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  • Writer's pictureSonia Cuesta Maniar, PhD

A Brief History of Park Güell in Barcelona

What is Park Güell?

Park Güell is a public park in Barcelona that was originally designed as a green retreat for Barcelona’s wealthiest citizens. The park features striking Modernist gardens and architecture that was designed by Antoni Gaudí.

Park Güell in Barcelona

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Park Güell History

The Industrial Revolution brought great wealth to a few lucky families in Barcelona. Many used their newfound riches to support the nascent artistic movement known as Modernisme, funding the construction of Modernist buildings throughout the city. However, the industrialisation that had made them rich, adversely affected the quality of life in central Barcelona. As factories mushroomed around the Old City, air pollution became a serious problem. To escape it, Barcelona’s wealthiest citizens built themselves second homes far from the factory smog, either near the seaside or in the mountains. This trend was soon picked up on by Count Eusebi Güell, who decided to build a development that would appeal to discerning buyers in search of healthier surroundings.

The Güells were one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Barcelona. Eusebi himself had made a fortune in the textile industry during the late 19th century. Aware that the bourgeoise was desperate to leave the centre of Barcelona for at least part of the time, he envisioned the construction of an exclusive residential area built in parkland just outside the city, intending to name it after himself. He was inspired by the English ‘garden city' initiative, a method of urban planning that developed self-contained communities surrounded by open spaces or ‘green belts’. The movement sought to combine the benefits of both city and country living. Güell was so inspired by it that for his own development he decided to keep the English spelling ‘park’ instead of the Catalan parc (spelt with a ‘c’).

Park Güell Entrance

At the turn of the 20th century, Eusebi Guëll bought a vast area of land on the slopes of Carmel Hill, just outside Barcelona. He marketed the project to the city’s richest families as a location that would offer them space and clean air within easy travelling distance of the city centre. Guëll commissioned his friend the renowned architect Antoni Gaudí to design and build the park. The new estate was to include a chapel, a market square, and a total of 60 luxurious villas. However, the Catalan bourgeoisie remained unimpressed by the proposed development, located amidst desolate surrounds in a neighbourhood traditionally associated with poverty. This lack of interest meant that only two of the projected 60 houses were built.

The work was abandoned in 1914, and the park became the property of the city of Barcelona in the following decade. The failure of the project deeply affected Gaudí. His only consolation was that he could buy one of the houses when they were put up for sale. Antoni Gaudí lived there until 1925 (a year before his death), and his former home is now a museum dedicated to his life and work. Despite these setbacks, on this site he designed and constructed one of the most spectacular parks in Europe. Today, the Park Güell’s 17 hectares serve as the city’s garden. Gaudí adapted his designs to the site’s natural features, following the contours of Carmel Hill and integrating artifice with nature.

As a centrepiece, he designed a large square (called the ‘Greek Theatre’ in the original plans, since it was intended for staging large open-air shows), which incorporates one of the longest benches in the world. Gaudí designed the bench in the shape of a dragon in order to protect the estate. The square is supported by an area known as the Sala Hipóstila. Although commonly known as the ‘Hall of the Hundred Columns’, this spacious area resembling a cave features 86 Doric columns, and was intended to house the market serving the estate. One of the most eye-catching ornamental features in the park is the colourful lizard that stands guard over the main staircase. This much-loved mosaic animal has become synonymous with Gaudí's work, as well as with the city of Barcelona. After a century in place, its symmetry, size and vivid colours continue to make an impression on all who visit the Park Güell.

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