Thursday, March 2, 2017

RCR's Les Cols Restaurant

Main dining room, Les Cols. Photo © Hisao Suzuki

In 2003 I visited Les Cols, the restaurant in Olot, Spain designed by Pritzker Prize winners RCR Architects, for Architectural Record. Well established then, the restaurant has lately earned two Michelin stars.

As part of my research I was treated by the chef to the 12-course "Menu de Degustación", together with the architects. We were seated in the long golden banquet hall, in the middle of its long golden table (custom designed by the architects, like the chairs, of thick, heavy folded steel plate with a baked enamel finish, and with 22 place settings to a side). The architects were grouped one side, and I was alone on the other, as troops of waiters filed round and round the table with each course, whisking away each dirty plate and serving each new one with a flourish of explanations and instructions. Everyone was very interested in my reactions to each of the twelve little plates - the architects, the waiters, and the hosts, chef Fina Puigdeval, and her husband, who appeared from the kitchens from time to time. I got through the experience as best I could. As I've said before, this can be a tough job.

The food was along the lines of the contemporary experiments of Fernan Adriá at El Bulli, with globules of liquid stuff that exploded on the tongue, edgy contrasts of sweet and salt, and so on. Not really my thing, I'm afraid, but certainly an experience.

The one course that lingers most in my memory (besides the third or fourth entry, which included a bit of tocino that lingered on my palette disagreeably through several more courses), was the post-desert cheese board, with rustic breads and a host of creamy, unpasteurized cheeses from nearby farms in the Pyrenees. Other ingredients too were local, as seen in the lush gardens on the grounds, complete with chickens other fowl, as well as (am I making this up?) rabbit hutches and a fish pond.

In following years, the architects added a suite of guest pavilions under the trees in the garden, made entirely of glass, thus extending the unique sensorial experience of dining at Les Cols into the night and the morning, and into far more personal corporeal rites involving the bed and the bath, as well as bringing the garden into the total experience more thoroughly. More recently, the added a semi.enclosed banqueting pavilion, spanned by a tensile structure of catenary arches infilled with sheets of polycarbonate.
© Hisao Suzuki

Below is my original text from Record Interiors (not elsewhere on line), and excerpts from other texts about the later additions.

 I. A daring menu meets its match with interiors served up by RCR Arquitectes

Like its adventurous menu, the interiors of the restaurant Les Cols are designed to provoke "strong sensations" in their users, engaging all of the senses to create a "unique interior world," as Ramón Vilalta of RCR Architects explains. The project is built almost entirely of thick plates of steel, including walls, floors, tables and chairs. In much the same spirit as the culinary creations of chef-owner Fina Puigdeval, the architects' aim was to see how many different qualities they could draw out of the material and the spaces it gives shape to, pushing beyond its normal sensorial limits to approach effects more proper to earth, wood, vegetation, liquid water or shimmering, evanescent light.

Located on the outskirts of Olot, a small city in the north of Catalonia, Spain, the restaurant occupies the former ground floor stables of an old stone masia or farmhouse dating at least to 1784, and a one-story pavilion added when Puigdeval opened the restaurant in 1990. In 2001, she asked Vilalta and his associates Carme Pigem and Rafael Aranda to transform the dark spaces of the former stables and the outdated pavilion into a memorable setting for her signature 12-course meals.

The architects streamlined the confused amalgam of existing spaces into a clear axial organization in the shape of a "T". Following a garden path of rusted steel plates, guests first approach the altered 1990 pavilion that forms the head of the T, and enter the restaurant at the crossing point of its axes. The spaces opening around this point offer contrasting environments, like "independent worlds," as Vilalta says. To the right, a pair of vertical openings reveal the machined precision of the kitchen, completely finished in stainless steel, and arranged around a patio walled in frameless sheets of glass, with a bubbling pond that extends into the entry garden below a screen of ivy. To the left of the entry, the dark, earthy enclosure of the main dining room is bathed in natural light from the garden, with oxidized steel walls, screens of twisted vertical steel ribbons along the windows, whose graphite-finished silhouettes recall the climbing ivy, and floors of raw steel planks, lightly waxed, that mix natural colors from different mills: deep blues, purples, reds and browns. These somber hues set off the brilliant reflective finish of the tables and chairs, painted in a hard-baked enamel of pale gold, the tabletops mirroring the brilliant sheen of light from the garden.

Kitchen, left; main dining room, right. © Hisao Suzuki

Straight ahead, the long trunk of the "T" plunges through the body of the masía in the form of a dazzling banquet room finished entirely in gold, with a continuous table seating 44. This space occupies the central structural bay of the house, and gives access to private dining rooms on either side, where the dark steel floors and gold furnishings are set under the original masonry vaults. At the end of the hall, doors open to a stone portico and enclosed garden for receptions on the opposite side of the masía.

The challenges presented by the banquet hall carried the architects beyond the influences of traditional Japanese architecture and minimalist sculpture evident in the main dining room. Vilalta explains, "the original space was windowless and disagreeable. The big decision was to open it to the exterior and convert it into a destination." The architects exaggerated its awkward length for dramatic effect, and covered its surfaces in gold to maximize the sense of light and splendor. Twisted golden ribbons of 5 mm steel along the long walls vibrate under the light of continuous fluorescent tubes at floor and ceiling; they screen air diffusers and acoustically-absorbent walls. The long table, also used for regular dining, is bolted to the floor, and was welded and finished in place. Like the rest of the furnishings, its design is vegetal in inspiration, with two continuous 8 mm thick steel plates that fold symmetrically from a central stem to produce twin cantilevered leaves (elsewhere, dining tables repeat this design with oval, round or rectangular tops). Tall serving tables ceremoniously line the walls; their small bisecting tops recall the leaves of an open book, or a pair of hands proffering a serving platter. The chairs are built of two symmetrical 5 mm plates, folded like origami around a diagonal cut that runs across the seat, with casters and thin cushions. The steel ingeniously opens below the seat to produce the curving back and single side arm, inviting diners to assume a relaxed, almost reclining posture, as if at a Roman feast.

The length of the room adds to the sense of hushed religious ceremony (as does the background music, including Gregorian chant, Baroque viols, and a Balinesian gamelan). Couples separate like partners in a line dance to find their seats on either side of the table, while the waiters whisk round and round announcing courses. Despite the drama of the room, its overall effect is of amplitude and ease, combining the free horizontal flow of modern space with the masía's slow, thick density. The banquet hall gives radical form to the architects' concept of an interior world, a space which, instead of seeking light and warmth from the exterior, burns with a gentle inner fire.

At Restaurante Les Cols, a daring menu meets its match with interiors served up by RCR Arquitectos and featuring steel as the key ingredient
Architectural Record, Record Interiors, September 2003, pages 136 - 141

Publicity image, author not listed

II. Guest Pavilions 

RCR has realized another experiment in the limits of transparency, understood as a form of nudity, or a stripping down to essentials, in a group of guest pavilions in the garden of Les Cols Restaurant in Olot. With the exception of an interior closet housing mechanical equipment, all the surfaces of each pavilion consist entirely of transparent glass: walls, ceiling and floor, this last suspended over the ground of the patio in which each pavilion is set. The patios are enclosed in turn in walls rent with gaps and reflections, composed of stainless steel tubes and vertical strips of translucent glass installed at different angles, producing an effect of visual veiling, like that of a falling sheet of water.

There are no televisions in the rooms, nor enough artificial light to read, nor any furniture other than the bed. In the minibar you will find only volcanic mineral water. Only the pale light of the firmament entering through the roof might distract you, or the rustle of the wind in the trees. Alternatively, you can pull all the black-out curtains across the walls, creating an enveloping cocoon within the cold glass capsule, or take refuge in the deep bath, with its floor of rounded river pebbles laid on edge, and its views into its own little patio. After a lengthy and sumptuous dinner in the restaurant (also designed by RCR, and with a Michelin star), the architects offer a re-encounter with nature and our own corporeality, in a moment of isolation and curative repose from the stresses of contemporary life. Together with the Museum of Glass in Toledo, Ohio by Sejima and Nishizawa, this is one of the few projects [in this article] that approaches technical innovation as a tool for exploring new frontiers of experience.

Translated from Spanish by DC.

Edificios transparentes 
Fuera de Serie No. 205
Expansión, September 19, 2008, pages 20 - 23

III: New Banquet Pavilion

For their part, the Spanish architects of RCR have produced a serene, Arcadian arbor for a banqueting pavilion at Les Cols, the two-star Michelin restaurant in Olot. The partially sunken structure is entirely enclosed in the polycarbonate sheeting used in greenhouses. Its roof is supported by steel rods slung in a long catenary arch, while the floor is a rustic pebble paving (canto rodado). The architects' previous interventions at Les Cols include the main dining rooms, with finishes and furnishings of heavy steel plate, and hotel rooms entirely enclosed in glass. Here they offer diners the immediate sensorial thrill of the rippling, blurred transparencies and reflections of the plastic sheet amid the earthy garden setting, and the ambiguous play between enclosure and openness, in which the limits of materiality are overcome by technical prowess. The Emperor here is both with and without clothes.

Adam's House in Paradise Revisited 
Arquitectura Viva 151, April 2013, pages 7 - 13, cover


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