February 1, 2012

Home Sweet Home: Barcelona Model Apartment by Rai Pinto and Triana Vives

Barcelona continues its long­standing, well deserved, reputation as a hotbed of innovative architecture and urbanism—the Spanish city’s most recent triumph being a district called Poblenou, meaning new village, between the site of the 1992 Summer Olympic Games and the Mediterranean Sea. Poblenou got its start in 2000, when the city council passed an ordinance aimed at transforming a decrepit industrial zone into a 495-acre high-tech hub mixing offices for IT, media, and design; both market-rate and subsidized housing; and parkland aplenty. The plan worked.

Rechristened “22a” in a digital-era wordplay on the area’s previous zoning designation, “22a,” Poblenou is now the epicenter of cool. More than 4,500 companies have opened up shop there since the zoning took effect­. A congress hall by Herzog & de Meuron, office towers by Ateliers Jean Nouvel and David Chipperfield Architects­, and the Me Barcelona hotel by Dominique Perrault Architecture have sprouted alongside palm trees, bike lanes, a seaside promenade, and factory-loft conversions.

One of those conversions is the Passatge del Sucre. Roughly translated as Sugar Alley, it comprises five conjoined 1916 buildings once used to warehouse sugar. Jordi Garcés Architects cleaned up and patched the grimy brick facades, modified them with new apertures, installed crisp aluminum-framed windows, and replaced aging roofs with bright red clay tiles. Some of the buildings were constructed with hefty timber beams supporting pitched roofs, others with robust steel trusses, and Jordi Garcés restored them all, leaving them exposed to warm up the 29 lofts carved out of the complex.

The seven unit types vary in size and layout, from the archetypal floor-through loft to duplexes and triplexes. “There is an element of fantasy in living in a building not intended to be a dwelling, be it a factory, a theater, or a parking garage,” Garcés says. “The sum of the new and the old makes a completely different product.”

Passatge del Sucre’s real-estate developer touts the units as nonconventional housing, aka live-work spaces for independent pro­fessionals and creatives. Interior designers, architects, and Web developers are all welcome, particularly if they’re sustainability-minded. Apartments are wired to energy-efficient steam-generated heating and cooling, supplied by a neighborhood plant. Residents dispose of trash and recyclables in bins linked to pneumatic tubes— think ’70’s bank drive-throughs—that zip waste, underground, to a transfer center.

The developer asked Rai Pinto and Triana Vives, two young, independent interior designers who share an office and often work together, to furnish a model apartment. Given a choice, the duo settled on the 1,400-square-foot top-floor unit. Huge arched windows on opposite sides filled it with sunlight, and the open plan allowed maximum design possibilities. White-painted walls, oak flooring, and exposed bow trusses, supporting a 24-foot cathedral ceiling, suggested “authentic loft,” as Vives describes it.

Though the job would be great visibility for the twentysomethings, their first notable commission, the major catch was the budget: zero. So they called in favors from contractors and showrooms as  well as up-and-coming furniture and lighting designers who could similarly benefit from the publicity. Futhermore, whatever (no-cost) solutions the pair came up with, they would not be allowed to touch the apartment’s walls. The challenge became how to separate the function areas. “People like to live in a loft, but in the end you have to make some differentiations and organize it a bit, to understand what’s the sitting area and what’s the bedroom,” Pinto suggests.

As a clever substitute for a conventional partition—and the project’s defining feature—he and Vives developed what they call a “mountain-scape,” a stepped volume between the living and sleeping areas. “It articulates space in three dimensions,” Pinto says, while providing storage below and platforms above. Grab a floor cushion to lie on one of the stepped planes, or hike up 5 feet to settle into a ’50’s armchair perched dramatically at the summit. The entire structure is surfaced in cardboard from packing boxes, supported by MDF. (Pinto and Vives like the rough texture of cardboard, but huge quantities would have been required, on its own, to support the weight of furniture and people.) Directions such as “cut here” and “this way up” were simulated with vinyl symbols by the designers.

Pinto proclaims the loft something of a “wild” space. The “mountain-scape” certainly abstracts geological formations. More literally of the natural world are a chunky acacia cocktail table, a tree-stump stool, and a tree-trunk sculpture. Other artwork is purposefully animal-related: cow paintings in the kitchen, and, at the entry, both a sculpture made of sardine tins and a colorful screen reproducing fishy graffiti characters by an artist also known as El Pez, The Fish.


meritxell inaraja: jordi garcÉs architects. berta rovira: architectural consultant. juan ignacio eskubl; juan ramón blasco: structural con­sultants. damian spotorno guterman: structural engineer. jg & asociados: mep. fusteria ollè: woodwork. lapis niger: general contractor.

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