The best thing about Madrid’s Parque Europa is that it lies only a stone’s throw from one of Spain’s most important airbases. If Mr Putin or any of his equally humanity-challenged successors ever decide to drop the bomb on Torrejón de Ardoz airbase, with a bit of luck the Parque Europa will find itself so close to ground zero that any trace of it will be wiped clean from the archaeological record. As you may have guessed, a recent Sunday afternoon spent en famille in Parque Europa hasn’t left me particularly well disposed towards the place.
It would be kinder to say that Parque Europa is a paean to kitsch and ironic bad taste, that a mischievous someone with a highly developed sense of the post-modern and Warholian gave free reign to their imagination when setting blue pen to paper, but that would be to ascribe to the those behind the park’s concept a level of sophistication and deliberate thought clearly absent from the whole undertaking. However, that K-word (kitsch) does fly at one like a cheap, imitation, made-in-China sidewinder as one meanders through the park and peeps at its horrors from in between one’s fingers. Words such as tack, schlock and cringeworthy also fall on one like bird droppings as one bears reluctant witness to the bling aesthetics of the chav that hang over the place every bit as much as the reek of cheap oil from its plague of fast food outlets.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon stroll through the park, when my animus should have been high, humour positive and disposition one of contented benevolence, the Parque Europa instilled in me a sense of Weltschmerz, despair, near depression and hopelessness. Is this what we’ve come to? I asked myself. Is this the best we can do? Is this humanity at its best in the third millennium?
Why? You may ask.
Imagine you’re the mayor of a grim, industrial satellite town (Torrejón de Ardoz) which grew too fast during the economic miracle of the sixties. Your town suffers from poor planning and a lack of amenities. There’s a paucity of green areas — parks, football pitches, dog runs, cycle paths, etc. Heck, there’s a paucity of green. There’s a patch of waste ground outside the town (35 hectares/90 acres) and its begging for something to be done with it. What do you do? Do you aim for the sky and attempt the creation of a genuine thing of beauty — a park along classical lines with an arboretum, a maze, fountains, a rose garden, flowers, bulbs, aromatic plants, exotic specimens, statues, follies etc., etc.? Do you go all trendy and invite some famous French or American landscape artist to blow your mind with crisp and surprising lines and ideas? Do you decide to make an outdoor museum, something bold and educational? Or . . . do you turn the place into a cross between a Smurf village and Legoland? Because that’s what the Parque de Europa is.
Some bright spark thought of imbuing the new park that was to be built in Torrejón de Ardoz with the grand concept of Europe. The park was to be a celebration of the continent, and Spain’s place at the heart of it. Now, if someone asked me to design a park based on the concept of Europe I’d probably hang the thing on the shoulders of great European thinkers, writers, artists and scientists. There’d be little corners in homage to the likes of Erasmus, da Vinci, Yeats, Shakespeare, Hume, Cant, Pasteur, Bohr. There might be a Goethe Glen, a Copernicus Copse, a Flaubert Falls, a Newton Nook, a Mari Curie Cove. There would be sculpture, maybe plants from the figure in question’s home country, something didactic for the kids. But that’s me. I’ve read a bit. I know a bit of history. I see life as an opportunity to learn and grow.
What grand idea the designers of the Parque Europa hit upon was to base their homage to Europe on crappy models of famous European landmarks. And they didn’t think too hard about it. So, we have — guess what! — a mini Eifel Tower. A Brandenburg Gate. A Tower Bridge. Michelangelo’s David. A very badly executed and naff David, that looks like it belongs in the forecourt of a low-cost pizzeria chain rather than in a park of ambitious scope. It seems to have escaped the designers of the park that there are countries in Europe beyond France, Italy, England, Greece and Holland. Or maybe they just ran out of space after dotting the place with all those Dutch windmills? So, poor Estonia, Slovenia, Ireland, Russia, Croatia et al. don’t get a look-in.
Strangely enough, Spain does get a look-in. There are replicas of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor (the city’s main square) and Puerta de Alcala (its version of the Arc de Triomphe). Besides the fact that both models are horrendous eyesores — the Plaza Mayor seems to have been constructed from poured fibreglass blocks and the Puerta de Alcala’s plastic trimmings are looking a bit shook — one is again spurred to ask why? Why would you build a cheesy replica of monuments that can be found a thirty-minute drive down the road? Who in their right mind would want to gawp at a garishly coloured mini-Plaza Mayor when the real thing is so close?
The mystery of how the Parque Europa ever came into existence is only solvable if one accepts the premise that the park, although a public amenity owned by the people of Torrejón de Ardoz, is a moneymaking racket. In fact, as I walked around the park the word shakedown came constantly to mind. I have never been in a space — an outdoor space, please note — with so many vending machines. There are possibley more vending machines than windmills — and that’s saying something. As wells as this, at every turn there’s something to spend your money on: rowboats on the lake; hot dogs; ice-creams; bars; restaurants; an assault course (yes, a park dedicated to Europe has an assault course); merry-go-rounds; archery; and those plastic sphere things you stand in and tread water with. So all the kitsch is merely a ploy to get families in the gate. Once the kiddies see the rowboats and the giant zip line you’ll be throwing those euros around like snuff at a wake. The park should be renamed Parque Euros!
In a way, you have to credit Torrejón de Ardoz’s town hall. They’ve given their town a large functional space where before there was none, and generated revenue for the its coffers. It’s just such a pity the whole thing is so crass. All sniping aside, I really did feel bad after my jaunt around Parque Europa. I was sad that so many people (the park was packed) had nothing better to do with their Sunday than plod around a mundane (in terms of landscaping and planting) park whose only dubious attraction and USP is a series of plasticky and “off” replicas of famous monuments — while sucking on smoothies from the vending machines, of course. Couldn’t we all have been out in the mountains being wowed by something beautiful and real? Or in one of Madrid’s excellent art galleries or museums? Or even in the real Plaza Major, where at least the buildings are made of stone and the pickpockets add that frisson of real life?