El Nacional – Rejuvenated Car Garage Becomes Culinary Point of Reference
Home to a rich architectural history, Barcelona businesses continue to find inspiration, giving new life to heritage buildings
Story by Maya Tan
Barcelona is characterised more by its general cityscape than by individual buildings, despite being known as the home of Gaudi’s inspired landmark structures. One of the more exceptional places in the city is the neighbourhood of L’Eixample, the birthplace of Barcelona’s modernist movement beginning in the late 19th century, which has become a big part of its personality.
Nestled in the heart of this neighbourhood, just off the main shopping street of Passeig de Gracia is El Nacional, a 3,300 square-metre former car garage which has been converted into what is termed — a culinary multispace.
Housing four restaurants and four sampling bars with the capacity to serve 700 diners, the management and designers of El Nacional have created a culinary point of reference in the city both for locals and tourists alike.
“Our mission was to mark a turning point in a cosmopolitan city with a great capacity for understanding new and exclusive culinary concepts,” said Gerard Subirats, CEO of SB Grup, the company that owns and operates El Nacional.
“We also wanted to democratise cuisine by offering dishes with a great range of prices, meaning that everyone can enjoy the experience at any time of the day in unique surroundings and sample a collection of recipes from all around the Iberian Peninsula.”
According to Subirats, locals and foreigners have warmly welcomed the concept based on offering different culinary experiences under the shelter of a unique setting.
The Design Element
Designer and architect Lazaro Rosa-Violan said that the design inspiration took shape over time.
“We wanted to treat El Nacional with an overall look while still allowing each bar and dining area to develop its own particular character and personality,” he said. He added that within the huge space, the idea of leisure was almost as important as the gastronomy itself.
“There were two important aspects to bear in mind: there had to be room for liveliness and controlled chaos, but also more discreet places where more intimacy could be enjoyed. This is a new concept in Barcelona, in which the interior design becomes almost a set for a play that takes place night after night.”
The experience of walking into El Nacional is a deliberately theatrical one. From the brightly lit sign on the main street of Passeig de Gracia, the visitor passes through filigreed wrought-iron gates and is made to take a stroll down a picturesque alley to the main entrance, flanked by banana palms.
The entrance and what one glimpses through the glass and wrought iron facade hints at the glamorous 1930s. Through the double doors, a separate lobby has been created for noise control and insulation, fashioned as a kind of glass greenhouse replete with all manner of plantlife. It is not until one passes through the lobby that the venue unfolds completely in all its Art Deco splendour.
“The aim of the project was to impress; we wanted people to be speechless, admiring the place,” Rosa-Violan said.
“I think the aesthetics play a very important role in inviting patrons to stay, relax and have a great experience in the establishment. We also paid a lot of attention to the acoustics to ensure a comfortable and pleasant stay.”
“The aim of the project was to impress; we wanted people to be speechless, admiring the place." - Lazaro Rosa-Violan, Designer and Architect of El Nacional
So, what was the strategy behind the conservation of the project?
The fact that the car garage afforded lots of open empty space provided an ideal canvas for the construction of the interior of El Nacional, while its most distinctive feature - the Catalan Vaulted Ceiling, invented by Valencian artist Rafael Guastavino (1824 - 1908) has been carefully preserved and further enhanced.
The Catalan Vault has been described as a series of ‘robust, self-supporting arches and architectural vaults using interlocking terracotta tiles and layers of mortar to form a thin skin, with the tiles following the curve of the roof as opposed to horizontal or perpendicular to the curve’*. The effect of the Catalan Vaulted Ceiling is akin to having a series of domed canopies overhead hoisted by pillars, as opposed to a flat ceiling.
The design team further exaggerated the motif with steel structures echoing the curves of the Catalan Vaulted Ceiling, holding light-coloured fabric canopies aloft, diffusing and softening the light in the space.
“As far as possible, we used traditional building materials in the development of El Nacional,” Rosa-Violan said.
“The conservation also involved the recovery of a series of resources, elements and techniques. Natural materials such as terracotta, clay, wood, iron, brass, glass and marble play leading roles at El Nacional,” he added.
* Wikipedia - Guastavino Tile
After the greenhouse lobby, an old-fashioned ticket booth is on display, setting the playful tone for the customer experience. A series of different restaurants specialising in different types of Catalonian cuisine from pastries to tapas, to grilled meats and seafood (with a larger-than-life tuna fish demarcating the seafood restaurant, suspended from the ceiling) are installed on the four corners of the oblong space, some with hidden dining areas — a nod to the speakeasy experiences of the Art Deco era. In the middle, a beer bar offers a variety of craft beers and the opportunity to sample a range of tapas. The space also features a wine bar, a cocktail bar and an oyster bar.
Rosa-Violan emphasised that while building materials were given the spotlight, the display and parading of food was also a strategy.
“The selection of all the materials, finishes, furnishings and lighting have been planned with the intention of transmitting the gastronomy of each of the areas to the client through the experience of being in that space,” he said.
“We have also looked at bringing the product out in full view of the client, in traditional market style. While the idea was to outfit and decorate the place using raw materials, the cuisine is the true star of El Nacional.”