Ambiguous Space

I’d been to Berlin as an architecture student before the wall, and as an academic tourist with the wall. My wife had never been there. When we decided that the city’s new post-wall architecture deserved a visit, we booked a fine hotel in the hope of staying at an enjoyable modern place. And we were willing to pay, on our own euro, for the privilege, since my wife once mentioned that her usual disinclination toward the deluxe—couture clothes, jewelry, silly cars, meals at pretentious gastronomic shrines—still left one deluxe inclination standing. As a hardworking woman who runs two foodie pubs in London, she felt that when she was able to snatch a short holiday it was perfectly reasonable to stay at a fine hotel. She liked them, and deserved them. And given her normal moderation, I was OK with that.

I also knew that “fine” to her didn’t mean the largesse and pampering assured by most hotel come-ons. So I promised myself that in our travels I would always try to delight her with the first-rate, but by our own loftier standards of friendliness, authenticity, and good design. In pursuit of such experiential eudaemonia (contented well-being), we would travel hopefully, like Charlotte Vale and Jerry Durrance in Now, Voyager. Together we would have the stars—if we were lucky.

At first sight our hotel, the Sofitel Berlin Gendarmenmarkt, seemed only moderately grand. The gray-painted facade of precast concrete elements had a timid pseudohistorical look, except for the late-model window detailing. Why? A complicated building history (and very Berlin). The hotel had been built in 1981 as a Deutsche Demokratische Republik guesthouse, using an East German prefabricated concrete system. After becoming part of the Dorint chain in 1999, the building was comprehensively converted into 92 guest rooms and suites by two young German designers, Harald Klein and Bert Haller. The reopening had attracted an unusual amount of press attention because it was the first deluxe hotel in post-reunification East Berlin. I presumed they didn’t modify the exterior in order to maintain the historical look on Gendarmenmarkt, the old square where the hotel is perfectly sited. Klein and Haller hadn’t even disturbed the uniform rhythm of arched bays to enlarge the front door. Instead they built a rectangular picture frame around the portal, clad with backlit translucent glass, bearing the lettering of the hotel’s name above. The gray concrete with superimposed sandblasted glass made a surprisingly jaunty combination, like an old denim outfit enhanced incongruously with a bib of guipure lace.

The lobby inside was modest but felt airy, bright, and dignified. We shuffled after the porter to the elevators, which were covered in white-veined black marble and further wrapped in a loose cage of shiny flat steel bands, an example of what we soon recognized as the hotel’s design signature: overlapping layers of contrasting materials.

It was when the porter opened the door to room 303 that our experiential well-being began. If we really were Now, Voyager characters, our hearts would have certainly fluttered. Looking within, we registered the essentials in a blink: visible surfaces, elegantly assorted; lighting contrasts, marked; spa­­tial impression, better than good. We were responding to the riches of an ambiguous space. And our strongly well-disposed feelings were probably impossible to achieve within the confines of most hotel rooms. Our largish one, two window bays wide (probably two rooms in DDR guesthouse days), allowed the bathroom to be in the middle of one side, away from the exterior. Bumping the big bathroom into the middle of the space created a little complexity. The leg of the L around the corner between the bathroom and windows held a wide writing desk with a glazed cube TV set that could be made a visual part of the main space or not, depending on whether the frosted glass door of the bathroom was shut or ajar and whether the bathroom mirror—hung from an overhead track with its lights—was slid open for light or closed for privacy. As a practical consideration, with the bathroom mirror in its semi-open position there was plenty of marble worktop for all the miscellaneous stuff that a slave to toileting diligence like me drags around. In all its aspects this felt like a room that we would be delighted to be at home in first thing in the morning and last thing at night (or all day, if the Pergamon Museum had lost its charm).

Why am I expatiating on a mere guest bedroom? Because the central purpose of hotels is the accommodation of visiting strangers, a matter of unique architectural interest. Unlike those at other kinds of public buildings, here visitors can stay for days and pay well for the privilege. Cre­ating hospitality for an unknown visitor is a crucial design challenge, and difficult to achieve. A satisfying guest room isn’t easy to find.

Functional practicality is merely part of it, as I’ve known since a formative early experience working on a new Howard Johnson hotel. My architectural team was given a design guidance manual from the company that we were told to follow exactly. The Howard Johnson geniuses of the postwar era didn’t invent the specification so familiarly seen in tens of thousands of U.S. hotels and motels, but their fixed requirements were exactly the same: two wide beds with a small gap between, twin washbasins outside the bathroom, the TV viewable from the reclining position, task lighting where stated, and—tying it all together with a vengeance—limited circulation space around the beds in each small room. Millions of users would vote for a room like that; and over the years, they plainly did.

My own preference eventually developed into a conviction that something a bit bigger, with a little mystery, was the key to a cunning enrichment of hospitable spaces. Hospitable ambiguity is too slippery a concept to specify in a design manual. It usually consists of one or more of the following: not being able to see all the corners of the room or whether a wall is flat or multilayered; an implication of other spaces; an enrichment of lighting. The Frank Lloyd Wright domestic interiors that I’ve visited always had hospitable ambiguity. Photographs are not helpful because they don’t reveal it. It’s dynamic and corner-of-the-eye transformational yet subtle. Exaggeration blows it. It’s usually fleeting. But even when what’s tantalizing has become familiar, a sense of reliable richness should remain.

In our guest room the lighting was sophisticated. A trio of spotlights with framing shutters threw small luminous colored squares on the walls in a debonair manner. Our wide double bed was covered with German-style bedding of fluffy white duvets; and above the bed a narrow strip light gave out a dim orange glow useless for reading—but perfect for making love, I figured (I’m still hip).

The walls were detailed as stepped layers of black marble and plaster, sometimes with dark-wood edging. The headboard for the bed was partly covered with a pleated white fabric that matched the fine Egyptian-­cotton duvet covers. Some of the door frames were made of different materials on either side of the door. By such means of suggesting thickness and difference, simple forms became complex, and more ambiguity was engendered. The space was full of subtle design ideas.

Included in our room rate were breakfasts that could be lavish. I decided that was a sovereign way to begin the day, before contemplating the museum’s reconstructions of classical facades or the showy new buildings of international architects. The grand scene where breakfasts happened was in an imposing basilican space—the Roman invention of an ambulatory, or aisles, around a columned nave. It bore out my take on the main design intentions at the hotel since the basilica form is a flaming model of spatial ambiguity: perceptions go buzzing amid the high central part and the breadth through the piers of the surrounding parts. Everything was loftily lit by skylights and large suspended shades around light clusters. The light streaming down felt so ethereally impressive that the breakfasting guests whispered to one another, as if in church.

For churchgoers the sense of uplifted well-being is what ecclesiastical architecture is mainly about, and it’s always seemed odd to me that the designers of secular havens rarely go for that. The benefits can be experienced at the Dorint Sofitel, where the obvious priority was to impart feelings of welcome and contentment rather than do cute colors, lay on rich furnishings, and deliver no more than cushioned practicality or, worse, soulless luxury. That’s Klein and Haller’s subtle but momentous achievement: refined and refreshingly offbeat, they’ve put up proper eudaemonia, secular archi­tecture division.
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Nathan Silver is an architect and design critic who lives in London. He is the author of The Making of Beaubourg: A Building Biography of the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

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