Scenes from the most wonderful park in the world

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.

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The entrance to the Park Güell in Barcelona is watched over by two of these mosaic towers that look like the belong in a fishbowl.

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The entrance stairs to the park, complete with faux-temple.

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Mosaics are a big part of Catalan art.

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Multicolored lizard-dragon things are magic.

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The park is filled with these little stone cornices that look natural, but aren't.

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A segment of an enormous mosaic-lined bench that lines the central plaza.

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Her Royal Blairness adorns the bench.

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A man-made archway, leading to another park of the park.

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A closeup of the stone work.

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Blair resting the in the shade of the arch.

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Many of the arches are also walkways that you can wander on top of, meaning that the way you see the park is constantly shifting.

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It's like spelunking without all the mess.

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This is the Hospital de Sant Pau, also a Gaudi work. It's currently being renovated, so I had to take this photo through the bars on the gate.

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This is Casa Batlló, the house that looks like a dead dragon. Sadly, it's hard to get the whole thing into one short, so some of the effect is lost.

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The windows of Casa Batlló were some of my favorite parts.

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The roof is meant to be a dragons multi-colored tail, with the chimney serving as the hilt of a sword.

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This is Gaudi's first public work: a lamppost. Again with the dragons.

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The texture of the walls of La Pedrera mimic the waves of the sea.

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The shape of the center chimney was reportedly an influence on George Lucas, inspiring the shape of the storm trooper helmets in Star Wars

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This is the Basílica de la Sagrada Família, the most uniquely beautiful church I've ever seen, even though it's still under construction.

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Part of the joy of the church is how organic it looks, like it was grown, not made.

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This is part of the eastern facade of the church. It represent new life bursting out of the stone.

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Inside the church is simply decorated. It's all space and light.

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The buttresses are inside the church, instead of outside. The look like huge stone trees.

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A view of the altar, just so you get a sense of how huge the interior feels.

The entrance to the Park Güell in Barcelona is watched over by two of these mosaic towers that look like the belong in a fishbowl.The entrance stairs to the park, complete with faux-temple.Mosaics are a big part of Catalan art.Multicolored lizard-dragon things are magic.The park is filled with these little stone cornices that look natural, but aren't.A segment of an enormous mosaic-lined bench that lines the central plaza.Her Royal Blairness adorns the bench.A man-made archway, leading to another park of the park.A closeup of the stone work.Blair resting the in the shade of the arch.Many of the arches are also walkways that you can wander on top of, meaning that the way you see the park is constantly shifting.It's like spelunking without all the mess.This is the Hospital de Sant Pau, also a Gaudi work. It's currently being renovated, so I had to take this photo through the bars on the gate.This is Casa Batlló, the house that looks like a dead dragon. Sadly, it's hard to get the whole thing into one short, so some of the effect is lost.The windows of Casa Batlló were some of my favorite parts.The roof is meant to be a dragons multi-colored tail, with the chimney serving as the hilt of a sword.This is Gaudi's first public work: a lamppost. Again with the dragons.The texture of the walls of La Pedrera mimic the waves of the sea.The shape of the center chimney was reportedly an influence on George Lucas, inspiring the shape of the storm trooper helmets in Star WarsThis is the Basílica de la Sagrada Família, the most uniquely beautiful church I've ever seen, even though it's still under construction.Part of the joy of the church is how organic it looks, like it was grown, not made.This is part of the eastern facade of the church. It represent new life bursting out of the stone.Inside the church is simply decorated. It's all space and light.The buttresses are inside the church, instead of outside. The look like huge stone trees.A view of the altar, just so you get a sense of how huge the interior feels.

*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.

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