EMBT | icon 002 | May 2003

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words Marcus Fairs

A new park in Barcelona uses water to blur the boundaries between the city and the seashore.

Barcelona architect Enric Miralles Benedetta Tagliabue creates urban surfaces that tell stories. Its remodelling of Utrecht town hall in the Netherlands created a new public square in which patterns in the paving traced the foundations of ancient buildings that once occupied the space. At its Scottish Parliament building, nearing completion in Edinburgh, a series of raised paths fan out from the main entrance and head towards the Highlands, tracing the routes that clan chieftains would have followed when attending gatherings.

Back in its home city, EMBT has created Diagonal Mar, a new 14ha park that subtly transports the visitor back to a time when the city did not exist. In plan, the park resembles a tree; its roots in the sea and a series of paths spreading inland like branches. It gradually mutates the hard surfaces of the city into the softer forms of the natural world. The most significant ingredient is water: a lagoon - artificial and hard-edged at one end, organic and reed-fringed at the other - is set between low hills. "It's where the sea and the city meet," says EMBT's Benedettta Tagliabue. "You come from an area of asphalt, of concrete. The main axis of the park is a rambla [pedestrian boulevard], which has a strong connection with the water. You have water beside you as you walk towards the sea, but the water is always changing. The water is very urbanised to start with; artificial fountains and spray machines. Then there are more natural forms such as waterfalls - although we made them in concrete so it was obvious they were man-made. As you get nearer to the sea it gets more like a lagoon surrounded by vegetation. It's intended to resemble how the coast would have looked before it was urbanised."

This is a rare treat for the citizens of Barcelona, whose city has very few soft-edged parks. The dense centre contains a host of justly famous squares and ramblas but just one major expanse of green - the leafy Parc de la Ciutadella. There are just a couple more, including Gaud’'s spellbinding Parc GŸell, on the periphery. Although the city is surrounded by pine-clad hills, the distinction between the urban and the natural is highly pronounced. "There's a wild mountain park outside the city, but it's hardly used," says Tagliabue. "At Diagonal Mar, we wanted to create the illusion of being in a wonderful place, of being in nature. The purpose of a park is to have fun, to play, to relax - which is not always possible with real nature."

Diagonal Mar is a major new urban district being developed on the coast north of the Olympic port. Formed where Avinguda Diagonal, one of Barcelona's main traffic axes, meets the Mediterranean, the park provides one of the few car-free links between the city and the sea. Tagliabue says that the idea was to create a green lung that would form the heart of the urbanisation, akin to Central Park in New York.

There is one major difference, however. "We didn't want it to be like Central Park, with a big wall separating the natural from the urban," says Tagliabue. A high fence was an unfortunate necessity but the architect has softened its impact by spilling the park outside this boundary. Entrances are marked by mini-piazzas set beyond the perimeter - called "transition points".

Within the park, different areas cater for the park's various users. Diagonal Mar is a resource for locals and a destination for people from other parts of the city, so a wide range of potentially competing activities has to be taken into account. The standard municipal response is often to banish awkward users such as cyclists, skateboarders or footballers but EMBT instead encouraged these by providing specific zones for each. "We created places for every age," says Tagliabue, explaining that the park becomes progressively more geared towards children as it approaches the beach. "Nearest the sea there's an area for the very youngest."

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