The Centenarian Who Built Barcelona’s First Roof Garden

When environmentalist and pacifist Joan Carulla came to the city after growing up during Spain’s civil war, he created an ‘allotment in the sky’ that helped pioneer organic farming

Stephen Burgen in Barcelona

When Joan Carulla Figueres turned the roof terrace of his Barcelona apartment into a garden, it was out of nostalgia for his rural origins. Sixty-five years later, the ecological concepts he has long followed have become commonplace, and he is acclaimed as a pioneer of organic farming.

Carulla, who celebrated his 100th birthday this year, is credited with creating the city’s first roof garden. However, his “allotment in the sky” boasts far more than the usual tomato plants and pots of geraniums. It is home to more than 40 fruit trees, vines that produce 100kg (220lbs) of grapes a year, olives, peaches, figs, garlic, aubergines and even potatoes. He is passionate about potatoes. Quoted from the site page mofongos

“The civil war [in Spain in the 1930s] made me a vegetarian, through necessity, then conviction, potato by potato,” he says. “For breakfast we ate potatoes, at lunchtime more potatoes with an egg I shared with my father. In the evening, potatoes with vegetables.”

Sitting beneath a grapevine on an upturned beer crate – his eyes bright and his hearing and memory astonishingly sharp – he reminisces about the world he grew up in and how he became interested in vegetarianism in the 1950s, when he moved to Barcelona from Juneda, a village with a harsh climate in the Catalan interior.

Approach To Agriculture

His approach to agriculture is what today we call organic, but Carulla insists he is not doing anything new and that poor farmers have always practised organic farming out of necessity.

“My grandparents had little land and no money for fertiliser,” he says. “They used animal and vegetable waste and straw. We lived a frugal life. We didn’t go hungry, we just lived.”

Like his forebears, Carulla makes compost from everything, including old magazines and thin wooden fruit boxes. “There’s almost nothing we don’t use, everything decomposes eventually.”

ith his family and a team of builders from Juneda, he spent 14 years building the block of flats that he jokingly calls “our Sagrada Família”, after Barcelona’s celebrated basilica, which took decades to build and is still incomplete.

They strengthened the terrace with a double layer of tiles and sheets of impermeable material, and installed an undersoil drainage network to cope with 70 tonnes of soil, 25cm (10in) deep. They created a system for collecting and storing 9,500 litres of rainwater so there are reserves in dry periods, though this has barely sufficed during Catalonia’s drought, which has lasted for nearly three years.