Walking on Aire

20th January 2009 (Last Updated January 20th, 2009 18:30)

A wheat field in Spain's Bardenas Reales semi-desert has become the stark home of the Hotel Aire de Bardenas. Monica Rivera and Natalia Perez tell Jody Elphick how they worked from the inside out to construct a protected space that makes a feature of the austere surroundings.

Walking on Aire

The Hotel Aire de Bardenas near Tudela in the Navarre region of northern Spain is the result of years of planning by Natalia Perez and her family. "We had visited many hotels and the service could have been improved in almost all of them," says Perez. So, despite having no previous experience in the hospitality industry, they set about creating their ideal hotel in a wheat field in the Bardenas Reales biosphere reserve.

Perez's nephew was taught by architects Monica Rivera and Emiliano Lopez at the University of Barcelona and recognised them as being good candidates for the project's design. "The understanding was very fast," remembers Perez. "We spoke the same language."

The architects had no more experience of the hotel industry than the Perez family, having previously focused on private residences and social housing projects. But although the Aire de Bardenas project was unique in many ways, the creative process took the same form as their previous ventures, says Rivera.

"We used our usual approach of starting from the inside and working outwards," she explains. "In our work the interior informs the exterior. But for the hotel we worked more closely with the clients than we usually would, holding three years of talks and brainstorming sessions with the owners."

The home-made hotel

The brief for the building included the use of dry construction techniques and the enlistment of a local steelworker to build the exterior of the hotel and much of its furniture. "We had the good fortune to know personally the Blas Workshop Lauburu, which did almost everything in the building process. The iron, stone, glass and wood have been worked so well that the result feels warm, even in the harsh desert landscape."

The owners had requirements for construction methods, timescale and budget but Perez says the vision for the hotel's aesthetic was conceived entirely by the architects. "Emiliano and Monica were the absolute protagonists in the whole design of the hotel," she says. "All the furniture was custom-designed by them for this project. Toilets, bathtubs, showers, beds, tables – everything came from their imagination."

“A focus on blending with the surroundings informs each element of the hotel’s design.”

The result is a one-storey collection of sparse yet snug rooms set amid the rocky, harsh terrain of the semi-desert. Wooden crates, a typical sight in Tudela's crop fields, where they are used to transport fruit and vegetables, take on an equally moveable and recyclable function as boundary walls for the hotel, breaking the harsh Cierzo wind of the region while allowing air and light to flow into the site. A focus on blending with the surroundings informs each element of the
hotel's design.

Barnedas Reales biosphere

"Aire de Bardenas sits on the Bardenas Reales biosphere reserve, so the government was demanding with the construction. We wanted to go unnoticed in the landscape and avoid disturbing nature," says Perez. Lopez and Rivera took this idea further and aimed not only to blend with the landscape but to bring it into the rooms via big 'inhabitable' windows, in which guests can get cosy and enjoy the scenery, making the desert an integral part of the interior design.

"This was our vision," says Rivera. "We insisted on keeping the landscape visible – in fact making it stronger than the interior. We do not want to force interiors to compete with the surroundings. The landscape around the site was so austere, we had to respect that."

This attitude extended to the construction of the hotel's external framework. "The hotel landed in the field almost without disturbance, taking only a year to build," explains Perez. "The building does not have any bricks. It is absolutely recyclable. It could disappear without leaving a trace."

Institutional design?

The hotel's design recreates the starkness of the area, making for a severe and at times even institutional aesthetic.

The result is an arresting work of architecture but were the creators concerned that, in the context of a hotel, such austerity might alienate potential guests?

“The Aire de Bardenas hotel landed in the field almost without disturbance, taking only a year to build.”

"No, I was not worried about that," answers Rivera. "In fact people like it for the very reason that it is so stark. Natalia and I remain in close contact and she passes on feedback from guests. They say: 'Finally there is somewhere simple where I can focus on being silent with the landscape – a place that doesn't throw lots of things at you'."

Perez attests to the positive feedback. "Customers are surprised by the photographs on our website but they are still more amazed when they arrive. For them it is, in their own words, simply spectacular. The vast majority say that they have had a good experience in a friendly hotel with a lunar landscape."

Given the guest reaction and the numerous awards and finalist placings the hotel has received, including the 2008 Navarra Chamber of Commerce Design Award and a distinction in ID Magazine's Annual Design Review, it's safe to say the project is a success.

"We are very pleased with the outcome," agrees Perez. "We believe that we have managed to make a hotel that is different and, in many respects, unique. The risk was great because we had no experience to refer to, but I think we achieved it."