Giant Gulliver stands the test of time

The unusual 67-meter-long figure in Valencia is celebrating its 25th anniversary

This giant Gulliver figure in Valencia’s Turia Garden has just turned 25 years old.
This giant Gulliver figure in Valencia’s Turia Garden has just turned 25 years old.

It’s afternoon in Valencia. It’s been hot as hell and now it’s drizzling. But rain or shine, the 67-meter-long and nine-meter-high statue of Gulliver that lies in the former Turia riverbed is crawling with children, some walking across his head and others whooshing down the gigantic slides that have been worked into the folds of his clothes – in much the same way as the tiny inhabitants of the country of Lilliput did in Jonathan Swift’s satirical novel, Gulliver’s Travels, after tying the “giant” Gulliver to the ground.

“We’ve been to a lot of places, but we’ve never seen anything like this,” says Miriam Grailhe, a French tourist whose children are aged two and 14. “It’s very original.”

Children climbing on Gulliver.
Children climbing on Gulliver.JOSÉ JORDÁN

Valencia’s Gulliver has just been chosen by the Design Museum Boston as one of the most extraordinary playgrounds on the planet. Not only that, it has been a guaranteed success with kids since it was created 25 years ago.

The sculpted play space was the brainchild of architect Rafael Rivera who worked with Manolo Martín, a specialist in folkloric “Fallas” art, and Sento Llobel, an artist from the so-called Valencian New School whose illustrations have been included in the first exhibition of comics from the Valencia Institute of Modern Art (IVAM).

“Our idea was to create a fun place that would bring different play elements together instead of having them scattered around,” says Rivera, who was commissioned by the city to create an innovative play area.

“When they handed the project over to me, they had already tried to do something more realistic,” recalls Llobel. “But to simply have a man laid out seemed a bit grim, as if someone had died. He needed a touch of fantasy – a more man-made look.”

Llobel bought all the illustrated copies of Gulliver’s Travels and films he could lay his hands on. “In the end, I was like, ‘This is no use to me. I’m going to have to actually invent something.’ And after researching the fashions of the era, that’s what I did.”

Childproof and durable, Llobel’s Gulliver has proved “a space that offers children a unique experience,” according to Elisabet Quintana, landscape architect and member of the dePaisea editorial team – a publication that assesses children’s play zones. “The approach to this kind of thing is generally standardized with the odd exception. The same thing is put up in natural parks and squares and by the beach,” she says.

One of Gulliver's slides
One of Gulliver's slidesJOSÉ JORDÁN

Quintana draws attention to the educational element of Gulliver that encompasses not only the allusion to Swift’s novel, which was written in 1726, but also the inspiration taken from the Fallas monuments – the huge papier mâché effigies that are set alight each year in Valencia at the end of the city’s fiestas.

Of course, such a venture proved more costly than a standard children’s park, and local authorities balked at spending the required €1.2 million at the end of the 1980s after the City of Arts and Sciences further down the Turia riverbed had put them €1 billion over budget. In the event, the statue’s construction didn’t get underway until the Valencian authorities came up with the cash in response to bids from Seville (for the 1992 Expo) and Barcelona (for the Olympics) for the figure.

But while it cost more than the average children’s park to erect, access is free, which is one of the keys to its success. It means that children from all walks of life come together to play on it. “It has the value of any public area,” says Rivera. “It is one of those places where the city breathes and weaves people together.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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