and the works were abandoned with only two of the 60 envisaged houses being built. The park became a large private garden which Güell allowed to be used for public events. Eusebi Güell died at his house in 1918, and the park was purchased by the City and was opened as a municipal park in 1926. The Güell family house was converted into a State school
Park Güell was recognised as an artistic monument in 1969 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
We loved touring this park, from the cloistered areas designed as an area for markets to the large terrace, lined with benches inlaid with mosaics of brightly coloured pottery pieces, offering spectacular views across Barcelona. Last time we visited it was a bit rushed but this time we had the leisure to wonder the park and gardens and visit the gate-house, which resembles something out of a Dr. Suess book. This is an amazing and wonderfully inspiring place to visit.
After exploring the fabulous Park Güell and the stunning designs of Gaudí it was time for our visit to his greatest masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia. It was getting to be a hot day but it was still relatively early in the morning and we had time to kill so we decided to walk. The sign-posted directions left something to be desired but after about 45 minutes we arrived tired and a little peckish. Fortunately, we still had some time to spare, so we sat down for a quick cup of coffee and a Danish pastry.
We had the opportunity to visit the Sagrada Familia back in 2010 during our grand tour of Europe and were excited to see what had changed in the last seven years. As with all constructions of this size it takes a long, long time to complete. Ground was broken in 1882 under the guidance of the architect Francisco Paula de Villar, until 1883 when Gaudí took over as head architect and transformed its design into the most extraordinary gothic creation. The construction work has been hampered by funding (it is privately funded) and wars but even after Gaudí’s tragic death in 1926 his conceptual designs have been faithfully followed by his successors. The Sagrada Familia is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, giving it the status of a ‘minor basilica’ (there is nothing minor about it!)
I am not a religious person but visiting the Sagrada Familia is a truly spiritual experience and would move even the most hardened and cynical atheist. The outside of the building is stunning with incredible spires reaching skywards. The façade of the building is typical Gaudí, with ornate shapes and a design that looks like it has been hewn from a single giant rock. We passed through the entrance dedicated to the Nativity, the carvings surrounding this entrance are the most classic features to be found anywhere in the building.
If the outside does not take your breath away, then the inside is guaranteed to do just that. It is an incredible space! The huge stained-glass windows allow light to flood into the basilica. On the east facing wall the glass is shades of blue, casting a cool freshness with the morning rays. The west wall is made up of windows with yellows and reds. During our visit the sun was in the west and the whole of the nave was bathed in a warm, soothing light. The space is vast and feels endless. The unique columns that hold up the distant roof look, by design, like a forest. They have different girths and are made different materials, chosen for their physical properties, with a variance of colour, making them all the more interesting.
We had tickets to go up one of the towers. During our last visit we had toclimb the stairs, but this time they had installed lifts, at least on the way up. The views from the towers are amazing and you get to see closeup some of the stunning decorative elements that make the Sagrada Familia so unique. We left the casement of the towers and crossed several walkways high-up above the terraces below. As a person who does not particularly like heights this was a bit of a nervy experience. I felt better on the way down, with the long, spiral case enclosed in a column of stone, only passing the occasional windows through which you can see that you are still a long way up. The one disconcerting thing was looking down through the spiral all the way to the bottom of the staircase – eek!
The exit to the basilica is through the newly opened Passion entrance. The façade to this entrance is totally different to the Nativity. In stark contrast to the fanciful elements and uplifting message of the Nativity, Gaudí wanted the Passion façade to convey Jesus’ suffering (The Passion) and the bleakness of his death. He wanted it to be cold and without ornamentation. The Passion was completed by the sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs in 1990 from Gaudí’s drawings and notes.
Subirachs’ style is angular and rigid, which the opposite of Gaudí who did not believe in using straight lines. The stark lines evoke a sober feeling for the end of Jesus’ life from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion. Jesus’ story is told in the shape of a “Z” from the bottom to the top. The Last Supper is on the bottom and the Crucifixion is on the top.
With the tour complete we headed down to the crypt of the Sagrada, which has been turned into a museum dedicated to the history of this wonderful building. There were pictures showing the complete history of its construction, descriptions of the techniques employed in the architectural design and structural models.