Does anyone actually know if there was a real princess behind the name of the well-known Barcelona street, Calle de la Princesa ? Of course there was, H. R. H. Isabel de Borbón y Borbón, Princess of Asturias, a twice recognized first heir to the throne of Spain who never actually reigned. She knew very well the difference between a stately queen and a princess of the people and she was very much the latter. A true people’s princess who became very popular, pure Madrid, the city which nicknamed her “la chata”. If we come back to Barcelona, a city with the noble title of Condal incidentally, a very non-specific name was given to the street which followed on from Calle Fernando – De la Princesa, or Princess Street. The decision was probably inspired by a touch of republicanism. Using such a non-specific name avoided saying which of the many well-known princesses it so graciously referred to. It’s not a bad way of giving a nod to all those playing a minor role throughout history, a practical solution which appeases everybody – streets, avenues and drives named after unspecified generals, primates and supreme commanders. When you come up against so many different interests, a right balance must be struck where you will unavoidably annoy everybody to a certain extent, but you don’t lose sense of what you want to achieve. In other words, the same applies to everybody, lump it or like it.
Where Calle de la Princesa meets the Ciutadella Park, the first floor of a solemn, bourgeoisie type building is being transformed into a hotel. A wide marble staircase takes us up to what was once a luxurious residence and later was uncompromisingly converted into a school. The layout bears witness to the fact it must have been run on very traditional lines. Despite such a graceless conversion, many traces of decorative cornices, carved doors and painted ceilings have managed to survive the rigours of a school regime. The concept for the present conversion is different this time as the design takes into account the interests of two distinct groups and promotes a sense of restoration.
The first group are the residents already living in the building and who will live there for the foreseeable future. From now on they will have to share with hotel guests who come to the city to relax and enjoy their leisure. The other group are the earnest champions of the scrolls, cherubs and other ornaments belonging to the heritage of a more refined age, the conservationists. Their role is to ensure we don’t forget certain parts of our history. Even though the building will need to be subdivided for its new use, the refurbishment will seek to restore the first floor to its former glory in a way which suits both interest groups.
The new structure will keep the regimented classroom layout while aiming to create little idyllic oases which give the sensation of belonging to a wide-open space. In each room the shower, wash basin and toilet will be housed in a well-defined nucleus around which a distinctive design for each individual room is based. The walls to each of the rooms will be built in accordance with the new design while respecting features from the original structure, its plasterwork and painted decoration, but without actually adhering to the same layout. Cornice strips and wall festoons will cross the new divisions, sweeping in and out of rooms, evoking their origins in more generously spaced quarters. The upper third of the rooms will be covered with mirrors. As the mirrors face one other, the scrolls, frames, cornices and parts of former walls are multiplied into infinity. The trick is in trying to create the sensation of a larger space, a stronghold of intimacy in an illusory greater living space which is now reduced from the superstructure of a distant past.
The neutrality of the semi-prefabricated nucleus and the informal design of the walls and curtains allow such echoes from the past to endure in its adornments and the illusion of a stately room, helping to create a new experience. Just like the silly idea of playing a princess from the past, even though she never actually succeeded to the throne.