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Volume 42, Number 5September/October 1991

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Days in the Gardens of Spain

Written by Donald Scurr
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

August in Granada: A long, limp line of tourists shuffles lethargically toward the high entrance gates of the Palace of the Alham-bra. Except for the black-garbed seiiora at the pay booth and a single, bored Guardia Civil, there is not a Spaniard to be seen. Prudent locals stay inside their cool houses and offices at midday in high summer, flooding forth only at dusk to resume the vivacious street life of southern Spain.

Noel Coward was wrong. Not only mad dogs and Englishmen, but also, evidently, Frenchmen and Germans, Japanese, Americans and Danes are all willing to venture out in the noonday sun.

The afternoon wears on; so do our spirits. Sticky, panting and exhausted, we approach the gate, our fractious children called to order by a chorus of parental voices making similar threats in a dozen different tongues.

At last we pass through the entrance into a cool, dappled world of shady trees, screened from the sun's glare by moist foliage and soothed by the sound of running water. With relish, we note a remarkable drop in the temperature: There's a difference of about 17 degrees Centigrade (30°F) between this inner courtyard and the outer one where we waited in sweaty discomfort. The relief is magical - but what's the explanation?

Can the transformation be natural? Is it some secret of the gardener's art? And who were the gardener-wizards who subdued the strength of the sun itself?

The beauty of alabaster, the slenderness of marble pillars and the two-colored stone of the arches in the palace's dark interior reveal the answer: The Alhambra and its gardens were built by the Arabs who ruled and populated this part of Spain for 800 years, and whose civilization flowered here as nowhere else since 1492. Their arts embraced not only the creation of exquisite architecture but also the talents of Arab gardeners, masters at providing relief from inhospitable climates.

It is precisely this blissful escape from a relentless sun, just as harsh in today's Spain as it was 500 years ago, that planners of EXPO '92 hope to recreate next year when that event is staged in nearby Seville.

The organizers of that great "Universal Exposition" - only the third held in the last half-century - expect a daily attendance of over a quarter of a million visitors throughout the summer months, all occupying an area the size of a few city blocks. For them, the planners aim to weave the same environmental spell that artful Moorish designers did between six and seven centuries ago in the enchanting Generalife pleasure gardens of the Alhambra (known to the Arabs as Jannat al-'Arif).

It was Spain's Arab rulers who introduced the art of water gardening to Granada - the art that used the desert-dweller's supreme luxury to devise a refreshing private retreat in the midst of baking heat. When the Arabs arrived in Spain, they brought with them the skills to recreate such gardens, mingling trees and shrubs with water courses, fountains and cascades. There, one could enter a world where streams murmured into pools of sparkling water - pools lined with blue ceramics to increase their apparent depth - to soothe the body and refresh the spirit.

It has been estimated that during the Arabs' dominion in Spain there were 50,000 villas with water gardens in the Seville district alone. The gardens offered irrigation for the diversity of plants that the Arabs loved. Flowers, fruits and vegetables were mixed without inhibition; the Arab gardener saw beauty equally in onion or bougainvillea, artichoke or jaca-randa. Aquatic plants and animals were cultivated where sheets of still water captured glints of light. These were serene places, free from the tyranny of the sun's glare - and they are part of the heritage and the soul of Spain today.

The modern Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, a poet from and of Granada, wrote such lines as

"Green I love you green.

Green wind. Green boughs."

And the music of Spain - of Albeniz, de Falla and Granados - often recalls the sound of lapping water, or the sight of reflective sheets of water strummed momentarily by a gentle breeze.

When King Juan Carlos formally opens EXPO '92 - or to give it its full name, The Universal Exposition Seville 1992 - on April 20, he will be welcoming the first freshet of a predicted tidal wave of 36 million visits by over 18 million guests. The exposition, with its 120 international pavilions on the 251-hectare (620-acre) site, its auditoria and overhead transit system, will surely be breathtaking - but not because of an overheated and exhausting atmosphere.

The vast crowds will be able to breathe easily, relaxing in the same relatively cool environment that gives so much comfort in the tempered conditions of the Alham-bra Gardens. Servando Alvarez, of the Department of Fluid Mechanics and Energy Engineering in the School of Thermal Engineering at Seville University, outlined the solution. He explained that his scientists, working with expert landscap-ers, hope to create a "microclimate" extending over the outside walkways, parks and gardens of the exposition. And in resurrecting skills of their Arab predecessors, linked to tomorrow's technology, his team may help bring about a renaissance of the traditional water garden in landscaping projects worldwide - "from humble domestic gardens to more ambitious schemes for great parks and estates," Alvarez hopes.

The year 1992 will be a momentous one for Spain. It will see the completion of Spain's six-year integration into the European Economic Community, the opening of the Olympic Games in Barcelona, Madrid's turn as European Cultural Capital for the year, and, climactically, the commemoration of a seminal event in world history - the 500th anniversary of Co-lumbus's voyage that led to the discovery of America - that was planned and prepared in Seville: on the very site of EXPO '92.

The Universal Exposition at Seville will last 176 days, till October 12, the actual date of Columbus's landfall in the New World. Its theme will be "The Age of Discovery," referring to discoveries in all fields of human endeavor from the 15th century to the present day and on into the 21st century. Over 80 nations will take part, and an estimated five billion dollars will be spent on improving Seville's infrastructure and communications network. In addition, nearly $480 million is being invested in exposition site preparation alone, and these figures don't include substantial non-governmental spending.

At the core of these plans is an ambitious scheme to divert the course of the Guadalquivir river, known to the Arabs of Andalusia as al-Wadi al-Kabir, on which the city stands. For over 200 years after Columbus's first expedition, the river gave access to the Atlantic and prosperity to Seville. With its inland port and Casa de Contratacion, an official exchange founded by Queen Isabella I to encourage and control all trade with America, Seville relied on the Guadalquivir to provide a vital outlet for expeditions to the New World - including those of Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci, who sailed from the city to prove that Columbus's discoveries were not the Indies or China but a new continent, and of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who set out to circumnavigate the earth. Treasure from Spain's American possessions flowed through the port: spices, jewels, gold and silver, creating such wealth that Seville was called "the richest city in the known world."

But when the Guadalquivir silted up in 1717, Seville's golden trade with America dried up too; the exchange concession was transferred to Cadiz, on the Atlantic coast, and Seville's long economic decline began. This year, in a reversal symbolic of Seville's renaissance, the Guadalquivir is to be returned to its original course.

Between two branches of the river lies the island of La Cartuja, named after a 14th-century Carthusian monastery where Columbus often stayed and where he was buried for 27 years. Following a period when it was used as a busy atrabel, or Arab market, the island - although close to the heart of Seville - has remained largely inaccessible, constantly flooded by the wayward Guadalquivir, occupied by the monastery of Las Cuevas (The Caves), in which Columbus actually planned his first expedition, and later used as a center for the production of ceramics. La Cartuja will be the site of EXPO '92, and the exposition's legacy to the citizens of Seville will be the island reclaimed for their enjoyment. A main railway line and extensive sidings will be relocated in order to provide an unspoiled view of the old monastery, restored and converted into a royal pavilion. Five new bridges will allow visitors to walk across the river from the city center to the exposition, which will offer no fewer than 113 restaurants, 105 shops, 13 entertainment areas and a network of elegant plazas. And integrated with the scores of pavilions and displays will be 180 hectares (448 acres) of gardens planted with a total of 300,000 plants and shrubs, as well as nearly 60,000 mature trees.

People will be able to stroll through agreeably shaded pedestrian ways, flanked by 50 kilometers (30 miles) of hedges, past fountains, waterfalls, flowing channels and the bright surface of a 16-hectare (40-acre) lake mirroring the sky. Aside from the natural enchantment of this profusion of plantings - jacaranda and thorn, maple and olive blending with poplar and oak, orange and California pepper - the vegetation will fulfill the same role as was conceived by the creators of Spain's Arab gardens. The tree and shrub formations will combine with the flow and play of water to condition the air by absorbing the sun's energy. Leaves will permit water evaporation to cool the air and increase humidity from 20 or 30 percent to between 50 and 60 percent.

Combined with a welcome reduction in temperature of perhaps as much as 22 degrees Centigrade (40°F), this modification in humidity over the whole 251-hectare (620-acre) site justifies the description "microclimate," surpassing even the accomplishments of the Arabs in their cool, fragrant gardens. To augment traditional techniques, Seville University's experts have experimented with buried pipes, "cold" pavement and scientifically devised vegetation shelters. Their stated aim is "not only to improve the natural climate conditions of La Cartuja island to make a stay in the area more attractive, but also to make the microclimate surroundings favor social communication among the participants."

The Spanish government, both at the national and local levels, sees EXPO '92 as a means of re-establishing Seville and Andalusia as the dominant industrial and commercial center of the western Mediterranean in the next century - thus commemorating the quincentenary of Columbus's voyage in the same spirit of enterprise that guided him. In this context, the goal of fostering social communication is crucial.

The solutions proposed by Seville University, which include natural resources of shade, water and vegetation linked to innovations like computer analysis of thermal conditioning and protection from solar radiation, have been tested in an experimental area on La Cartuja island. The space devoted to these tests incorporates a number of cooling methods along with instruments that measure and evaluate their performance. Canopies, awnings and pergolas are included as well as more technical methods, for the Sevillanos have centuries of experience at dealing with the long and extreme Andalusian summers.

Although the scientists concede that the thermal comfort they want to achieve will not be the same as that of air-conditioned interior spaces, they do claim that the open spaces of the exposition will offer a noticeable and welcome improvement over the general environment.

To attain this peaceful contrast with the heated, feverish atmosphere of the outside world was the primary objective of Arab and Muslim gardeners, who believed that, in a garden, people should be free to relax in open spaces which, despite being exposed to intense heat, gratify their eyes, ears and sense of well-being. This philosophy was imaginatively expressed during the Islamic world's greatest period of garden-making in the 14th century, when the names of 11 royal gardens were recorded near Samarkand in the time of the conqueror Timur (Tamerlane), and there were probably many others belonging to his nobles.

Historian D.E Clifford has described the extensive Timurid gardens and their derivatives, the Mogul gardens of India, as being "pleasances of water, meadow, trees and flowers, in which buildings took a subordinate place. Although these garden buildings were permanent, their subordinate role and the lightness and luxuriating frivolity of their design mark them as heirs of the casually positioned tents seasonally erected in hunting parks. Trees were planted sometimes in regular quincuncial patterns (one in the middle and one at each corner of a square or rectangle) but more often freely. In all types of Islamic gardens, flowers were lavishly used. Their presence was even simulated in garden carpets and in the woven hangings that were used as temporary screens."

The elegant architecture of EXPO '92's pavilions, restaurants, administrative buildings and other structures will work in harmony to rival the environments of the most splendidly efficient Islamic gardens. Blending with extensive afforestation, the buildings, walkways and transportation facilities will be positioned to ensure that drafts of cool air play past angled walls and corners. These breezes, wafting along pedestrian routes, will be encouraged by the layout of the exposition and should interact with computer-controlled water-flows to reduce temperatures and hence create the desired microclimate.

Below ground, a dense network of fiberoptic cables is being laid to carry the voice, data and television signals that EXPO '92 will generate. When the exposition closes, with the last of a series of spectacular sound-and-light shows to celebrate both its climax and the anniversary of Co-lumbus's landfall, these installations will remain behind to serve the high-technology city planned for the site. University faculties, research institutes and laboratories are already committed to moving in during 1993. And the old city of Seville, now blessed with an access to La Cartuja so long* denied, will benefit from the construction program, which will provide one of the most advanced urban and inter-urban communication networks in the whole of Spain. With an Andalusian regional development plan to provide grants and tax advantages to attract further investment and encourage the creation of new business - matched by an already advanced schedule to renovate and refurbish many of the city's historic buildings - Seville is poised to take what EXPO '92's original commissioner general, Manuel Olivencia, described as "a giant stride into the economic promise of the 21st century."

But economics is only part of the plan, Olivencia explained. "We also have to restore the heritage of this region and to lay the groundwork for its future. A Universal Exposition is an entertainment, but it also creates shock waves that act on the scientific, cultural and educational aspects of society. It can impact inter-European and Ibero-American relations and it affects Spain's role in international affairs. Our ultimate aim is to contribute to simple but elusive concepts such as understanding, solidarity and peace."

So the physical greening of the site of EXPO '92 - the wealth of trees and vegetation, the cool fountains and lakes - will create a remarkable environmental microclimate which may contribute to the creation of an economic macroclimate whose result is a "greening" of another, greater kind. Spain's Arab rulers of a half-millennium ago, who presided over eight centuries of prosperity, peace and culture, would have understood and approved. So will exposition visitors in the heat of next August in Seville.

Donald Scurr is a London-based free-lance journalist with a great affection for Spain.

This article appeared on pages 42-48 of the September/October 1991 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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