$l, Barcelona, on the Passeig de Gràcia
There has been much to celebrate of late in stylish Barcelona. Following a busy year of welcoming new guests to its address on the prestigious Passeig de Gràcia – the equivalent of Fifth Avenue in New York, or Bond Street in London – $l, Barcelona marked its first anniversary with a handful of design accolades and a Michelin star. Frequent travellers to Spain’s second-largest city will appreciate that competition for such coveted prizes is fierce. After all, Barcelona boasts its fair share of trailblazing design hotels and is proud of its status as the Catalan capital of gastronomy. Yet since opening its doors in November 2009, $l’s landmark Spanish destination has garnered international recognition for stunning, avant-garde interiors housing impressive five-star facilities, from a 1,000sq m underground spa to a gourmet Catalan restaurant. No wonder, then, that it has been named ‘Best City Hotel’ in Tatler’s 2011 Travel Guide.
Patricia Urquiola’s Foscarini ‘Caboche’ pendant lights, which hang in the hotel
Indeed, Tatler is just one of the glossy magazines to have adorned its pages with images of the Barcelona property. Originally built in the Fifties as headquarters for Banco Hispano Americano, the site itself has a long association with the upper classes, having once served as the home of the Círculo Ecuestre, an exclusive European private member’s club. In recent times, though, its reincarnation as a major city bank has meant that many local residents became familiar with the public space, which counts Gaudí’s Casa Milà among its neighbours. This was an important consideration during the conversion process, overseen by Barcelona architects Carlos Ferrater and Juan Trias de Bes. ‘I remember coming here as a youngster with my father to this big, bold room where cashiers served customers on the trading floor,’ recalls de Bes. ‘Since the site is so well known, we wanted to ensure the building would continue to have an open relationship with the city.’
You start with a dream and fight to turn it into reality
Patricia Urquiola’s Moroso ‘Silver Lake’ chair
This heritage also provided a source of inspiration for Patricia Urquiola, the Spanish designer who dedicated three years to crafting the hotel’s custom-made interiors. Although keen to allude to the property’s past, Urquiola also wanted to acknowledge the city’s Catalan soul while hinting at the Asian roots of brand $l. Quite a complex balancing act when considering the scale of the project (more than 17,000sq m) and taking into account that this was her first hotel commission. ‘I thought I would start with a small boutique hotel rather than something so big and expensive,’ she admits with a twinkle in her eye. ‘I knew I came to the job as a complete outsider, but then I’ve always liked a challenge.’ Taking on an inexperienced designer in the field was a calculated risk for $l, but they were happy to champion a talent with a different point of view; somebody with the vision to introduce iconic elements that would resonate with the people of Barcelona and beyond.
The Banker’s Bar with its safe-deposit-box feature wall
This is not to say that Urquiola lacked pedigree. Passionate yet pragmatic, the fast-talking Spaniard had carved out a formidable reputation in product development, earning the title of Wallpaper’s ‘Furniture Designer of the Year’. Her initial training, though, was as an architect, first at a national school in Madrid before relocation to Milan swept her fortuitously into the classroom of Achille Castiglioni, the man she attributes with igniting her deep-rooted interest in intelligent product design. ‘He became my mentor and changed my life,’ she enthuses.
Following graduation in Milan, she held top positions at De Padova and Lissoni Associates during the Nineties, and then set up a studio in 2001. Coinciding with the end of her first marriage, when she felt she had ‘nothing to lose’, Urquiola was driven to try things out her own way, collaborating with B&B Italia, Alessi, Molteni & C and Foscarini to create some of the most poetic and practical furniture of the 21st century. In fact, a couple of sculptural examples, like her ‘Fjord’ armchair for Moroso, form part of the permanent collection at MoMA in New York.
Fusing a rare blend of artistry and commercial savvy, the designer is in big demand as she approaches her 50th birthday. With a 30-strong team at Studio Urquiola, and happily ensconced in a life/work partnership with softly spoken husband Alberto Zontone, who ‘takes care of the business aspects I do not personally like’, her varied projects for 2011 include set designs for a Monteverdi opera, architecture for a Gianvito Rossi boutique in Hong Kong and new products for Louis Vuitton, Baccarat and Maurice Lacroix. ‘I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to work on so many organic projects,’ she confirms. ‘With product design, it’s personal because you start with an idea and seek to improve it, collaborating with a few people very intensively. Architecture, on the other hand, is a group effort that involves coordinating lots of people with different time frames. In some ways, you start with a dream and fight to turn it into reality.’
The ‘catwalk’ to the hotel lobby
Despite being her ‘own worst critic’, Urquiola looks back at her achievements at $l, Barcelona with pride. She developed the visual story here by drawing on personal perceptions of grand old hotels, where a white glove promised elegance and service. But, when it came to conceiving quality designs for the bespoke furniture and flooring that makes this hotel so distinctive, this tradition needed to be tempered with innovation and modernity. On a practical level, too, Urquiola wished to somehow celebrate the bright sunshine that regularly bathes this Mediterranean city. ‘I noticed all this light flooding into the building and wondered how we could make the most of it,’ she says.
As soon as guests step past the Catalan façade, crossing a sun-filled atrium via a floating ‘catwalk’, they are transported into a world of light. A striking white colour theme is softened with parquet flooring, contemporary artwork and hand-woven carpets displaying bold floral and geometric motifs. There is a clever reinterpretation of a classic Chesterfield sofa, while the lowered mirrored ceilings create intimacy.
The sense of arrival is heightened as gold metal screens divide at the lobby entrance
Continuing the journey through to the mezzanine, it is possible to view the hotel’s trio of distinct dining venues. Blanc, a sociable all-day brasserie, benefits from a double-height glass roof that invites in more sunshine, illuminating a fresh white backdrop adorned with planting. Seating comprises leather chairs and ceramic stools by Rosenthal, while a patterned vinyl grid hangs overhead, playfully catching the light, and an antique French tailor’s table now serves as a food station.
The lobby has a mirrored ceiling and Oriental-style screens
On opposite sides of Blanc, and not to be missed by those who appreciate good food and drink, are the Moments restaurant and Banker’s Bar. Cocktails made by award-winning bartender Jordi Otero can be enjoyed in the clubby ambience of the latter, which, furnished with deep, lounge-like armchairs and Fat-Fat side tables from B&B Italia, has a more masculine feel. Representing an ingenious permanent art installation, the textured ceiling and feature wall have been constructed from the steel fronts of safe deposit boxes, some of which were recycled from the former bank.
Moments, meanwhile, is a study in sophisticated hues of gold and amber, with Moroso furniture and graceful lamps set tastefully under a hand-painted gold-leaf ceiling. A glowing, yellow glass box provides diners at the private table with an uninterrupted view of the magic taking place in the kitchen. For Urquiola, it has been an honour to craft a room specifically for chef Carme Ruscalleda and her son Raül Balam who heads the restaurant, which has recently been awarded a Michelin star for its mouthwatering neo-traditional Catalan cuisine. ‘It is amazing that this female chef now has six Michelin stars to her name,’ says Urquiola. ‘We’ve tried to bring physical comfort to Moments with a Catalan ambience so that guests are mentally prepared for the experience ahead.’
For those who’ve overindulged, the hotel offers a delightful open-air courtyard in which to take in some air or chat over coffee. Landscaped by architect Beth Figueras, the Mimosa Garden is cunningly integrated into the interior of the building and is the perfect place to unwind. Alternatively, the rooftop terrace, Terrat, on the ninth floor provides 360-degree views of the skyline and a chance to cool off in the dipping pool as temperatures rise. For a sybaritic option year-round, guests can head down to the sensuous spa situated in what once was the former bank’s vault. The therapeutic space breaks away from the hyper-white theme above, introducing dark wood, black ceilings and granite stone in a minimalist aesthetic enlivened with sexy lighting. Eye-catching features include a large malachite screen that sections off the communal hammam, a lap pool and eight spacious treatment rooms. Urquiola is particularly fond of the black metallic chain curtains, hung artfully in the therapy areas, which have been sourced from a local company more accustomed to fitting out butcher’s shops.
The Mimosa Garden is cunningly integrated into the building
The seventh-floor Terrace Suite
Of course, the ultimate test of any hotel is the comfort of the guest accommodation. In the 98 serene rooms and suites, Urquiola showcases a mixture of subtle Asian ornamental detailing and contemporary elements, such as the Foscarini ‘Caboche’ pendant light. Wardrobes have a lacquered finish to mimic Chinese display cases and a gently undulating fabric wall is the designer’s interpretation of the Oriental paravent. Urquiola is so keen on this screen concept that she uses it regularly throughout the hotel in a variety of alluring finishes. While the clean colour palette extends into the bathrooms, oversized walk-in showers come to visual life with a backdrop wall of black mosaics conceived as magical boxes of light.
Guest rooms overlooking the courtyard’s Mimosa Garden
Fittingly the two-bedroom Penthouse Suite, which occupies the hotel’s entire eighth floor, was the final signature space to be completed by the designer. Leather, velvet and exquisite silk fabrics are tactile to the touch, complementing the rich colours, Bassano ceramics and tailor-made statement furniture developed with B&B Italia, Moroso and Molteni & C. As the ultimate example of apartment living in the heart of Barcelona, the luxurious suite benefits from two terraces, a large living room, separate dining space and dedicated butler service.
Granted, not everyone can stretch to the penthouse experience, but any visitor to $l, Barcelona is guaranteed a superb stay in surroundings that convey Mediterranean influences yet hint at the Orient in a seamless blend of the classic and contemporary.