In the Ciutadella Park there is a spot where visitors can walk among plants which usually grow in tropical and subtropical forests, without even leaving Barcelona. The Umbracle is a 128 year old building which is home to plants originating from twenty different countries in four continents. Stepping inside and taking a seat on one of its cast-iron benches means a chance to escape the hustle and bustle outside.
Josep Fontserè’s project for a public park for the city to regain the site where a military citadel had stood for almost a century and a half, built by Felip V to control Barcelona, made provision for a scientific and museum programme with various buildings and sculptures. Not everything planned originally was carried out, but some of the buildings did get built. One of them is the Umbracle, designed by Fontserè himself.
The Ciutadella Park has been a historical-artistic monument since 1951. The site was actually planned rather like a grand museum, although not everything was completed. An example is the well-known woolly mammoth sculpture, which is the only life sized reproduction of an extinct animal out of several that Junta de Ciències Naturals [natural science board] wanted to put up in the park. What did get built was the Museu Martorell de Geologia, the Hivernacle and the Umbracle. All three buildings are jointly located on the side of the park which gives onto Passeig Picasso. The museum building is in the middle, flanked by the Hivernacle on the side facing the mountains and the Umbracle on the side facing the sea and the zoo area.
The Umbracle was built between 1883 and 1887 by Josep Amargós, based on a project by Josep Fontserè. Shortly afterwards however, in readiness for the 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition, which saw the park as a focal point for the event, it was turned into a hall for parties and conferences. When the event came to an end, the same Josep Amartgós, then under the guidance of Elies Rogent, restored the building’s original appearance and purpose.
According to the dictionary definition, an umbracle is ‘a place which allows ventilation, and shelter from direct sunlight for the plants which are inside’. That is exactly what the structure in the Ciutadella Park is. A wide variety of plants grow inside which belong to tropical and subtropical forests and thrive in the shade provided by huge trees.
The structure of the Umbracle uses cast-iron pillars and curved iron beams which join iron girders. The roof consists of five arcades with horizontal wooden slats giving them form. The central arcade is the biggest and highest, and is flanked by two lower arcades on each side, the outer of which is lower again. The structure creates a mix of light and shade which quite accurately recreates the forest conditions where these plant species would be found. A look at the plants inside clearly shows they thrive here and the building achieves what it was originally intended for.
Among the plants in the Umbracle there are several well-known varieties, such as hydrangeas, kentia palms, gardenias and small ficus trees (Ficus benjamina).Other familiar but less common varieties include alocasias and chasmanthes or ‘Adam’s rib’ plants. Less common still are Indian banyans, arecaceae, wax palms and winter jasmine. Both the common and the uncommon plant varieties in the Umbracle are generally quite large and going inside the sensation is a lush and leafy one. The climate inside is quite different as it is calmer and somewhat removed from the hustle and bustle which fills the park beyond the building’s four walls.
The interior is organised with a central flower-bed and another along the four walls. The central walkway is wide enough for an easy stroll and there are a number of benches for visitors to sit and calmly appreciate plants which originate from Asia, Africa, America and Oceania, from countries such as Japan, China, Mongolia, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, India, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica and Australia.