The coastline restorers

No trace remains of a tourism complex that sat atop the spectacular cliffs at Tudela-Culip The result is an award-winning transformation

The cove of Cala Culip after the restoration process.
The cove of Cala Culip after the restoration process.PAU ARDÈVOL AND ROGER CASTELLÓN

There is no trace left of the 400 white bungalows that stood for four decades inside a Club Med holiday resort on the tip of a rocky cape in the Catalan province of Girona. Their existence has been erased by a restoration project that aims to set an example for a coastline that's been pounded by years of untrammeled development. The nature restoration job won the Rosa Barba European Landscape Prize at the 7th European Landscape Biennial, held late last month in Barcelona.

"The gods really outdid themselves here," say Martí Franch, a landscape architect, and Ton Ardèvol, an interior designer, about Tudela-Culip, located to the north of the natural park of Cap de Creus. Geologically speaking, this wind-blown tip of the Catalan coastline is one of the most spectacular natural places in Spain.

Right on this very spot, a Club Med holiday village was built in 1961. But Cap de Creus was eventually declared a natural park and the resort closed down in 2003. Afterwards, authorities decided to eliminate the remaining infrastructure through a deconstruction and restoration project carried out by an interdisciplinary team of 45 people led by Franch and Ardèvol. The largest nature restoration project ever conducted in the Mediterranean basin, it was a notable success that turned a private tract of land into a public asset, reflecting modern environmental concerns and a new awareness of natural heritage.

"Look at this photograph. And now look at this other one. As though by magic, what had been built has disappeared," explains the geologist Marta Puiguriguer. But this kind of magic is not witchcraft - it is art, and it is the work of a team obsessed with ensuring that "nothing will disturb the beauty of the landscape, which is an icon in itself."

Together with Puiguriguer, Franch and Ardèvol, we begin a 1.7-kilometer walk to this out-of-the-way spot. Where today one can enjoy views of capriciously shaped rocks, there used to be views of buildings. The stone camel, the eagle and the rhinoceros that provided the Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí with inspiration for The Great Masturbator are now back in full view in all their splendor. These rocks, as well as and other pegmatites and schists, have been molded by the wind over the course of millions of years, making the place an open-air laboratory that enables geologists to observe what happened 300 million years ago, 14 kilometers underground and at a temperature of 600 degrees Celsius.

"It is as though we had a window on what is currently taking place in some parts of the Earth's interior," says Puiguriguer.

The gods really outdid themselves here," say the landscape architects

To reach Tudela-Culip, one must leave the town of Cadaqués behind and turn left on the road leading to the lighthouse of Cap de Creus. Once there, it is very hard to imagine that there used to be 400 holiday homes here, not to mention restaurants, an amphitheater, a tennis court, a soccer pitch, a dock for boats and even a heliport. There is nearly no trace left of the complex created for France's middle classes at the height of Franco's regime by the architect Pelayo Martínez -- with the complicity of Salvador Dalí, who feared the destruction of the landscape. The building project was once considered a significant and much admired example of the modern Iberian architecture of the 1960s.

But the Club Med of Cadaqués started to languish. The holiday resort was used less and less, mostly because it became impossible to transform its original all-in-one model after the area was designated a protected habitat. First came the natural park designation in 1985, and later the integral natural reserve status. This meant that Club Med had no way of modernizing its facilities.

Two decades later, in 2005, with the economy in full swing, then-Environment Minister Cristina Narbona took the Coast Law to the limit in order to take back the Spanish coastline and turn it into a public space where Spaniards would enjoy free access to the water and no beachfront construction (in dramatic contrast to the plans which have now been approved by the conservative government of the Popular Party). The goal was to tear down illegal beachfront buildings and developments in order to return the shoreline to the citizens.

Tudela-Culip in Cap de Creus was a symbol of this endeavor due to its bewitching beauty and the size of the development there. So the ministry paid Club Med four million euros for its 200 hectares of land, and set about restoring 45 hectares to their original state. Part of the job included bringing back natural ecosystems -- the beach, the local fauna and flora (junipers and limonium) -- and giving the landscape a social use. Ultimately, the point was to move on from 4-S tourism (sun, sand, sea and sex) to landscape tourism, which also generates environmental and economic wealth.

Work began in July 2009 and ended 14 months later, in the middle of the economic crisis. The cost was seven million euros, paid for by the regional government of Catalonia. The team led by Franch and Ardèvol drew up an elaborate diagram showing how the deconstruction should be carried out. Their 35 files describe every last detail of the procedure, from the textiles needed to prevent the rubble from soiling the ground, to the small tools that would be used to chip away at the rock, sweep up the dust and vacuum it.

The concept of recycling was taken as far as it would go with regard to the 43,000 cubic meters of resulting rubble. Whatever material was autochthonous -- about a third of the total -- was reutilized on the spot. The rest was transported to the dry dock of Roses in trucks.

Martí Franch and Ton Ardèvol.
Martí Franch and Ton Ardèvol.

Just the non-native flora that was pulled out of the ground, such as dandelion -- spread over 90 hectares, the equivalent of 120 soccer fields -- generated a volume of discarded material similar to the volume of a four-story building. But the weeds were neither burnt nor taken elsewhere. Instead, they were allowed to dry out, and now serve as a cushion inside the gaping holes left behind by the buildings, which once stood on 4,000 cubic meters of slate platforms put there by Club Med.

The new team strategically restored a few of these foundations here and there. The largest ones are located in the former information point, which continues to serve that purpose, although now the information pertains to the geology, vegetation and cultural heritage of a landscape that has inspired many artists since ancient times. In order to write up their descriptions, the restoration team found their own inspiration in the writings of Catalan author Josep Pla.

"It is a tribute to what this place meant to many people, back when we used to dream of the freedom enjoyed by the clients of Club Med. It is also important to note that it was a very well-designed tourist complex that respected the environment," says Ton.

The team leaders' sensitivity to their surroundings is evident during the entire duration of the visit, which theoretically takes an hour to get there and an hour to return. In practice, it takes a whole lot longer if one is open to the bewitching nature of the spot. They themselves have made the journey hundreds of times.

"I think we covered 200 kilometers during our visits to the work site," recalls Ardèvol of a project that did not only take shape inside a studio, but also out in the open air. "Back at the office you see the volumes, but you are unable to perceive the textures or the horizon," adds Franch.

At one point during the walk, the itinerary changes visibly. The blacktop gives way to concrete that is dotted with the pink and white of the local rock, pegmatite. It is as though the rock had slipped down onto the road. Eliminating roads was also part of the restoration project, and there is only one left - the one showing the way to the cove of Cala Culip, where the lighthouse can be seen. This is the only beach where swimming is permitted. Before getting there, a lookout point where vacationers once did yoga now simply afford views of the island of Portaló, with the coast of France in the distance.

As though by magic, what had been built has now disappeared"

Information panels are kept to the bare minimum and they are well concealed along the path. "We tried to avoid visual impact as much as possible. We want people to focus on the rocks, the sea and the wind. We want to underscore the landscape, not the things in it," says Martí.

At the same time, they are trying to encourage visitors to take a moment to notice the double shapes of the rocks around them. That is why a few horizontal panels indicate where animal shapes are to be located: an eagle here, a rabbit there, a pair of monkeys and a pair of lovers further along...

Franch and Ardèvol are very concerned about the way the project is ageing. Two years after completion, the area is slowly returning to its original state. "Marta, just look at the way the junipers are growing, and the coixinets de monja [Erinacea anthyllis]!" "Hey, look at the beach, there's no trace left of the breakwater!"

This has been the first summer that the area opened up to visitors, who pay five euros per vehicle. But authorities have yet to fully figure out how to manage a place that has cost several years and 11 million euros to restore, ensuring it is fun and educational at the same time. The restorers, for their part, feel that "this is not just important because of the birds and the plants. It means better quality of life for the locals, without forgetting that it encourages a culture of nature, which is our new heritage."

If you look at any postcard, the main draw is always the landscape. The path that has been blazed in Cap de Creus posits the social right to a quality landscape and a quality environment, which is the exact opposite of what the current government's new coastal legislation has in mind. The restorers can't be that off course, considering the number of awards they've won. One recent gong came from the American Association of Landscape Artists, where it was the only European entry among the nine winners of an Honor Award. The jury's verdict was eloquent: "What could have become a banal nature restoration project evolves into an extraordinary landscape project through the attitude of the designers who skillfully construe and orchestrate the deconstruction as a combination of destruction and construction."

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