Portal to Fame

On the edge of a highway near Madrid’s northeastern Salamanca quarter, the Hotel Puerta América is new enough that cab drivers are still not quite sure where the entrance is. Its inscrutable doorways don’t help.

They’re tucked away inside small angled corridors on either side of a canopy projecting over the driveway. Their sandblasted glass surfaces lack handles or other indicators of doorness, but when approached they retract Jetsons-like, ushering you into a kind of interior-design theme park.

For the hotel’s lobby, restaurant, and each of its 12 guest floors, the Puerta—“portal” in English—chose a different famous designer, each of whom were given free reign over materials and composition, producing a dizzying variety of experiences for guests willing to pay a room-change fee. Most of the 76 million euros (and counting) that the Silken luxury hotel chain invested in the project clearly went here, on the inside, as opposed to Jean Nouvel’s plastic-covered facade sprinkled with phrases from the Paul Éluard poem “Liberté.”

The sheer scale of the experiment deserves credit, even if the results are mixed—Norman Foster decked practically every surface on the second floor with white leather, for example. For all of the famous designer names—architects Zaha Hadid and David Chipperfield, and product designers Marc Newson and Ron Arad, to name a few—the hotel’s hits, some of them pretty remarkable, are balanced by a couple of real clunkers and a handful of decisions that are sure to leave guests scratching—if not bumping—their heads.

Metropolis art director Nancy Nowacek and associate editor Stephen Zacks went to Madrid just after the hubbub of the hotel’s opening had subsided to take a ride in a handful of rooms—separately, of course—and find out firsthand what it’s like to stay in some of the Puerta’s most high-concept floors, dine in its idiomatic restaurant, and circulate among the Spanish glitterati in its pacific lobby.

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Lobby: John Pawson

The Concept
“When you pass through the doors of a hotel you want to feel relief that one journey is over and excitement that another is beginning,” Pawson says. “So my aim at the Hotel Puerta was to provide calm threshold space—somewhere people immediately feel comfortable and at ease. The primary function of a lobby is to deal graciously with the rituals of arrival and departure, but you also want somewhere with a strong sense of place that becomes a destination in its own right.”

Pawson’s Favorite Hotel
“Ian Schrager always manages to do something new. I have known him for years and am always made very welcome whenever I stay at one of his hotels.”

The Experience
Walking into Pawson’s lobby and reception area feels a bit like entering an upscale monastery. Just past the dual sandblasted glass entrances an ash-wood rotunda fanned by rows of vertical slats creates an austere passageway surrounding the elevator chamber, in which water washes over a travertine embankment. Oiled walnut and leather Hans Wegner shell chairs and tables are positioned on the sides of the rotunda facing a leather-upholstered reception desk, where Spanish businessmen in designer suits leaf through portfolios of room options.

Fashionable young women attending a L’Oréal job fair in the conference room galleria march back and forth through the lobby and assemble near the bar, smoking massive amounts of cigarettes. The hotel is doing good business hosting product launches and high-end corporate events, and requests for film shoots and ad spots are pouring in.

In the hallway behind the bar, the ground-floor bathrooms are shuttered with more sandblasted glass, and a commotion of flushing sounds is set off as guests enter, triggering lights and water rushing down travertine walls opposite the toilets. Is it the sound of euros flowing down the river or into the bank? Only time will tell. —SZ

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Bar: Christian Liaigre

The Concept
“Certain principles are the essence of Spain: dignity, a reserve of emotions, the world of bullfighting,” Liaigre says. “Elements I used to express these are silver embroideries, embossed leather, red and black, and a pattern on the bar that was inspired by old Spanish lace.”

Liaigre’s Favorite Hotel
The Mercer, in New York

The Experience
Dinner at Black Tears echoes the Gothic imagery of its name. Like a wake at the house of a neighbor (one who has great style), it’s a little too quiet, the atmosphere is a bit too heavy, and the focus falls more to manners and best behavior than easy conversation or hearty enjoyment. Given Liaigre’s winning moves—the baroquely backlit LG Hi-Macs bar, the oversize shutters keeping daylight and the rainbow-hued facade at bay, and an embossed leather curtain lining the back wall—it’s hard to attribute the discomfort to particular details. Perhaps it’s the spare formality of the room compared to the airy blondness of the nearby lobby. Layout might also be a factor: with a breakfast area lofted above, the bar and lounge are tucked under a low ceiling, while the dining tables are dwarfed by the large hanging lamps compensating for the leftover air space. The dining areas, oriented in perpendicular rows along the exterior wall, feel too regimented, and there’s no interplay between the tables, the lounge, and the bar. It feels as though everyone is staring at one another’s backs.

Liaigre brings the most to the table in small details: a motif in the banquette’s embroidery is derived from matador costumes, red tassels reminiscent of Spanish palace ornament cover the low-hanging lamps, and the heavy wood support of the table—like a leg from Ferdinand’s throne blown up 200 percent. One only appreciates the details when dining, and toward the end of the first bottle of wine they’re nearly enough to turn an uncomfortable silence into a more palatable meditation. —NN

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1st Floor: Zaha Hadid

The Concept
“We took the opportunity to create a new domestic language of architecture driven by new developments in digital design and enhanced manufacturing capabilities,” Hadid says. “The aim is to ultimately allow for a fluid space and a seamless experience.”

Hadid’s Favorite Hotel
“In New York, I prefer the Mercer.”

The Experience
A hotel room can be one of the loneliest aspects of travel, reinforcing a sense of disconnection from one’s language, community, and other familiar references. Hadid’s rooms embrace this disconnection, creating another world in which the guests are made to feel paradoxically at home in being removed not only from their own surroundings but from local references. An unexpected meditative quality emerges from the atmosphere of extreme alienation that gets at the core metaphysical experience of travel.

As the doors of the elevators open into an all-white foyer, guests immediately feel compelled to touch the curving walls. The biggest surprise is the smoothness and solidity of the material—molded from LG Hi-Macs, a Fiberboard-Corian composite fabricated in component parts and screwed into cement board on-site. The rooms are like snow castles carved out of a child’s dream world, a bed fluidly merging into a desk, a nightstand, a wall, a ceiling, a counter, a bench. Recesses above the bed and in the ceiling filter indirect light throughout the room, and presets in the control panel mounted next to the bed—a standard feature on most floors—optimize light levels for various moods and times of day.

In the bathroom softly lit and gently graded walls have the effect of making the back of the shower invisible even when you’re standing in it. Here as in the elegantly composed but brutally uncomfortable chair, some of the positive aspects of alienation give way to actual pain for the user. But love or hate Hadid’s burgeoning portfolio of cultural buildings, these are arresting spaces and some of the most solidly built realizations of digital design. —SZ

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4th Floor: Plasma

The Concept
“The premise was a critique of the traditional hotel corridor,” Plasma’s Eva Castro Iraola says. “We started to realize that the type of decoration normally used tries to make the hotel into a familiar space. For us the space of the hotel is by definition an artificial space that doesn’t need to be a homey environment. The geometry developed as a push and pull between the program and the attempt to allow the user to relate to the corridor spatially.”

Plasma’s Favorite Hotel
“Some kind of dream holiday hotel lost in the middle of the Maldives or Seychelles.”

The Experience
Digital design still confronts extraordinary obstacles to fluid realization on larger building projects, but CAD-designed interiors can now be easily translated into component parts through CNC milling and installed with relative ease. The fate of Plasma Studio’s ambitious project for the Puerta América is an unfortunate case of a contractor unwilling or unable to use the technology at its disposal.

Plasma’s most radical intervention into the hotel’s program—the sizes of the rooms and corridors were the only preordained aspect—happens in the elevator lobby and hallways, where designers Iraola and Holger Kehne shatter the transitional spaces with triangular shards of metal programmed to meet at three-dimensional points. This didn’t quite work out because the builder insisted on hand-cutting the parts despite tolerances that permitted very little in the way of human error.

Plasma was more attentive to the requirements of material comfort inside the rooms, inserting a glass wall be-tween the bathroom and the bedroom composed of a configuration of angled sections measured to distribute the load across the multiple edges. Here trial and error on the part of the contractor prevailed, though guests with a less than absolute faith in experimental architecture might sleep fitfully next to the seemingly unstable glass wall. —SZ

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6th Floor: Marc Newson

The Concept
“This was my chance to address everything that bugged me about hotel accommodation,” Newson says. “The minute you come inside amenities should be easily accessible. There should be no conflict between the design of the room and your ability to relax there.”

Newson’s Favorite Hotel
Hotel Okura, in Tokyo

The Experience
Passing through the imposing red-lacquered wood corridor of the sixth floor feels like a Willy Wonka-devised punishment for bad guests. But the contrast between the red and the palette of mossy grays, chocolate, and white (here just a noncolor) offers relief. The openness is relaxing too. Like several other designers, Newson opted for an open-plan room that dissolves the division between bathing and sleeping. The tub is centered in the room and flanked by a retractable privacy wall, which nicely frames Newson’s sporty bed.

But a transatlantic flight and a day of city orienteering makes showering the first item of business. By dispensing with the division between shower and toilet (no door or curtain), Newson carries the open plan a little too far. Before the water is warm enough, the bathroom floods—and the minimalist interventions turn chaotic with sopping towels.

The tension continues. Contemplated from bedside, Newson’s clean, industrial design modernity turns spare and lonely. Certainly the bed—inspired by expensive sports-car interiors, complete with glove compartments in the headboard—is cool looking and comfortable, but it’s the space around it that’s unsettling.

The room is not a car or a sneaker, and the choice of materials here has not been designed into a cohesive language. Leather-covered beds and chairs and marble in the bathroom radiate a six or seven-figure salary, but the oak flooring suggests an industrial-space-cum-museum (think Dia Beacon), and the lacquered-wood closets and storage units look youthful and retail oriented. As a total environment the room feels unfinished. We wish Newson had challenged himself to create a unified experience instead of applying his “house style” to isolated moments. —NN

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7th Floor: Ron Arad

The Concept
“I was not interested in using the room to do interior decoration or to re-create a home away from home,” Arad says. “Hotel rooms should offer you a different sort of experience. My idea was to experiment with an inverted capsule where everything is placed in the middle of the envelope. It’s almost like a product or an object—a machine that is a hotel room.”

Arad’s Favorite Hotel
“I quite like the Park Hyatt in Tokyo because it starts on the 38th floor.”

The Experience
One of the more dubious conceits in interior design is the application of an industrial-design methodology to spaces meant to house people. More often than not the results are interiors that—as one might expect—feel more like consumer products than livable spaces. Who doesn’t like a gadget with all kinds of cool functions that you can carry in your pocket—but does anyone really want to live inside one?

Arad’s floor has one of the best elevator lobbies in the Puerta—a ceiling that droops down into a bulbous sphere surrounded by a circular bench and rows of televisions broadcasting video feeds from the elevators. But its rooms are more like machine shops than places of repose and relaxation. The bulk of the interior is taken up by a sort of engine containing all of the room’s “active” functions—to borrow a phrase from industrial design—principally the bathroom, a desk and chair, a bed, and storage spaces, leaving very little room for the room.

A screen activated by a switch in the headboard scrolls down in front of the window, which faces a round bachelor pad-style bed, and a video projector above the bed is controlled by a remote that does too many things to be easily controllable. It’s a disconcerting space to spend much time in, and one is tempted to pace in circles around the central engine looking for a place to rest. Not even the toilet—contained in a transparent chamber that resembles a time machine—offers much relief. —SZ

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8th Floor: Kathryn Findlay

The Concept
“This hotel is surreal in that each floor is the work of a single designer’s mind,” says Kathryn Findlay. “Rather than making my floor ‘Kathryn Findlay’s World,’ I wanted to create a world for the guests. These rooms are white flowing spaces where they can be quiet and meditative, and contemplate things in their own private ways.”

Findlay’s Favorite Hotel
Hiragiya Ryokan, in Kyoto

The Experience
The elevator doors on the eighth floor open on a white biomorphically modular sitting area framed by twinkling pale blue, green, and purple LEDs, which ripple deeper pinks and reds in passing. It’s an interstellar moment of peaceful optimism. Smaller blue and green dots silently chase the rolling contours of the dimly lit corridor. It’s a little too dark to find the room numbers hastily assigned to the floor, but otherwise it is a cool compress after Madrid’s aggressive sun. The floor is the perfect fairy-tale spaceship, safe from Romulans, Sith, or even HAL.

Despite its stark whiteness, the room is an escape pod from the sweaty downtown streets. Findlay’s watery contours rinse away any hard edges that remain from the day. An easy pull of the white curtains on either side of the entry reveal a “closet” along one wall, and an egg-shaped tub and bath area opposite. But the bed is the real centerpiece: crafted in white LG Hi-Macs and hung from the ceiling, it magically hovers over the floor. Integrated into the headboard is a narrow work area that, due to the bed’s orientation, faces out toward the Madrid skyline—a breathtaking view for daydreaming or phone calls back to the office, but slightly menacing at bedtime. The bed’s footboard doubles as a lounge area. Covered in white leather, the cushioned wall-length piece gently slopes to the floor on either side of the bed, maintaining continuity with the rest of Findlay’s lines—which at the end of a long day unfold a fluid space that feels like a home away from Earth. —NN

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12th Floor: Jean Nouvel

The Concept
“The hotel’s theme of liberté, or freedom, reminded me of libertinage, a seventeenth-century French movement that dealt with intellectual and sexual liberation,” Nouvel says. “It inspired me to use erotic photography from Araki, as well as abstract photography by Fleischer. The walls can be arranged to hide or reveal different accommodations.”

Nouvel’s Favorite Hotel
Taj Lake Palace, in Udaipur, India

The Experience
Arriving on the twelfth floor, one is greeted by an environment so completely black that the red-neon baseboard lights barely offer direction. A few clumsy paces ahead, spotlit walls with translations of Paul Éluard’s “Liberté”—a moving poem started in 1941 during the German occupation of France—compete for attention with artist statements by Nobuyoshi Araki and Alain Fleischer, whose work is featured on the walls of the penthouse’s two wings. There are more unexplained moments in the blackness: a projected video loop at the end of the hallway and monitors outside each room. It’s a series of disconnected signals fueled by fleeting whimsy.

The all-black environment of the Fleischer-decorated rooms is vampirous—it waits for nightfall to do its best work. Furnishings take a backseat to Nouvel’s glass-and-image spectacular as photographs sandwiched between sliding glass panels—employed as dividers throughout the penthouse—take on a jewel-like glow. It’s only unfortunate that the splash of color in the white-dominated Araki rooms forms the image of a geisha—a superficial (and offensive) nod to eroticism.

Walls and ceilings are lavished with imagery as well. The effect is oddly beautiful, a garden of illusions. One can imagine the backdrop they will become for the high-rolling businessmen or touring rock stars. Beyond the questionable content of the photography and the gross misappropriation of Éluard’s poem, Nouvel’s flair gorgeously frames the city, as though the distant twinkling lights are part of the room’s riches. —NN

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Parking: Teresa Sapey

The Concept
“I wanted the parking lot to be as good functionally as it was aesthetically,” Sapey says. “I made the corners dark red, and this lightens as you move toward the center of the space.”

Sapey’s Favorite Hotel
Hotel Monaco & Grand Canal, in Venice

The Experience
It’s a particular kind of architect who has the modesty to take on the design of an underground parking structure, with its tight tolerances, hefty safety requirements, and the unlikelihood of recognition. Sapey rises to the occasion in the creation of a memorable sous-terrain environment.

Appropriating the hottest reds, oranges, and yellows from the facade’s color palette, Sapey paints them liberally on the walls and pours them onto the pavement in high gloss, reversing the usual cold and uninviting effect of underground lots. A lighting installation that seems to deconstruct a heaping pile of directional arrows made up of a nest of fluorescent tubes adds further excitement—and safety—to the space.

For the signage, though, Sapey makes one of the most common mistakes of architecture: she attempts to be a graphic designer, and the result is semiotic chaos. Lining the walls of the structure are symbols haphazardly selected from an international wayfinding vocabulary and composed of trite phrases (Freedom to see, Freedom to hear…).

Even apart from the misplaced typographical content, the figures are a puzzling addition. Applied on a confrontational scale, the imagery—such as a large punishing finger and the figure of an adult running with a baby in a stroller—connotes fear and impending danger, especially in the context of the terrorist bombings in Madrid almost two years ago. Perhaps Sapey is trying her hand at political commentary, but more likely these figures were an attempt to playfully reference holiday travel. Their effect is to give an ominous overtone to Sapey’s otherwise warm, color-drenched underground environment. —NN

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