Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Traveling In Style : THE BEST OUTDOOR SHOW IN EUROPE : Barcelona's Olympian Commitment to Great Public Art and High-Design Public Spaces Has Turned the City Into a One-of-a-Kind Visual Feast for Visitors : Barcelona

March 01, 1992|COLMAN ANDREWS | Traveling in Style editor Andrews visits Barcelona frequently and is the author of "Catalan Cuisine," to be published in an updated paperback edition in May by Collier Books

If you stand amid the exclamation-point spruce trees on the triangular-shaped landing and look northwest across the broad rust-green pool, past the statue of Neptune that perches on a stone-cube pedestal just offshore, this could be almost any urban park in Europe: A flat grassy promontory, jutting out from the opposite shore, leads back into fields of lawn through which paved footpaths snake. Neatly trimmed sycamores shade a patch of sandy dirt furnished with a dozen or so back-to-back pairs of benches. Nearby, children kick a rubber ball around and clamber over bright high-tech plastic playground gear. An old man feeds ducks and pigeons by the water's edge.

If you turn to your left, though, back toward the park entrance, the place changes character instantly and dramatically. An immense, fantastical rust-brown construction--a jagged abstract dragon with a stairway through his middle and a slide down his tail--looms behind a round pond pierced by a waterspout and framed in terraced cascades. A wall of cold, stadium-style concrete benches rings the near bank of the pool. Above the wall rise nine thick, eerie, 70-foot-high columns, each encircled halfway up by a cage-like landing and perforated with square mirador windows. Atop the columns is a pillar crowned with a cluster of floodlights and a skullcap dome; the floodlights shine even in daylight, mixing their cold light with the warm light of the sun, and the towers suggest guard towers in some "Star Wars" prison, which might at any moment start moving toward you, menacing and unstoppable.

This isn't just any old European urban park after all. It's the Parc de l'Espanya Industrial in Barcelona, second city of Spain and capital of Catalonia. Designed by Basque architect Luis Pena Ganchegui and his Catalan colleague Francesc Rius to occupy the site of an old industrial complex near the busy Sants railway station, the park is both soft and hard, hospitable and discomfiting. Filled with serious art--not just the stylized dragon, which is Basque artist Andres Nagel's "Baths of the Dragon of St. George," but also a complex Cor-Ten steel piece by noted English sculptor Sir Anthony Caro and several other works by Spanish sculptors both classical and contemporary--the park has also been excoriated on aesthetic grounds by local and foreign observers alike.

Whatever its virtues, the Parc de l'Espanya Industrial is not an easy park to deal with. But neither is it an oddity in Barcelona nor an anomaly in an otherwise conservative environment. It's one of nearly 200 new or newly refashioned parks, squares and other public spaces in the city--hardly any of them conventional, some of them positively avant-garde and at least half of them graced with uncompromising art pieces and/or architectural elements that alternately delight and infuriate the public.

Barcelona--a bustling Mediterranean port city now bustling more than ever as it prepares to host the 1992 Summer Olympics--has always been a visually exciting place. This is the city of Antoni Gaudi, after all, who helped invent the uniquely Catalan Modernista style of architecture and design and who elevated the style to both a spiritual plane and a monumental scale with his legendary (and still unfinished) "expiatory temple" of La Sagrada Familia, a sort of surrealistic cathedral. This is the city, too, of Miro and Picasso. The latter wasn't born in Barcelona, but he developed his talents here as a young man. And his landmark painting "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" depicts the "ladies" not of the French city of Avignon but of Barcelona's Carrer d'Avinyo, or Avignon Street.

Barcelona is also famous for its wealth of Gothic architecture and, today, for the dazzling array of ultracontemporary Olympics-inspired projects, either recently completed or still in the works by such international architectural celebrities as Richard Meier, Frank Gehry, Arata Isozaki, Norman Foster and Barcelona's own Ricardo Bofill.

What really makes the city visually unique, though, are what are called in Catalan its espais urbans , or "urban spaces"--the aforementioned new parks, squares and such. During the four decades of Francisco Franco's dictatorship in Spain, it is said that not one new park was built in Barcelona (the city was violently anti-Franco during the Spanish Civil War and subsequently paid the price) even though its population increased from about 1 million to nearly 3.5 million during that period. Since 1980, as if to make up for this neglect, the city has committed formidable creative and financial resources (an estimated $6.4 billion has been spent on all aspects of urban renewal in the city in the past 11 years) to a stylish reinvention of the urban landscape--turning junky industrial ruins into public facilities of various kinds, humanizing streets and disused sections of the waterfront and in general making the place more livable and even better-looking.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|