The Subterranean Allure of Balthazar Wine Bar in Kiev

Rina Lovko
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Marked by a discrete triangular sign above an inconspicuous metal door, Balthazar wine bar in Kiev, Ukraine, was conceived by local design studio Rina Lovko as a sublimely chic dungeon that makes the most of its subterranean location in the basement of Besarabsky Market, an imposing, historic indoor market in the city centre.

Working closely with the bar’s art director, the Studio has conjured up an intimately immersive environment by filtering the building’s century-old industrial heritage through a lens of mid-century nostalgia and contemporary finesse. The result is a unique bar that combines the uncanny ambience of an age-old wine cellar with the allure of an exclusive speakeasy.

Opened in 1912, Besarabka, as the historic market is locally referred to, was the first roofed market in Kiev and an architectural specimen of early modernism, with the building’s grandiose design belying its functionality. The two towers adorning the central façade, for example, served as water storage and compressor units while a powerful underground refrigeration plant was housed in the basement. The plant, which was considered a technological innovation at that time, was demounted only a few years ago, thereby freeing up the basement for Balthazar to move in.

The bar’s unique premises in the basement of a century-old building posed both architectural and bureaucratic challenges to the design team and stretched the renovation to a year and a half. From the limited height of the arched construction that required lowering the floor level by half a metre—a laborious process of digging up tons of soil and other materials at night so as not to interfere with the market’s daily operations—to the need to waterproof the brick walls and provide adequate ventilation through the main entrance, the design team ingeniously resolved a series of issues with non-standard solutions, transforming a cramped, damp, uninviting subterranean area into an enchanting venue.

The digging process brought to the surface part of the building’s foundation which the design team cleverly transformed into banquette seating running along the length of the venue, a long and narrow space that also includes a high seating area, complete with a cosy bar counter and intimate tables fixed to the wall, and a lounge, furnished with vintage mid-century armchairs and sofas restored by the designers.

The bar’s overall aesthetic combines the building’s gritty, industrial heritage with a sensibility of mid-century sophistication, underpinned by an earthy colour palette of browns and greens, and mellowed by an intimate lighting design that favours soft accents of warm illumination by custom-design lamps created by Ukrainian designer Vasily Grublyak.

Exposed brickwork, left intact or painted olive-green, cement floor tiles and metal furnishings, including the imposing entrance door which has been artificially rusted and graffitied, are complemented by the use of wood from old wine barrels for the entrance steps and communal table, while glazed, green-tinted Soviet tiles on the bar counter, walnut veneer covering the table tops and sumptuous leather and velvet upholstery add a sense of refinement and sophistication. Ultimately, it is these fine-tuned juxtapositions of materials and textures that encapsulate the bar’s seductive fusion of poised elegance and brooding mystery.

The Subterranean Allure of Balthazar Wine Bar in Kiev