As you walk the streets of any Eixample city block, streets that are full of movement and noise, a little opening in the wall attracts your attention. A green sign tells you there are gardens here. You follow the narrow passageway and before you a green courtyard opens up, a city garden, with facilities for resting and for the little ones to play on, and isolated from the constant roar of the metropolis. Acoustic and visual insulation from a high-speed city that does not stop until you find that hidden corner, a slice of pseudo-nature in the middle of the city. A little treasure.
There are about 50 interior gardens open to the public in the Eixample. As Ildefons Cerdà said in his Teoría general de la urbanización: ‘In each of these spaces enclosed by city streets, there is a small world, a little city or elemental metropolis’. And in each block interior we find this reduced microcosm, each with its own particularities and features: large or small, regular or irregular, greener or greyer, with sand or rubber, with more play areas or rest areas. But they all have certain things in common: spaces for leisure use, their imitation of nature and their perceptual isolation, which facilitates neighbourhood socialising.
In his progressive, egalitarian town-planning project for the Eixample, Ildefons Cerdà foresaw that the city block interiors would be green zones for use by the public, that they would increase the salubrity of the buildings at the same time as they provided residents with an area for resting and leisure. This proposal was adulterated from the start, as the project was dogged by opposition from the municipal authorities and landowners and became watered down. Speculation meant that the gross floor area was much larger than Cerdà had planned, which increased crowding in the Eixample.
The town-planner and engineer had foreseen buildings on only two sides of each city block, but, under pressure, he eventually accepted that all four sides could be built up. In the course of time, a series of bylaws increased the height of the buildings: in 1891 it went from the four floors Cerdà had stipulated to six, and under Francoist mayor Porcioles the figure rose to eight, to which were added penthouses and more. The depth of interior construction on the block was also increased and the interior spaces were eliminated. The whole of the ground-floor level could now be built up and this is how factories and businesses proliferated in many of them. In some cases, this interior construction went above the ground floor and reached two or more storeys. The variety of bylaws can still be seen on a walk around the Eixample to take in the interior and exterior façades.
Mercè Tatjer, a geographer and urban historian, lives in the Eixample and has a passion for finding details that break with the excessive regularity Cerdà and his plan were so often accused of. She defends the variety of façades, of ornamental details, of depths of buildings, of inner spaces in the city blocks. ‘Imagine they hadn’t gone above the four storeys Cerdà said. With the streets full of trees, as he planned, the Eixample now would be a garden city’, she says wistfully, pointing to an 8-storey building with penthouse in Carrer del Consell de Cent, next to the Lehmann factory, a site that still preserves its ‘organic courtyard’, where workshops to do with communications, art and innovation live side by side.
Faced with this lack of green spaces, the advent of democracy in 1976 brought with it a new Pla General Metropolità (PGM, General Metropolitan Plan) that included the recovery of the city block interiors as gardens, along the lines Cerdà had planned. The regulations stipulated that businesses building below ground level in block interiors would have to garden the roof, so long as the ground floor was not developable. In this respect, the first gardens to be recovered in 1985 were the ones at Torre de les Aigües (Carrer Roger de Llúria, 56) and Casa Elizalde (Carrer de València, 302).
The PGM was established in the 2002 Eixample bylaw, which repealed and modified the 1986 bylaw. According to this regulation, as from the second crown of the building, which on the ground floor can reach a depth of 4.5 metres, all the rest must be garden. This area can be private, for use only by the residents living in the buildings on the block, or, if the basement level has been developed (with a car park, supermarket or other business), it has to be ceded to the City Council and access provided to make it open to citizens.
Thirty spaces recovered by 2012
The decision to recover the city block interiors took off in 1996 with the creation of the mixed company Proeixample, which combined public and private capital (62% and 38%, respectively). Proeixample searched for block interiors, negotiated and bought premises and land. It invested in green spaces for use by the public in the courtyards and recovered part of the capital by selling developable land on the block. During the time it was active, from 1996 to 2012, a good 30 or more inner spaces were recovered for use by residents. The arrival of the former CiU on the Council put an end to this enterprise, which, added to the economic crisis, stopped the recovery of city block interiors.
The President of the Dreta de l’Eixample residents’ association, Jaume Artigas, is in no doubt. ‘From the start of the crisis in 2012 until now, no new premises have been inaugurated in the neighbourhood. Inner courtyards were recovered by buying premises and not by expropriation, which cost the same as buying. Now the facts are starker: there aren’t enough funds. There’s no town-planning management because prices are too high.’
In this respect, since 2012 only two block interiors have been recovered: the one named after Anaïs Napoleon (Carrer de la Marina, 155), in the Fort Pienc neighbourhood, in 2015, and one year later the one named after Montserrat Figueras (Carrer de Còrsega, 195), in the Esquerra de l’Eixample, the name approved in July 2017 but still to be made official. ‘These are very costly operations, in both the private and public spheres. If it’s a public development and the administration has to devote a lot of money to the purchase, the land has to be bought and the operation executed. If it’s a private developer, it has to be a large-scale operation because it’s the developer who pays for the work in the block interior, which he then cedes to the City Council, who maintains it’, explains Elisenda Capera, Barcelona City Council’s director of licences and public space.
There are currently some 50 or so interior gardens open to the public in the Eixample. They are difficult to count and in the City Council the numbers vary. The concept of a garden set in a city block interior is difficult to pin down and although in theory it ought to have at least one side built up, some inventories also take into account open gardens, like the Parc de Joan Miró. Other compilations include school playgrounds in city block interiors, for use solely by the school, except for those schools that take part at weekends in the project Patis Oberts (Open Playgrounds).
The most up-to-date collection, which was closed at the end of 2017, is the one by the Globus Vermell architects’ collective. They have just published a guidebook called Jardins interiors d’illa de l’Eixample (‘Interior gardens in Eixample city blocks’), which can be bought for three euros, in which they also include those in the districts of Sant Martí, some in Sant Andreu and a couple located on the border with Gràcia. They do not include school playgrounds or public gardens, or the private gardens of restaurants that are open to the public, like the Bellavista Club, for example. All together, they count 77, of which 46 belong to the Eixample district, slightly less than the 48 its web site advertises. Of these 46, three are under construction.
At Barcelona City Council they do not give much importance to the numbers: ‘What we want are free green spaces, we don’t care whether they’re block interiors or not. When all’s said and done, we prefer to count everything: our aim is to have about 50 accessible spaces and a hundred green spaces’, explains Elisenda Capera.
Work in progress
As part of plans for city block interiors, there are currently several operations under way to recover new ones. The first garden planned for inauguration at the beginning of 2019 is the one at Casa Macaya (191, Carrer de Roger de Flor). At the moment, there is a small play area, but the City Council wants to recover the whole of the city block interior and manage it as a green zone. The demolition work will be starting soon.
Other projects under way will occupy old cinemas. This is the case of the Niza cinema in the Sagrada Família neighbourhood, which is currently being gutted and which has a building project with entrance and exit on Carrer del Rosselló and Plaça de la Sagrada Família. It is foreseen that the work will be completed by the end of 2019. The old Urgell cinema has already been demolished: the Bonpreu group are building a supermarket there with parking below and will lay out a garden on the roof, which it will cede to the City Council. The old Novedades cinema in Carrer de Casp is also being demolished to make way for a new city block interior, but these works, like the Urgell cinema, have a long timescale, around a year and a half.
At number 50, Carrer de Sepúlveda, a small space is being recovered that is currently known as the Favorita Gardens, as this is where the Favorita furniture store stood until its demolition in 2007. One project that has been held up is the CLIP block, surrounded by Carrer de Còrsega, Carrer de Lepant, Carrer de la Indústria and Carrer de Padilla, which includes eight premises on its ground floor. Three of them belong to the Council, purchased some time ago by Proeixample, but right now there is no private initiative interested nor public money to build.
All these projects are opportunities arising from private initiative which the administration has taken advantage of. It is therefore difficult to establish a recovery plan, as the Council depends on proposals coming from outside. As it is impossible to plan the gardens to be built, it means that projects like the ‘superblocks’, in which city block interiors could be used to connect the various blocks with pedestrian circuits, are difficult to put into practice.
‘The “superblock” can be in the street or in the traffic lane or you can make a connection going through the city block interiors; the idea has always been that these interiors should have entrances and exits. You go in one side and come out the other and, if you like, you can stop. They are also safer because there is more movement. If you manage that, you can make circuits, although we still need more and, especially, they need to coincide. In Sant Antoni there are several next to each other, but they have not got organised entrances and exits’, explains Elisenda Capera, who says that the connections with the ‘superblocks’ are one of the challenges facing the Council.
The target Proeixample set itself in its day was that the Eixample should have a garden every 200 metres – in other words, one block out of nine. ‘This is theory, because you never know where opportunities are going to turn up, but it does help to see where the shortages are. When you measure out those 200 metres, you gradually see that there are areas that are more empty, like the central area of the Esquerra de l’Eixample. This helps direct efforts, but you can never be sure what the result will be’, concludes Capera.
At the Esquerra de l’Eixample residents association, the interior gardens there are much appreciated, though they admit that if they have narrow entrances they are afraid to go in. ‘I don’t like going in, because I always imagine there’ll be someone there who might hurt me’, confesses Madrona Comas, a member of the association.
A wide range of forms and uses
The entrances to the interior gardens are very varied, both in form and typology. Mercè Tatjer explains as she analyses the interior of the Sebastià Gasch block (87, Carrer de Rocafort and 62, Carrer d’Entença): ‘The parcelling of the houses is very varied. Some preserve historical layouts and are at an angle, or else they project more than others into the block and create an irregular garden in the interior. This means that each garden can be different’. And they can also have a variety of uses. In the Eixample, some share the space with public facilities like libraries, playschools or social services centres. Others have ceded part of the land for urban allotments or are turned into swimming pools in summer. All of them, though, show the features arising from the three principles they share as pseudo-natural spaces, isolated from the great metropolis and its traffic and earmarked for leisure use: the presence of places to sit and rest, play and leisure areas for children and, above all, the intention that green should dominate, focused in a small area of garden or else broken up.
Visiting them also provides a chance to discover the names of women previously unheard of in the city. The City Council has chosen to give these gardens women’s names as a way of making up for the sparse 7% there are in the city as a whole, apart from the fact that not a single street in the Eixample is named after a woman. Women who have played a significant role in the city or the country are commemorated by giving them their own space. The last names to be approved were for the Jardins d’Assumpció Català, named after the first woman to get a PhD in Maths and Astronomy and officially inaugurated on 21 April 2018, and for the Jardins de Montserrat Figueras, a soprano specialising in early music. ‘Justice is being done, at last, because it seems that if you’ve been discrete and haven’t attracted attention no one takes you into account’, reflects Mercè Tatjer.
Isolation, rest and play in green
The route through the city block interiors begins with the city’s newest gardens, the Jardins de Montserrat Figueras in the Antiga Esquerra de l’Eixample, inaugurated in June 2016. A narrow passageway, the entrance and exit, leads us away from the traffic in Carrer de Còrsega and into an oasis. Full of trees and plants climbing up the walls, between the paths and around the areas for rest or play, the feeling of being in a small isolated space is stronger than ever.
But on Saturday morning the peace and quiet is shattered. Two birthday parties share the space of approximately 1,500 square metres. One of the parties is at the top of the park, behind the play area where climbing plants shroud the urban furnishings in restfulness. Some small tables are loaded with drinks and sandwiches, while the families share the space playing and talking. The other birthday party has been set up on one side of the park in a small projection. An entertainer makes animal shapes out of balloons, while trays full of coloured cupcakes wait for their big moment.
‘Normally there’s one birthday party a month. It’s quite a coincidence that there should be two today’, says Fidel, a resident of the block. ‘I live right here, but the noise doesn’t bother me. I’ve got children and it’s a privilege to be able to come and play so close to home’. As he speaks, he watches his young son playing with the sand that surrounds the play area and remembers the motorbike workshop that took up the whole of the interior before the remodelling, not so long ago. ‘The change has definitely been for the better’, he reckons.
Nine-year-old Carlota is resting on one of the benches surrounding the park while she holds on tight to her bicycle. ‘I like the park,’ she says shyly. Her father, though, admits he prefers other larger parks, like the Jardins de Beatriu Pinós-Milany, named after a Baroness who spread the works of Ramon Llull and only a three-minute walk away. The area around the Hospital Clínic has a high density of gardens on almost consecutive blocks. But not all the neighbourhood follows the same pattern. In the central area, between Carrer d’Aragó and Carrer de Mallorca, there are hardly any green spaces at all.
But it is not all hunky-dory
About 40 minutes away is the last garden but one to be built, the Jardins d’Anaïs Napoleon (155, Carrer de la Marina), in the Fort Pienc neighbourhood. By mid-afternoon it is full of boys and girls running around playing. Laid out like an Eixample flat with its rooms, it is reached by a passage that looks like a hall and which houses a small exhibition on Anaïs Napoleon, the first female professional photographer in Catalonia. The hall is a transit point leading to the kitchen, where three children are playing with a ball under the fruit trees, even though it is one of the many activities not allowed in this space. The same as shouting and making a noise.
‘A sign asking for silence. How can they? This place is for children!’ complains an angry Stefanie, who lives on the block and visits the garden every afternoon with her children. ‘Before, the courtyard was for residents’ use and they haven’t really accepted that it’s become public’, reflects Eugènia, who, accompanied by her four children, demands ‘larger’ green spaces in the city. The gardens have been controversial. Before they were opened to the public they were a private part of the property. They were not ceded at the time and when they finally were, forced by the City Council, the residents reacted with angry protests centred mainly on the noise. ‘One day the residents even threw eggs. Someone threw a tin at me’, explains Stefanie. They removed two games from the middle of the play area because they were made of metal on a wooden base and they made a noise. Unbelievable!’
Elisenda Capera points out the contradictions in the prohibitions. ‘City block interiors echo. I can understand the nuisance when people are trying to sleep and that’s why they’re closed at night. But they’re children, they run and shout. It’s not that this interior has more problems than others, it’s that some residents are over-sensitive’, she concludes.
On the terrace in the garden we find tables with chessboards drawn on them and little benches in the shade of the trees which are empty today. The rooms are the play areas, a space with swings and a sandpit. Climbing plants hang from the walls, imitating the nature which the rubber paving and the surrounding buildings contradict. The trees help to disguise this urban setting; sitting on a bench, all I can see are leaves and branches. Despite the noise of the children playing, the place is cut off from outside noise, a silence broken only by the sound of a ball and the calling of birds.
These gardens do not include any facilities, unlike other places that coexist with a range of services. This is the case of the gardens named after the popular singer and composer Càndida Pérez (44-46, Carrer del Comte Borrell), in Sant Antoni, which shares the space with a library and an old people’s centre. Entrance is by a wide passageway with a high ceiling which leads to the busy, five-storey Sant Antoni-Joan Oliver library.
All is quiet in the garden. It is half past seven and the only people there are an old couple with their granddaughter and two girls sitting on a bench. ‘We don’t often come to the garden, but it’s such a nice day we took advantage to do some work’, comments Helena, pointing to the computer on Marien’s lap. ‘I often come to the library for its comic section’, she confesses, as she glances at the letter of presentation she is getting ready to send to a business.
The door of the old people’s area in the inner courtyard opens and three women come out with a rose in their hand. They sit on the benches surrounding the children’s play area and the apparatus for physical exercise. ‘I used to be a dancer’, confesses Núria Soriano Módena laughing happily, and she makes it clear it is ‘Módena like the vinegar, not that I’m modern’. Dressed in a white jacket and matching skirt, her lips very red and dark glasses that make her look very modern, she tells me they have just been celebrating Saint George’s Day, with sandwiches and a dance. ‘I love this garden, it’s so quiet and pleasant, especially in summer, when the weather’s nice’.
A chimney stands out in the space, a memory of the sweet factory that used to occupy the courtyard. Although there are some trees, the garden is dominated by the ochre of the sand and the black of the iron on the walls, except for one corner full of climbing plants, a way of avoiding graffiti on the walls. Núria and her friends set off for home. A little while later the rest of the attendants at the Saint George’s Day dance follow them, crossing the courtyard with excited smiles.
The ‘Eixample beach’
To end my tour, I visit the Jardins de la Torre de les Aigües (56, Carrer de Roger Llúria), which in summer become a swimming pool known as the ‘Eixample beach’. It is still spring and halfway through the morning the place is taken up with tourists, mothers and babies and workers resting. The many trees distributed around the courtyard provide shade and a feeling of isolation.
‘I work very near here and I come every morning to switch off during my work break’, explains Andros, with a cigarette in one hand and in the other half a sandwich wrapped in silver paper. ‘It’s quiet today. Normally, the secondary students from the school come at breaktime and the courtyard fills up’.
Andros’s break ends and he heads back to the office. Roxanne sits down on a bench. She is on holiday and has rented an apartment very near the gardens; she found her way here by chance but she says it is very nice. Two teenagers are talking and sharing secrets, mobile in hand. A man comes in with his mobile in front of his eyes. He is nervous and does not stop pressing buttons as he slowly crosses the space, hardly aware of the ground he is walking on. The peace and quiet in the courtyard today is a far cry from the atmosphere there is in summer, when it is full of children shouting. You can even hear the birds as they move from tree to tree with a confidence they do not find in the rest of the city.
Hidden gardens not yet perverted by tourism, though they are beginning to get discovered, often by chance. Places to rest and disconnect from the sights and sounds of a city that advances headlong, taking with it the people who live there. A corner combining children’s play and leisure in spaces that often have green zones and promise the feeling of being in contact with a distant nature which, in the collective imaginary, represents life quality. In an area lacking in large green spaces, the city block interior gardens become a welcome replacement for that coveted nature far from the great metropolis.