[Originally published in Azure, May 2014]
The elevator soars up the Hotel Renaissance Fira Barcelona, and my knees buckle beneath me as hundreds of palm trees and plants zoom past the glass cabin. What might be the fastest lift in the city torpedoes up a 27-storey atrium nestled between two parallel towers. Criss-crossing the vertiginous central volume in every direction, stairs, bridges, and cantilevered terraces filled with cascading greenery evoke both the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and Piranesi’s Carceri.
As if the real thing were not enough, the architects – Jean Nouvel working with Ribas & Ribas Arquitectos as well as landscape architect Manuel Colominas – have cultivated the lush vegetation into a recurring motif that can be seen from afar. Rising on the major thoroughfare of Gran Via, near the Fira trade-fair grounds between the airport and the city centre, the 110 meter-tall business hotel (part of the Marriott brand) is wrapped in leafy patterns. On the two towers’ north facades, black silkscreened glass creates a jungle effect; and the skycrapers’ flanks are composed of concrete panels, carved with palm fronds and clad in white glass that plays up the theme.
Housing 357 rooms, the two slabs connect at three levels: the lobby, the 14th-floor restaurant, and the rooftop viewing deck, with its 21-meter-long swimming pool. I exit the elevator at one of the uppermost floors and head to my room – which is all-white, with fronds etched onto the glass bathroom partitions, and those bursts of palm at the windows – along a walkway overlooking the awesome atrium that descends below. Protruding well beyond the already cantilevered balcony-walkways, steel planters on every storey support nearly 300 mid-sized palm trees of 10 varieties, together with 30 other plant species from all over the world.
“The biggest challenge was finding the most appropriate species, ones that could thrive in relatively subdued daylight and occasionally windy, cool weather conditions,” says landscape architect Manuel Colominas, principal of the Barcelona firm Factors de Paisatge. The resilient kentia palm is abundant in the atrium, where sunlight doesn’t penetrate much, and the Mexican fan palm palm appears in the private gardens of the luxury suites on the 26th floor. While the atrium forms part of an architectural promenade aimed at “immersing hotel guests within a world of vegetation,” says Colominas, in certain other areas of the hotel, such as the mid-level restaurant and the luxury suites, guests can get much closer to the plants. A double-skin corridor along the facade encases gardens, so guests can sunbathe amidst the palm trunks.
The architects’ intention in planting a vertical garden through the centre of the building was to capture daily and seasonal shifts in light and climate. In doing so, they have managed to eschew the dull anonymity of the typical double-loaded corridor in most hotels, as well as the contrived interior artificiality of atrium hotels, such as those by John Portman. This project also differs from many others that incorporate plant life – including the low-slung Pérez Art Museum Miami by Herzog & de Meuron and the Bosco Verticale in Milan by Stefano Boeri – by making an open courtyard integral to the plan. In this way, the architects “interiorize” the outdoor garden, in the ancient tradition of Mediterranean courtyard houses, effectively reinventing the high-rise hotel building-type. The central void’s perimeter displays a structural bravado heightened by the sensation of vertigo it provokes. Furthermore, it draws attention inward toward the foliage, while casting it outward through a tall vertical opening that frames the Tibidabo mountain, which dominates the city below.