A Cantina, Spain

February 6, 2013

This canteen in northwest Spain by Estudio Nômada is a fine example of how minimal intervention makes for great effect.

This article was originally published in Inside #74: The Winners’ Issue.
The view through a curved archway from the museum store into the canteen, with tiled counter to the right.

The design landscape has been dotted with outstanding examples of food halls, cafeterias and canteens in recent years, with interior designers reinvigorating a typology that has long had the potential to expand beyond traditional expectations. From Landini Associates’ astounding Loblaws Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, to The Uncarved Block’s Melbourne Central, these communal dining experiences boast a high-end design aesthetic that belies the ‘fast food’ they serve. A Cantina is one other such example and it’s no surprise that it was recently awarded Best Restaurant at the international 2012 Restaurant and Bar Design Awards.

The canteen’s ‘forest of trees’ surrounding the dining tables is its brightest design expression.


Located in the photogenic city of Santiago de Compostela in the province of Galicia in northwest Spain, A Cantina is an intelligent balance of elegant spatial composition and striking design motif. Essentially a 277sqm annex off the Galician Archives, one of the Galician City of Culture’s (Cidade da Cultura de Galicia) six buildings, the canteen’s key design expression is the ‘forest of trees’ that grounds each of the two long tables in the centre of the space. It is a deliberately bold move on the part of architect José-Antonio Vázquez-Martín and interior designer Enrique de Santiago from Estudio Nômada, as it defines a space that has otherwise minimal intervention.

Reinterpreting the traditional Spanish cantina through this modern filter, Vázquez-Martín and de Santiago have taken inspiration from their natural surroundings. Galicia is renowned for its rolling hillsides, coastal rias and dense forests and A Cantina references this topography in a whimsical way.

A curved screen discreetly shields the kitchen from the view of diners.


The fitout’s ‘trees’ are constructed from aluminium and wrapped with unstained oak wood. They extend vertically, almost to the ceiling, and the decorative web of lines and angles draws the eye upward, providing an abundance of visual intrigue. The shadows they cast are also a subtle reference to the Galician tradition of night festivals, when bonfires are lit on the eve of a major religious festival.

Elsewhere in the space, walls and columns are white and the blonde-on-blonde appeal of A Cantina’s fitout is reminiscent of a particular Japanese aesthetic, often captured in the residential interiors of Sou Fujimoto. But where Fujimoto’s well-considered, clean spaces differ from A Cantina, is that Fujimoto’s interiors will often incorporate real trees. The natural colour palette of A Cantina is broken up with the introduction of brightly coloured tiles on the front of the service counter. It runs the full length of the canteen and extends through one of two archways into an adjoining space, which houses the Galician City of Culture’s museum store.

Made of solid oak wood, the museum store’s bookshelves are exquisitely detailed.


Vázquez-Martín and de Santiago’s elegant vision is again applied here. The solid oak wood bookshelves and counters are freestanding, allowing for versatility and flexibility in the floor plan, while this matte-finished material links the space back to the canteen. The level of craftsmanship in the bookshelves and counters is high and the attention to detail is what makes these furnishings such attractive objects. Each shelf end is recessed with a bold colour, which complements the colours used in the counter’s tiles. It’s an unexpected, yet restrained flourish and again, one that provides visual intrigue.

Curved forms have been used sparingly in both spaces, but to great effect. The archways are organically shaped and soften the transition between the two rooms, working to balance the hard edges of the tables, ‘trees’, bookshelves and counters. They also provide a wonderful frame when looking from one space to the other. The other curved form is located in the canteen and this takes the shape of a tall, circular screen, which cleverly conceals the kitchen from full view.

The view through a curved archway, looking through to the museum store’s bookshelves.


While many believe the Peter Eisenman-designed Galician City of Culture to be his greatest work, many others have criticised the cultural centre for running over budget, being oversized in scale and lacking a program. It does loom large over the city of Santiago de Compostela, but it also does attempt a concession with a topographical surface that is a nod to the rolling hills of Galicia. What is for certain, however, is that the small canteen and museum store wedged between the Galician Archives and Library of Galicia is an oasis. A Cantina’s design identity is so strong, that regardless of location, it will always stand up as an outstanding example of what can be done with a clear concept, solid execution and fine craftsmanship.

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