Jonny Ensall

I'm an editor, writer and occasional documentary maker. Currently editor of easyJet Traveller magazine and regular contributor to NME. I’m also the former deputy editor of Time Out London.

Behind the scenes at Soho House Barcelona

Behind the scenes at Soho House Barcelona

In Plaça del Duc de Medinaceli, at the southern end of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, palm fronds are waving in the sea breeze. Just a few metres away is the city’s marina, with rows of pretty yachts and some behemoth ocean liners. Behind the square, the narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter (or “Ciutat Vella” in Catalan) are funnelling Catalonians to their favourite bars and cafés for a late-morning snack. The city’s waking up to a fabulous day. And, with the sun already high above us, the facade of Soho House Barcelona glows in the warm Mediterranean light.

It’s in this square where I meet Chris Glass (this issue’s cover star) who’s working on identifying the club’s first members ahead of the October opening. “I’ve really fallen in love with Barcelona,” he tells me, in the shade of a palm. He foresees the new House being the place where Barcelona’s most creative and progressive residents can find their kin: “It’s exciting because of the scale – it’s an intimate space, which makes it easier for people to come together. I’ve heard people say, ‘I’m really keen to have a space where we can all come together again.’”

I’m in Barcelona to go behind the scenes at the House, and to find out how this warm welcome is going to be put together. Right now, in late summer, the building still feels like a blank canvas. So, how do you turn it into a masterpiece?

Arriving to answer that question is Richard van Batenburg, the House’s general manager. He is surprisingly calm, given the enormity of what’s taking shape around him. “The building is from 1864,” he explains. “We’ve kept the facade, but everything else inside has been taken away.” Richard’s worked for Soho House in Berlin, Istanbul and New York. But the Barcelona project means something more to him – partly because he’s called the city home since 2001. There’s also a particular appeal to this house: “It’s not too big, and not too small. And in terms of location, you can drive north for an hour-and-a-half and reach a ski resort, or for just half-an-hour and be in the Penedès wine region. And you only have to walk for ten minutes to arrive at the Mediterranean.”
Plaça del Duc de Medinaceli is a pretty, typically Catalonian square, named after a 16th-century nobleman. It’s also where Chicken Shop & Dirty Burger Barcelona is located. From the outside, the House looks as it has done for centuries – every inch the sophisticated city pad of a 19th-century merchant family.

Inside, however. It’s a different picture. Drills whirr. Hammers thud. A small army of builders moves deftly through the site, putting the finishing touches to walls of sea-blue tiles, or the House’straditional “volta catalana” (vaulted ceilings made with red brick). Light streams through the high windows of the lobby. I try to imagine how it will feel when it’s full of guests.

Luckily I’ve got Maria Contreras, the assistant general manager, to paint in the detail for me. She points out the intricate metalwork of the front door we’ve just stepped through – “It’s modernist with cast iron flowers” – and explains how the ground floor will be home to a Cecconi’s restaurant, open to the general public as well as members.

“And this is the atrium,” she continues, leading me through to the middle of the building, where a shaft of empty space reveals a square of azure blue sky. All around are pristine white shutters. “When you come into one of our houses it always transports you,” she says. “We maintain the sensibility of the city. We make you say: this is my town.”

In Maria’s case, that is literally true. Though she started out with Soho House at the Beach House in Miami, Barcelona is her home – where she grew up, and where she’s now returned to live and work. “Coming back to my home town with Soho House – it’s a dream to me,” she explains. She’s also excited to introduce her friends to the Soho House ethos: “There are so many creative souls who have been waiting for this to happen. Finally, this will be their platform.”

Soho House Barcelona has six floors and two basement levels. Maria takes me from bottom to top. On basement level one she shows me where the underground swimming pool will be, next to the Cowshed spa. This floor is also where you’ll find “Barcelona’s first speakeasy”, as Maria describes the secret bar next to the House’s screening room.

On level one, above ground, is the gym, in a well-lit space with high ceilings. As well as areas for yoga and kickboxing there’ll also be a purpose-built room for House Ride, where spin classes will take place. Ascending through the floors, Maria shows me some of the 57 bedrooms for guests, and describes their unique style: “The colours. The wood. The vintage pieces. It’s the kind of room you might find in the house of a collector.” On floor six is the club, where members can relax and enjoy light meals and drinks, or step out onto one of the two terraces that overlook the square.
As the House’s four elevators are not yet operational, it takes us a while to make our way up the stairs to the roof. But the views at the top make the effort seem well worth it. “The Gothic Quarter is what Barcelona used to be, centuries ago,” Maria tells me. “It’s where you’ll find the oldest buildings in the city. It is very magical.” There are plenty of landmarks to gawp at. In the distance is the Sagrada Familia, the eye-boggling cathedral designed by Barcelona’s most famous modernist architect, Antoni Gaudí. Just behind the House is the Basílica de la Mercè, a baroque-style church topped with an iconic statue of the Virgin Mary. Spin around 180° and you can see Montjuïc hill, overlooking the sparkling coastal waters. It’s a panorama worthy of a million Instagrams. And those members who get to ogle it, while sat in front of the rooftop pool will be very lucky indeed.

I meet Chris Glass again later on, in Chicken Shop & Dirty Burger. In between emails (everyone at the Barcelona site is working non-stop) he explains how he begins looking for those first members. “I always start by meeting two people,” he says. “Then those two people suggest two more people for me to meet. And those two suggest another two. At some point it starts to snowball.”

“People show me tiny things,” he continues. “But those tiny things give me huge insight into what Catalan culture is. It’ll be a birthday party, for example. Or when someone takes you to meet their mother.”

Understanding Catalan culture is what many Soho House & Co people are attempting to do – myself included. Richard van Batenburg had said to me earlier: “Barcelona is different from the rest of Spain.” Enigmatic as that sounds, I’m beginning to take his point. Some of it is to do with language – Catalan, not Spanish, is the official language of Barcelona – but mostly it’s to do with attitude. Everyone I’ve met in in the city is hard-working, caring towards other people and genuinely interested in culture, especially eating and drinking. “Music. Celebration. Fellowship. All are important here,” says Chris, summing it up.

The picture is coming into focus. I can see, now, what sunny Soho House Barcelona will look like on the first day that it welcomes guests through those original modernist front doors, and into the airy lobby. And more than that, I can understand how the House’s creative spirit and commitment to hospitality will fit into this magical city. Making it even better than it is now. 


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