Garden and Gaffe: A Hotel by Jean Nouvel

Leon Battista Alberti famously wrote: “The city is like some large house and the house in turn like some small city”. If there is one type of “house” that comes closest to Alberti’s “small city”, then surely it is the hotel. Like a city, a hotel is comprised of both private “residential” space (in this case temporary residences) and relatively public functions; the private realm making up the representative bulk and consisting of largely repetitive units while the more public lobby, conference spaces, restaurant, and so on are monumental, singular spaces of representation. The ultimate mixed-use building type, a hotel is a place where guests stay for a variety of reasons, be it a travelling sales rep hoping to strike a business deal, illicit lovers having an affair, criminals evading the police, academics at a conference, or spies on an intelligence-gathering mission. Anything can and everything has happened in hotels: Watergate, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bed-ins for Peace, Dominique Strauss Kahn.

It is no surprise, then, that the hotel has become in recent times one of the most architecturally reinvigorated types of buildings. The drab, beige hotel of the nineteen seventies and eighties, where sameness, familiarity and the offer of a cozy “home away from home” was the ideal, is seemingly a thing of the past. Hotels have instead become places where people seek a memorable experience that is precisely different from the familiarity and routine humdrum of home. As an “experience” space available to a majority of people, the hotel can also be seen as a democratization of the pleasure palaces of the aristocracy of previous centuries.

The Renaissance Barcelona Fira Hotel by Jean Novel and Ribas & Ribas is, like many palaces, characterized principally by a garden, that most sensuous space of pleasure and temptation since biblical times. This garden, however, climbs up a 26 story high atrium space that is completely open to the exterior on one of the sides of the tower, which forms a “U” shaped floor plan in which the rooms are accessed by garden-facing galleries that are open during three seasons of the year, and that are separated from the garden in winter by means of transparent roll-down barriers.

A single staircase climbs up the atrium along a different trajectory at each level change, connecting galleries as well as bridges, platforms, and a over a hundred planter boxes containing ten different varieties of palm trees and other plant species. It is a delirious, seemingly endless space that would make Giovanni Battista Piranesi proud, and which redefines the late-modern hotel atrium made famous by architect-developer John Portman.

It is the exterior openness of this atrium that sets it apart from any of  John Portman’s, however. In this atrium, there is no wall-to-wall carpeting, no chrome, and no air conditioning. Instead, there is a gentle breeze and the sounds and framed view of a city beyond. The leaves of the palm trees move in the breeze, and the hotel rooms open directly onto an exterior garden and not into a long, dim, anonymous corridor, making it tempting for guests to leave the door open when in their rooms.

Unfortunately, however, the theme of “palm tree” has been taken by its architect just a little too far. The palm tree-shaped windows of most of the rooms are gimmicky and goofy. A gaffe. Those windows are precisely why it’s a good thing the doors of the hotel rooms open directly onto the memorable garden–and city–outside.

About Rafael Gomez-Moriana

I am an architect, writer and educator. rafagomo.com chronicles my architectural making, writing, teaching and curating activity, while criticalista.com is an archive of my writings as well as a platform for venting personal rants and observations. I studied architecture at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and at the Berlage Institute (the Netherlands). I direct the University of Calgary’s architecture term-abroad program in Barcelona and teach at CIEE, and have previously taught in the Metropolis Masters Program in Architecture and Urban Culture as well as at Carleton University and the University of Manitoba.

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