July 1, 2010

Rugged Chic: A Hotel In Spain’s Navarra Countryside

“Are you crazy building on this site? The extreme temperatures, the dust in your hair, the mosquitoes. How are you going to put a hotel here???” people would ask Emiliano López and his wife, Mónica Rivera. The architects’ answer came in the form of adventurous clients and a government incentive program for new hospitality projects in the badlands of Spain’s southern Navarra province. Nevertheless, Rivera­ adds, “The budget was very, very small. And the clients were two young couples with no experience in hotels.”

Rugged Chic

Exhibiting Spain’s famous cultural modesty, she clearly prefers to keep expectations low-because the four-star Hotel Aire de Bardenas has turned out to be a Cinderella story of European hospitality. Experimental both architecturally and financially, the hotel proves that long odds are no match for pure zeitgeist, even in the finicky business of tourism. Some observers even contend that Emiliano López Mónica Rivera Arquitectos has created a mini Bilbao effect in this windswept lunar landscape. It’s a place hardly conducive to tourism, yet archi-gawkers and jet-set types are already booking well ahead for the privilege of staying in one of the hotel’s clusters of white prefab cubes.

To get the government money in the first place, doors had to open within 12 months. López and Rivera sped the plow by conceiving all the design elements at once, from architecture and landscaping to interiors and furnishings. The architects furthermore contracted with only the bare minimum of trades needed: a metalworker, a glassworker, a woodworker, and a drywall hanger. Using a clever panelized system of steel and rigid-foam insulation for the facade further hastened the construction schedule, since the panels and other steel elements could be prefabricated while site work and concrete pours took place.

López and Rivera captured the Zen of the arid agricultural lands with a serenely understated materials palette in addition to the crisp geometry of the pavilions and their courtyards. All are arranged to face away from el cierzo, the dusty and incessant northwesterly wind that puts the Aire in the hotel name. At the heart of the complex, the U-shape main building shelters a communal patio where guests and locals from the nearby village, Tudela, meet to drink coffee or play cards under the mulberry trees.

Each of the main building’s 10 guest rooms and suites offers a private courtyard with a pet fruit tree perfectly sited for viewing through a huge square feature window. A dozen more rooms are housed in pavilions that sit delicately on the rocky earth-some with private gardens or outdoor bathtubs. The composition exudes an orderliness similar to that of nearby wheat fields and almond plantations. Interiors are minimal-luxe, merging white-painted drywall, powder-coated steel, ceramic tile, and plywood veneer with soft bed linens and throw pillows. While complementing the rugged outdoors, the look offers comfort and elegance. Guests can put their feet up in an oversize tub or relax on the deep sill of the feature window, which protrudes into the bleak scenery. “For the locals, the bare fields and mountains may be banal,” Rivera says. “For us, they are mysterious and very beautiful.”

“In this landscape, it made sense to use lightweight, simple construction,” López says. “We also designed furniture we couldn’t locate elsewhere. It’s very difficult to find simple pieces on the market. Everything seems to be overdesigned.” However, simple doesn’t necessarily mean plain. The architects carefully detailed each piece, right down to the shelving for portable electronics in the armoires of painted MDF. Among the most successful pieces are the lobby’s furniture with tubular-steel legs and the restaurant’s armchairs. Covered in chocolate-brown leather, they were adapted from a 1950’s or ’60’s version owned by an aunt of one of the hotel owners.

Public areas in the main building also include the reception area, a meeting room, and a bar. Silhouetted against the bar’s bright green walls, white shelves display produce from Tudela, a town known for its artichokes and white asparagus. Outside the main building, orderly rows of cherry trees welcome visitors. From here, concrete walkways fan out across ruddy bare earth dotted with boulders to mark where hotel grounds end and a wheat farm begins. Wooden crates, re­cycled from local produce co-ops, are stacked throughout the property to protect guests from prying eyes as well as the fierce winds.

While López and Rivera certainly worked speedily, they never lost sight of the power of their surroundings. The architects envisioned something light, like a tent, acknowledging its temporary status in the landscape.

Photography by Jose Hevia/Photofoyer.

Gillermo Zuaznábar; María Eugenia Seligra; Carla Isern; Gerard Bartomeu: Emiliano López Mónica Rivera Arquitectos. PGIGrup: MEP. Lecumberri: Woodwork. Talleres Lauburu: Metalwork. Aislamientos Escayolas Ruiz: Drywall Contractor. Alejandro Ahedo: General Contractor.

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