Out of this world: Enigma, Barcelona

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Words:
Pamela Buxton

RCR Arquitectes and Pau Llimona created a dream-like set for this extraordinary restaurant, all extrapolated from an initial watercolour

RCR Arquitectes and Pau Llimona created a calming, abstract environment for Albert Adrià’s latest culinary venture, Enigma.
RCR Arquitectes and Pau Llimona created a calming, abstract environment for Albert Adrià’s latest culinary venture, Enigma. Credit: Dámaso Pérez Ontiveros/Fototec

Guests arriving at Enigma, the Barcelona restaurant designed by 2017 Pritzker Prize-winning practice RCR Arquitectes and Pau Llimona, could be forgiven for being a little taken aback.

Enigma is the latest venture from Albert Adrià, first known for his work at his brother Ferran’s celebrated three Michelin-starred elBulli restaurant and who now leads the elBarri group of restaurants. The new restaurant is located on a noisy street corner in Ensanche, a not particularly fashionable part of the city. There is minimal signage. Rather than being greeted at the door, diners instead must wait until the time of their reservation and then tap in an entry code that they are given on booking to activate the door. Then, still without seeing any Enigma staff, they progress up a curving ramp away from the hustle of the city and into a quite extraordinary restaurant environment.

The overwhelming sense is of being beneath a strange billowing metal cloud, with walls and floor covered in abstract designs and furniture that looks at first as if it’s been shaped from ice. Almost everything is in shades of grey. It is all rather strange and quite unlike any conventional restaurant.

This, of course, is the point. Adrià was keen to explore different approaches to dining, not just in the food but the way it was experienced. Central to this was the design of the interior, realised in an intense collaboration with the design team over more than two years.

The site was difficult – noisy, dark and littered with columns. According to Rafael Aranda of RCR, the aim was to create an abstract yet serene interior landscape that, by being a total disconnect with the urban surroundings, encourages diners to leave the rest of the city behind. Having blanked that out, they can then concentrate on the cuisine and the company instead. The sense of experience is heightened by the promenade nature of the meal – diners move around various zones of the restaurant throughout their evening, passing along the side of the open kitchen. There are tantalizing glimpses through glass screens to different parts of the restaurant but the overall plan is rather labyrinthine and guests never see all their fellow diners at once.

Chefs preparing dishes in the kitchen, which is clad in sintered stone.
Chefs preparing dishes in the kitchen, which is clad in sintered stone. Credit: Dámaso Pérez Ontiveros/Fototec

The design concept started, as all RCR projects do, with a watercolour response to the brief. For Enigma, the architect came up with an abstract design with varied intensities of tone and pattern that served as the reference point for the project’s dream-like aesthetic. To give enveloping continuity throughout the interior, the design was translated in one material across most of the surfaces from floor and wall panels to counters and joinery and kitchen hoods.

Imagining this on sheets of paper was one thing, but it was quite another to realise it in sufficient detail over hundreds of square metres of surface. This was delivered through a collaboration with TheSize, the Spanish manufacturer of Neolith sintered stone, which was game for the challenge of creating a customised design that could be used across the many different surfaces. The product had the right practical properties – it is resistant to high and low temperatures, is strong, impermeable, scratch resistant and hygienic, all especially important in the kitchen. And crucially, the manufacturing process could accommodate a bespoke design. The variegated floor, for example, was created with no repeats, and involved scanning the original watercolour followed by an intensive process of digital manipulation to give the appropriate density of detail and image quality required for digitally printing on that scale.

  • The interior combines a cloud-like ceiling with glass panels and a digitally printed sintered stone floor
    The interior combines a cloud-like ceiling with glass panels and a digitally printed sintered stone floor Credit: Dámaso Pérez Ontiveros/Fototec
  • The restaurant has a low-key street presence.
    The restaurant has a low-key street presence. Credit: Dámaso Pérez Ontiveros/Fototec
  • In the teppanyaki room, diners sit around the grill as the food is cooked.
    In the teppanyaki room, diners sit around the grill as the food is cooked. Credit: Dámaso Pérez Ontiveros/Fototec
  • Washroom, with Neolith used on the wall and floor.
    Washroom, with Neolith used on the wall and floor. Credit: Dámaso Pérez Ontiveros/Fototec
  • Closing a fantastical journey, the bar, recreated from a previous Adrià project, strikes a disconcertingly different tone.
    Closing a fantastical journey, the bar, recreated from a previous Adrià project, strikes a disconcertingly different tone. Credit: Dámaso Pérez Ontiveros/Fototec
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On vertical Neolith surfaces such as kitchen hoods, counter sides and wall panels, the design of abstracted downward strokes seem suggestive of heavy rain beneath the cloud-like ceiling. In some areas, these are combined by moulded glass panels that appear like frozen flowing water. In other places these are opaque.

“We were very interested in exploring the material in different forms to get the most out of it,’ says Aranda. The use of grey, he adds, gives more profound opportunities for tonal variation and to use this to define space.

Freestanding furniture was designed by RCR in translucent polyester resin. The entirety is intended as a visual dialogue between the different depths of spaces.

The cloud itself is created using steel net. By working this in an artisan way to create the ruched, billowing effect, the architect was able to give the humble industrial material ‘soul’, says Aranda, just as it had by creating bespoke patterns for the glass.

This is combined with 2500 LED lights, used in different colours to vary the effect from zone to zone. Columns are made a virtue through the use of cladding and their adaption to serve additional roles, for example, as glass storage.

A slightly disconcerting element comes at the end of the customer’s journey – a reinterpretation of a bar from one of Adrià’s previous ventures, 41° (not designed by the same architect).

Back in Enigma itself, the otherworldly design is certainly an essential ingredient of the restaurant’s recipe. Anywhere else, such a strong visual concept could overwhelm the culinary experience. But when the food’s as extraordinary as it is at Enigma, there can be no danger of that at all.

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