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Park life

Park Güell By José Antonio Martinez Lapeña and Elías Torres. Gustavo Gili, 2002. 88pp. £18

For anyone who has sat in the wonderful, figure-hugging 'perimetral' benches of Gaudí's Park Güell, high up in the outskirts of Barcelona, this book provides not just a picture-postcard reminder but insights into its restoration.

Park Güell is part coffee-table-glossy of the buildings and landscaping as they are today, and part analysis of the technical challenges of fabric threatened by damp, time and earlier restorations. Written mostly by José Antonio Martinez Lapeña and Elías Torres, the restorers-in-chief, it is in a large, square format, which suits the photography.

One of the photographs, for example, is even on a double gatefold to capture that curving bench; the rest document the restorers' work from 1985-1993.

It is good on history. The park was, say the authors, 'born of failure' - intended as a residential development of houses for its sponsor, Catalonian textile industrialist Count Eusebi Güell. Having become richer through marriage into a banking family, he sought to diversify into real estate, while another venture into cement was to have brought those two interests together on the 15ha, hilly, south-east-facing site on Mont Pelat (Bald Mountain) in Gracia.

The plan was for 60 houses - two were built. One was the estate's show house, designed by Gaudí's assistant, Francesco Berenguer, which later became Gaudí's own home until the death of his niece Rosa in 1912. The other was designed by architect Julio Batllevell, while an existing 19th-century farmhouse was set up as Güell's own residence.

Güell's vision was that the hygiene, 'salubrity' and security of the grounds would tempt Barcelonans; Gaudí's that a series of excavations, viaducts, roads and pathways as a skeleton to deal with the topography, would be perfect for a residential development, but would later secure its success as a park. As it turned out, the city bourgeoisie favoured the Eixample district, which they felt was more accessible, and where they would appear less like subjects to 'parvenu aristocrat' Güell in his 'ghetto palace'.

The book examines the key restoration problems: the damp and corrosion-related issues with the Hypostyle Hall, originally intended as a covered market with its 86 Doric columns; and the undulating bench, completed in 1909 and featuring trencadis (broken tiles). Both, in fact, came from Gaudí's collaborator, Josep Maria Jujol. A new drainage system was installed across the piazza, along with waterproofing of the hall's roof, while the bench - 'extremely precarious' before work began - was a delicate undertaking. For example, 37 tonnes of white tiles were found, creating the irony that the restorers would have to manufacture 37 tiles of identical whites to replace ones, rejected as being useless, that came from a rubbish tip in the first place.

There is an unusually readable look at the structural concept of the restoration by the team's consulting architect Fructuós Mañà, including the reinforcement of the fissured hemispherical cupolas above the Hypostyle Hall. The fine collection of photographs includes some unusual images (vegetation and scarcely-seen details), and there is an accompanying map.

In the final footnotes comes a telling observation on the whole restoration, in terms of Park Güell and its visitors. 'Now they don't think they're in front of a capricious extravagance, ' says Lourdes Jansana (who has taken the new photographs), 'but before a revered cult object, a religious scene, almost.'

Barring the odd over-florid translation of the aims and ideals of the project, Park Güell is an engaging overview of how a muchloved element of Barcelona's tourist trail came into being, first as a private garden city, and then, latterly, how it was lovingly and skilfully given a new life as a municipal, public park and, rightly, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

David Taylor is a freelance journalist

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