Exploring Barcelona’s parks and gardens. 02: Jardins de Laribal

Following on from our last garden article, this one is also about a garden on Montjuïc. Jardins de Laribal is another of the hidden marvels of Barcelona’s green mountain. Far from inviting visitors into its arms, it seems rather to deflect them away, to lead them around and about. The photos and plan show why this park is a defector from the space program – no matter how many times you visit it, you’re invariably left feeling its component parts are unrelated fragments. You can check out its location here or take a look at this plan below if you’re familiar with Barcelona.

Outline of Jardins de Laribal on Montjuïc, with the pergolas highlighted.

Only Jardins de Laribal and their perimeter streets, which serve as a visible separation in plan, though this is not perceived clearly on the ground. The Joan Miró Foundation is immediately to the right of the park, and the most widely-used upper entrance is also here.

So why are we interested in this garden? It is truly more a garden, or series of gardens, than a park for the most part. The highlighted pergolas and the multitude of water features which pepper the park (see plans above) are what interest us really. Let’s begin by looking closely at these pergolas, then we’ll consider the use of water in the garden.

Seating and planting as structuring elements of space

How do you subdivide a space so that a multitude of users can take temporary ownership of it, without having their view obstructed by others? The simple answer is to create niches, a crisp staccato to the ambiguous legato of open space. A giant lawn will become the host of ball games, leaving more passive occupants of space vulnerable, but too small a pocket of enclosed space will be harder to maintain and may exacerbate unwanted behaviour. The distribution of Laribal’s benches beneath its pergolas is a partial solution. The elongated terrace on either side of this first pool is broken down by the pillars which support the beams of the pergolas, with benches on one side facing out over the city. The effect is immediate: one to three park visitors come and occupy a bench and have the sense of some privacy from the users on either side, and the opposing structure frames the view ahead of them.

So how might this information be useful to someone designing a space? It might not be apparent right away on a flat site, where any designer might be inclined to leave most spaces unenclosed. On difficult sites, however, with steep slopes or particularly interesting vistas, a seemingly ornamental element such as a pergola can take on this vertebral character, rigorously structuring a part of the design.

Aerial view of the upper part of Laribal, which has been modelled only to show the pergolas and significant level changes. The cascades are not shown, and neither is vegetation. This render and those on the following page by the author, and all people shown are from WIP – Lowpoly People – 1 by Loïc Norgeot, licensed under CC by 4.0. / Minor modifications made to original models, including colour and body positions.

The unfortunate reality of this particular garden is that its isolated location, far from prying eyes, means that like so many urban parks it is gated at night. As the upper parts were once a private estate, the layout of the space was never originally imagined for public access. Perhaps this top space, including the pergolas, could be left open permanently, instead of being lost to the world for half its life. With effective illumination this corridor could be an ideal place to sit and take in the cityscape, with the lower levels closed at sunset. After all, we don’t stop living when the sun goes down, and what better testament could there be to a healthy society than the guarantee that parks are safe at any hour?

These pergolas allow for natural, temporary colonisation of space, with each bench feeling distinct from the others, but also still well connected with the walkway leading to the rest of the park or along to the sculpture garden beside the Joan Miró Foundation. All too often park users are expected to occupy benches along paths with their backs exposed to open space, which may leave them feeling uneasy about who or what could be approaching. This solution is quite neat in that it creates a partial walling-in for each set of users, without dumping them at the end of a cul-de-sac.

Overall views of level changes, with passing
and stationary park users.
View from under the pergolas to the right of the central steps.
The marked level change helps to create a sense of security that nothing will approach from behind.

Water features as implicit signage mechanisms within spaces

The truth is that as most visitors arrive up on Montjuïc via funicular, they are likely to feel channelled in either direction by the main arterial street. This will lead them to the obvious attractions like the Joan Miró Foundation, a short walk from the funicular station, and onward past the Olympic stadium and perhaps round to the new Botanic garden. Minor incursions into parks like Laribal are likely to end with most visitors (even residents) turning around and searching for a more obvious route down into Poble Sec, the adjacent neighbourhood from where the funicular runs. This casts a shadow over the pergolas, which in their seclusion may well come across as being lost in space, as the park itself appears to have little connection to the city below. In reality, the route down through the park to Poble Sec is more logical than following the serpentine road which borders and then bisects it. This brings us to the second device employed in Laribal which is worthy of mention: how to lead a wandering visitor through a landscape without clumsy signage.

This might be achieved in any number of ways, from design elements such as street furniture to logos or other visual devices, but each sub-space within this park has an accent pool, and some of these are linked by rills. The subtlety of these water bodies and the sense of discovery as you come across each one makes a journey out of a complex park.

Once in the final space, visitors circumnavigate the final large circular pool and are led through archways, then on to a short flight of steps into nearby Poble Sec. From this point the view ahead is quite navigable and most visitors would find it easy to get their bearings from there on. What follows is a detailed sequential explanation of the role of these water bodies, including photos, diagrams and notes.

The distinctive Modern architecture of the Miró Foundation (left) is a clear landmark as we travel towards the Olympic stadium from the funicular. Not especially inviting, this entrance (right) at least features the standard Parks and Gardens signage of Barcelona, which might lead an inquisitive visitor to explore the park.

The first water body with the pergolas on either side. Interestingly, there is a fountain with a cat’s face in the centre of this pool, but it’s not the famous Font del Gat (Cat Fountain), which is further down the slope and is in the grounds of a restaurant of the same name. The Font del Gat has been excluded from our considerations here because it doesn’t fit our criteria, given that it doesn’t have the organisational character of the other water features in the park.

From this point the water doesn’t so much lead the eye in a straight line as it does create curiosity about where the waterfall goes. Visitors are naturally inclined to follow the steps down to the pool/s below and see what the next part of the garden holds in store. As can be seen in the first photo, this leading effect draws the visitor down to the lower level, and the cascade steps (right) flowing down from the previous level are an impressive reward.

As in the case of the previous terrace, this one also features a rill which leads to another cascade (left), and visitors could head down to the level or follow the park around to the left at this level. Passing the small ornamental enclosure (right), again highlighted with a pool, the visitor is led down a slop and through long pergolas, shown here in black.

Entering from the top beneath either one of these long planted pergolas, the sculpture pool (left) adds a vital focal point to the convergence of the pergolas. The relatively open space in front of this is characterised by its square, tiled pool (right). From the position shown (with the sculpture pool to the right) the visitor’s eye is led through a short avenue of trees to a ramp leading to the next space in the descent sequence.

From the top of this ramp the next pool (left) reassures us that we haven’t taken a wrong turn; every main space can be navigated in this way. The sequence continues once past this pool; the square pool in the centre of the next space (right) is clearly visible from the top of the steps leading towards it.

The evident nodal nature of the water features in Laribal is never clearer than at this point. The visitor is faced with three choices here: right to the Font del Gat bar, straight on to return to the upper levels of the garden, or left to complete the descent to the final lower space.

The last part of the sequence is perhaps the cleverest, in that it leads the visitor’s eye across the road which runs through the gardens. From the top of these steps, a small circular pool is visible just inside the entrance on the opposite side of the road (left), as though to ensure that the infrastructure isn’t seen as the limit of the space. Once across the road, the final space, more open and park-like in its dimension, completes the guiding pattern with the last main pool (right), thereby marking the end of the water’s journey through the park.

Similarly, if Laribal is approached from below, via the Teatre Grec (Greek amphitheatre), the small cascade and pool (left) suggest that something awaits the visitor, despite the lack of visibility and the steep stone staircase which they see. An especially effective detail are these stepped cascade rills running down the centre of the walls on either side of the staircase. These, combined with the small pools on each landing, encourage us to keep climbing.

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