The Secret Garden of Nek Chand

We had an evening in Chandigarh before we left for the Falachan valley. On the road from Delhi we talked of what we could see. Although I’d been to the city on work before, I’d seen nothing of it. So, when The Family said she wanted to see Nek Chand’s rock garden, I was happy to go along with the idea. The Young Niece had been there, done that, on a school trip earlier in the year, and she agreed that it was a wonderful place to go back to.

Nek Chand’s story is fascinating. An untaught artist, he atarted creating a dream world exactly sixty years ago, illegally on land which belonged to the city. About fifteen years later, it was discovered, and the works would have been destroyed, had it not caught the imagination of the residents of the city. It remained as a project caught in a limbo between official acceptance and resentment, until the mid 1990s, when a trust was formed to take care of this art project.

“Rock garden” is an inadequate description of this sprawling open art work. I thought of it as an imagined land. Partly landscaped waters and pavilions, partly peopled with fantastic beasts and people made from broken tiles, bangles and other scavenged materials. There were parts of this land which seemed completely abstract, for example the wall made with broken electrical fittings from the 50s. I thought that the nearest thing to this that I’d seen before were Gaudi’s works. This was partly accidental, because Nek Chand’s artistic vision was shaped by nature. But it was also partly because of the medium used: the use of trencadis, for example. The short time we spent here seemed inadequate, and we plan to be back on a longer trip to Chandigarh.

Trencadis in the Park

Breaking up ceramic tiles into pieces and using them in a mosaic is called trencadis. You can see this in many parts of Barcelona, but my favourite collection of trencadis is Gaudi’s work inside the Park Guell. All the photos here come from this place. Gaudi assembled the pieces from discarded tiles and broken pottery. You can see that Gaudi’s style of architecture with its dearth of straight lines was unable to use the usual rectangular tiles, and so was forced in this interesting direction.

Park Guell: Trencadis covered spire

We’d reached Barcelona late in the morning, and decided to go off to Park Guell after lunch. Not a great decision on a burning hot day, since there is a bit of a climb from the nearest metro station. For the last four years one needs tickets to get into this municipal park! Unless you have thought ahead to buying them, you could be in for a surprise. On this hot afternoon tickets were sold out five hours in advance. The ticket allows you in to all the parts of the park which have Gaudi’s work, including his wonderful tiles.

Parc Guell: Tencadis on the main terrace

Apart from the buildings at the entrance, and his famous lizard-dragon (vandalized in 2007 and restored quickly after), the main trencadis work is on the main terrace. You can see this in the photo above. One of the interesting things about this style is that the component tiles are used only as tesserae in a mosaic, Parc Guell: detail of trencadisand the original design on the tiles has nothing to do with the pattern that emerges. A closer look at the details (see photo alongside) will tell you how that happens. Work of this kind requires an artist. That’s one of the reasons that the modernist art movements of the early twentieth century never took over the world. The machines of the time could not build this. It also turned out that the buildings which Gaudi designed were not a big draw for the paying public: now you can see about three of them in Barcelona, and one was the house where he himself lived.

Bird of Passeig

My visit to Barcelona was so short that I walked on the famous shopping street of Passeig de Gracia only once. It was incredibly hot, in the upper thirties. As I waited for a traffic light to change, I noticed this wonderful wrought-iron lamp-post next to me. Below it was a bench decorated with the irregular ceramic mosaic called trencadis in Catalan. Was it by Gaudi? The bench could have been, but I thought the iron-work didn’t look like his style.

Later I found that the design of the whole ensemble, bench and lamp, is due to another Catalan architect, namely Pere Falques i Urupi. He is the man responsible for the current open look of the Placa de Catalunya, by clearing up, in 1889, the hodge-podge of buildings which had accumulated there. Falques was a municipal architect from 1888 to 1914. His lamp posts on Passeig de Gracia were installed in 1916. The iron-work was done in the workshop of another famous Barcelona modernist: Manuel Ballarin i Lancuentra, who was Falques’ brother-in-law.

In one of the world’s first smart-cities, this hundred year old lamp-post seems to be a relic. Next to it you can see a modern lamp-post with LED lights. If you look carefully at that post you can see a box which contains a communications hub for traffic and pedestrian sensors on the road.