Valencia’s Parque Central
Jeremy Melvin, 17 September 2019
A sultry early evening during the high southern Spanish summer. Valencia’s Parque Central, the first 11.5 ha phase of a 23ha park on former railway tracks which took a convoluted route into the city’s main station. It is warm, slightly sweaty and with that close, mildly soporific effect that warm, humid weather contributes more to than anything other than the largest amounts of lunchtime wine. But the park, and the activities of its occupants, speak of pleasure and delight, and moreover pleasure and delight that could mitigate the effects of the atmospheric conditions.
Aerial of Parque Central and wider Valencia (c) Zeppelin
Phase 1 of Parque Central 11.5 hectares (c) Gustafson Porter + Bowman
It is divided into six multi-layered zones – ‘bowls’, as landscape architects Gustafson Porter + Bowman call them – with distinctly different characters, and sculpted from the ground across varying levels of excavation and infill. One is the water garden, where jets spout like geysers out of a granite ground, soaking and cooling children from tots to teenagers. Another is specifically for children who can glide into it on a slide, though their carers may prefer the plaza for culture making use of existing buildings, and a garden to induce and satisfy romantic feelings.
Kathryn Gustafson's concept sketch showing the interconnected bowls sculpted into the ground (c) Kathryn Gustafson
The main Panderola Fountain on a hot day(c) Richard Bloom
Nighttime view of the Panderola Fountain (c) Richard Bloom
So this is a park with big ambitions: rather like English picturesque landscape gardens it aims to speak via sensations to the emotions, but unlike those private estates it is intended to appeal to all social groups, rich and poor, young and old in this large, dense city – and to speak without their needing to have some knowledge of literary theory.
It is not the first time that Valencia has demonstrated its ambitions on a grand scale. After a flood in 1957 it diverted the River Turia, which snaked through the city centre into the port, leaving something like the glacis which so many European cities turned from fortifications into the home of public institutions in the second half of the 19th century (of which Vienna’s Ringstrasse was the pace setter). In Valencia its riverbed became a public promenade, a large sliver of open space which relieved its densely-monumented core.
The central promenade through the park (c) Richard Bloom
In the 1990s, part of the riverbed was designated for the City of Arts and Sciences, a series of giant structures designed by Santiago Calatrava – his crass and crude zoomorphic forms being a perfect architectural analogue for the simplistic conceit of the title. With costs rising to almost three times its original budget at nearly 1bn Euros, it has become a financial burden to the city. After this gigantism, Parque Central’s sensitivity to people and their feelings is a relief, and with the first phase coming in at 16m Euros, it is also a fraction of the cost. The city was still thinking ambitiously, inviting Rogers Stirk Harbour, Zaha Hadid, Foreign Office Architects and West 8 to compete against GP+B, with Valencia’s mayor Rita Barbera announcing the result in January 2012.
Unlike Calatrava, whose inspiration seems to come from an urge to take irrational liberties with bending moments, GP+B look to local culture and tradition. Founded by the Romans in 138 BC, Valencia is Spain’s third largest city, and has twice briefly served as its capital, under the usurper Joseph Bonaparte in the early 19th century, and again for the Spanish Republic during the Civil War. Its port is the busiest container harbour on the Mediterranean, with agricultural and food products being a large component of its export trade.
Much of the base for this economic activity comes from a wide belt of fertile land which rings the city. Commercial agriculture here dates back to the Romans, whose colonies in Spain fed the empire with goods like wine and olive oil. The Muslims, rulers of the city from the 8th to 15th centuries, strengthened its agricultural sector by, as was often the case, improving irrigation. This naturally led to inventive cuisine. Paella originated in Valencia, black rice abounds and there are several local varieties of tapas, as well as fartons, a type of sweet confectionery.
GP+B’s design brings together and distils many of these local geographic and horticultural features into a hybrid but coherent vision. Water is perhaps the starting point, as they like to cite the poem, ‘Aigua plena de seny’ (Water full of wisdom) by the Valencian writer Ausias March. The ‘wisdom’ of water is present throughout in various forms, tracing and revealing the ground surface, flowing, squirting and still, with its subtle sounds and ephemeral reflections. They also use the local Calatorao limestone alongside marble and granite.
But the primary effect comes from plants: 1000 trees, 85,000 bushes and 70 species of herbs, all native to the area. These are allocated to fit the themes of the different ‘bowls’, which are grouped into an essentially triangular site in the Russafa district of the city, where bars cafes and boutique shops are spawning. Along the western edge of the first phase are the rail tracks, which will be rerouted and buried under subsequent phases.
This industrial past informs the park. The south plaza most explicitly recalls its origins in railway usage, with lights and projections that give a sense of movement and speed. The retained buildings have industrial, workshop and rail-related origins. Most lie on the north-eastern edge, where they define an entrance plaza, and house a university centre and sports facility, which, on its other side faces the water fountains. Old buildings pop up in other places, providing offices and stores for the park. They also recall the landscape around Valencia, where small farmhouses were surrounded by relatively small plots that provided enough food for a whole family.
Between the water feature in the north and the sound plaza runs a promenade. Lined by jacarandas, it leads directly to most of the park’s zones, the orchard, children’s and flower gardens to the east, the amphitheatre, Mediterranean and perfume garden to the west. The orchard, a sculpted bowl partially ringed by a retaining wall, has plants which produce edible fruits and nuts, including apricots, oranges, almonds and pistachios. Also represented are plants which contributed to Valencia’s medicinal heritage, such as aloe vera.
A green wall shapes the orchard garden, seven months after planting. (c) Richard Bloom
Leading from here to the flower garden is a curving steel pergola, a frame for climbing plants like clematis and wisteria which will provide shade for visitors, and along with the Spanish roses at the base, a changing kaleidoscope of colour. Like the orchard it has a varying series of levels which offer opportunities for picnicking.
The Flower Garden (c) Richard Bloom
View from the Flower Garden, framed by a restored trins ehd (c) Richard Bloom
View from Flower Garden (c) Richard Bloom
Beyond these is the romantic garden where you can luxuriate in the colours of magnolia, irises and daisies, the scents of jasmine, rosemary, thyme and honeysuckle (on the retaining walls which divide it from the orchard and children’s garden), and the textures of sedums and grasses.
The Romantic Garden (c) Richard Bloom
The children’s garden offers analogous delights for its intended uses, including climbing walls, slides and another interactive water feature. Framed to the north and east by the retaining wall, it flows westwards over the promenade to the Mediterranean garden (more water features, including what seems to be adopted as a paddling pool). Moving along the promenade leads to the amphitheatre, a large, mainly open space which will become even larger when it expands over the railway. Tucked between it and the main water fountains is the perfume garden, a quieter, more contemplative place where scents from across the Mediterranean appeal to people with limited mobility and sight.
Views towards Children's Garden. The white house in the distance is a survivor of the buildings on the site. (c) Richard Bloom
Refurbished Ruzafa Train Shed in the Orchard Garden (c) Richard Bloom
Refurbished Malilla Train Shed (c) Richard Bloom
It is hard to think of a contemporary design which uses senses so imaginatively to invoke so wide a range of emotions, physical conditions and states of mind. It may be necessary to go back to the great allegorical ensembles of the Renaissance for anything similar. Here, one can feed the brain and the body, through ideas (in the university centre), sight, smell, touch, taste and sound. That alone is a remarkable achievement, but to do it without preaching the environmental credentials of landscape, biodiversity and local food production, while also serving a deep social need for outdoor recreation space makes it even more so. This subtlety is far more likely to inculcate those important messages than the adoption of a didactic tone.