Insight – Melon District, Barcelona, Spain


With the possible exception of the super-sized rooms of an Oxbridge undergraduate, student accommodation brings to mind depressing, insalubrious digs. But a new seven-storey student accommodation complex in Barcelona called, exotically, the Melon District (just don’t refer to it as a hall of residence) is challenging this preconception. Designed by Zurich-based architect Gus Wustemann in collaboration with Barcelona communications agency Animal, it is set to open in September, and is more luxe than louche, more chic commune than Kafkaesque rabbit warren.

Located, glamorously, in Barcelona’s central Poble Sec area, the building was originally designed by architect Elanch y Concha, but Wustemann was responsible for the interior design. It contains flats, some long-stay, some short-stay, each with ten rooms accommodating nine students altogether, all of whom have their own bedroom with en suite shower. There is also a single and a double studio flat. Reinforcing this idea of communal living is an ultra-spacious ‘lounge’ (per flat) with an open-plan kitchen and dining area, as well as a roof terrace with a swimming pool. In addition, there is a reception, ground-floor café and parking lot.

This emphasis on the communal is partly the result of consultation with prospective students. ‘They said they would like living rooms,’ says Wustemann. ‘So the social aspect is very important.’

Melon District is not luxe in the fashionable, Boho-chic sense, so forget aubergine banquettes and chandeliers. The brief was to create ‘a new low-budget student accommodation’, which partly explains why it is fitted out with no-fuss, utilitarian materials – white polyurethane for floors, walls in concrete or covered with backlit polycarbonate panels,’bought off-the-peg from builder’s warehouses’. But there is another reason for this: clearly, Wustemann has a thing about spit ‘n’ sawdust industrial materials, which he deems more right-on than ‘bourgeois’, polished surfaces. Certainly, surfaces as defiantly unfinished as those on the ceilings of Melon District’s bedrooms would be unacceptable by the standards of, say, your typical Chelsea Harbour interior decorator.

But some of Wustemann’s rhetoric is naive. He earnestly equates these stripped-down surfaces with ‘authenticity’ and ‘purity’. Yet their studied ruggedness is part of a highly mannered, long-established architectural idiom which first came into vogue in the 1970s, the chaotic, unfinished aesthetic of Frank Gehry’s home in Santa Monica (built in 1978) being a seminal example of this.

Wustemann’s point is that taste is subjective – ‘There is no such thing as beautiful or non-beautiful,’ he says. Yet strangely conflicting with this admirable democratic philosophy and Functionalist aesthetic is a Romanticism, even a spirituality. The lounges’ walls are painted Russian icon gold because they are the ‘heart’ of the building. He calls the ovens in the kitchen ‘an altar’. The white floors are referred to, inexplicably, as ‘sacred’. These quasi-religious metaphors are at odds with Wustemann’s description of his practice as being ‘free of any judgment or programme’. Still, Melon District’s occupants will be blissfully unaware of all this chin-stroking theorising.

Poolside cocktails on the roof terrace? Midnight swims in balmy Barcelona? Interiors mixing funky concrete with white-walled Minimalism? Student accommodation it might be, but not as we know it. •

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