This Bland Is My Bland

There’s a joke in Don DeLillo’s White Noise about the “world’s most photographed barn.” No one remembers why anyone took its picture in the first place. It has become famous merely for being famous.

Martin Parr collects the world’s least photographed barns and presents them in books called Boring Postcards. Published by Phaidon, last year’s introductory volume concentrated on sites in the U.K., and Parr has recently followed it up with a book devoted to the U.S. These compendiums of actual postcards boast postwar motels, banks, highway underpasses, and industrial infrastructure so staggeringly mundane, so risibly banal as to defy belief. There’s “The Mall” at Horseheads, New York, a 1970s shopping plaza clad in wood shingles and stuffed with wrought iron, where a smattering of fake plants rings a colossally unspectacular water feature; there’s the TraveLodge in Kingman, Arizona, a two story affair whose parking spaces extend to the pool’s edges (drive-in swimming!); there’s the “Taylor Rental Center” in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, with a humble enfilade of snowblowers and power mowers assembled out front (Wish you were here?). There are scenes the mind’s eye has absorbed–and promptly discarded–a hundred times, cruising the turgid iconography of the suburban strip. What makes them noteworthy is that someone has bothered to select a perspective, find the best light, frame the image, and commit the structure to posterity.

“I don’t really think they’re boring at all ,” says Parr, a reserved Englishman residing in Bristol who is himself a photographer. For years he has accrued his artistic reputation with a mordantly witty eye and a penchant for chronicling obsessions, such as Japanese commuters sleeping on trains, bad weather, and the English middle class. Most recently, he’s deployed a ring-flash camera normally used in medical photography to put his subjects–even those on the bright English seaside–under a revealing light. With Postcards, Parr indulges in the charms of curatorial work. “I think they’re absolutely interesting–the title is a way to get people’s attention,” he says. “In fact they have this whole layer of information and revelation about the society behind them.” The postcards present a secret history of the anonymous buildings that surround us and the moment that produced them. When the English M1 highway was built, a flurry of postcards circulated in its honor. “People would literally write on the back, ‘I’ ve just been on the M1; it was fantastic,'” he says. Decades of gridlock and accidents have taken their toll, however–the novel has ossified into the dreary. “You can’t buy a postcard of the M1 anymore,” he notes.

Parr would know–his methodically sorted postcard collection numbers well into the thousands. Boring Postcards stems from an idea he shared with a Bristol arts center to mount a competition in search of the “world’s most boring postcard.” For the U.S. version, he haunted postcard shows in Manhattan. “I kept asking these dealers about these cards and by the end they were coming over and asking, ‘Is this boring enough for you?,” Germany will be the theme of the final Boring Postcards compilation. “And Germany is meant to be boring,” notes Parrwith wry satisfaction.

Boring Postcards USA reads as a Technicolor-toned paean to the optimism of postwar America, when every “Farmer’s Bank” and bus terminal that went up from Wauchula, Florida, to Raton, New Mexico, was cause for celebration. Who can look at the photo of the taconite plant in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, a gray assemblage of buildings photographed from a distance, and fail to be stirred by the large white square marked on an adjoining section of forest, which reads “Site of Proposed Larger Taconite Plant”? Who would not get sentimental gazing upon Tri-County, the “Shopping Showplace of Ohio,” a series of flat, outsized boxes sailing majestically in a sea of parking?

Comparing the boring postcards of England and America evinces subtle cultural distinctions. People in the English cards, for example, register more as crowds than individuals; rarely does anyone look at the camera. Similarly, the architecture seems more institutional in the British collection–the tower blocks that rise ominously in the backdrop of the “Market Precinct” in Scunthorpe or the Le Corbusier-esque mix of large buildings and empty spaces that compose the “Harlow New Town.” Another curious distinction is that American cards frequently embellish the title–they’ll go on about “The Beautiful New and Modern Greyhound Bus Station and Ramp Parking Garage” or “The beautiful and spacious dining room of the Wesleyan Retirement Home in Georgetown, Texas,” while their English counterparts never do. “Perhaps it’s just typical British understatement,” offers Parr.

Parr’s books raise the question of what boring architecture–and boring photography–really is. He compares some cards to the photos of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the German artists acclaimed for coolly detached shots of industrial structures, such as water towers. The “Fast Reactor” atomic plant in Caithness, Scotland, may indeed be “boring,” but the postcard presents an expressionistic, almost haunting black-and-white image of a Bauhausian box with a huge bulbous dome. Its boredom is in the mind of the beholder.

Martin Parr’s postcards are a populist chronicle of a time when the idea of modernism was trickling down into everyday life, when a town’s signal achievement was to have an airport with a glass box terminal and a clean, well-lit departure lounge; when American prosperity could be measured in the abundance of custom car washes and “Oil Tank Farms”; when no technical achievement–whether the M1 motorway or Flexalum Aluminium (sic) Awnings–seemed undeserving of photography that prompted visitors to communicate a sense of wonder or adventure. Once contemporary viewers get beyond the initial perverse frisson–“I can’t believe someone made a postcard of this”-they will be anything but bored. They may even be a little awestruck.

RUNWAY MODERN

Waiting for a flight usually means sitting on the bony edge of your suitcase, gnawing on some stale peanuts, and nursing malevolent fantasies as flashing monitors push the hour of your departure back, and back, and back. By comparison, waiting in Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class Lounge at John F. Kennedy International Airport feels bizarrely pleasant. As you enter, leaving behind the chaos of JFK’s Terminal One, a receptionist takes your coat, then offers you a towel in case you’d like a shower in a sleek bathroom trimmed with modernist chrome fixtures. Or if you prefer, she suggests, you can savor a liqueur or an espresso at the stainless-steel, oak-topped bar, play chess in the main lounge, or settle down for a three-course meal in the dining area.

But wait, weren’t layovers supposed to be like this? “During the ’60s and ’70s, emphasis was placed on the future of air travel,” notes Patrick Hegerty of JHL Design, a consultancy that manages Virgin lounges worldwide. “There was widespread public fascination with space and technology, and flying was seen as a glamorous, luxurious adventure.”

Richard Branson’s hiply positioned airline has set out to capture the retro mystique of air travel; Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown made it a reality. Principals of New York firm Tsao & McKown Architects, the pair applied mid-century furnishings, spots of mod red and cool chrome, and a frisky jet-set attitude to the airline’s New York clubhouse. (Note that “membership” is granted only to international travelers who can afford Virgin’s upper-class tickets–$5,000-$7,000 for a quick hop across the pond.) “We’re from that generation in which Weekly Reader inspired our visions of the future,” says McKown. “Later we saw those visions spoofed in Austin Powers and other contexts.”

From its first bravura spectacle–a view through vast double-height windows to the tarmac, where Virgin’s sleek red-and-white jets wait to whisk you to London’s Heathrow–the design refers to the delights of pre-deregulation air travel while acknowledging the needs of 21st-century workaholics and the nerves of shaky passengers. If the thought of flying makes you jittery, the reception area sets a calming tone with a glowing bench of fluorescent tubes under a long slab of three-inch-thick resin. The spare entryway introduces end-grain block velva wood floors and paneling of end-grain white oak treated with an alcohol stain to bring out pacific gray hues.

The 5,500-square-foot main level is divided into several intimate spaces by furniture arrangements–two Windsor chairs bracketing a Pfister sofa by Knoll in one area, a circle of silver Eames lounges and antique Chinese drums in another, a bank of celadon Aarnio Ball chairs facing the runway. To the north is the long bar lined with dark brown barstools, and beyond, a small dining area with a row of Conan tables, each decorated with a purple orchid in a clear glass vase. To the south, you’ll find the showers and a business center, a circular bank of desks where passengers can plug in their laptops, send faxes, or search the Web on a computer with a flat-screen monitor. And though it’s a workspace, the layout doesn’t disrupt the room’s tranquility–the fax machine, paper shredder, and a globe are arranged in the wall like a museum display. The desks, inspired by library reading rooms, are flanked by comfortable Eames swivel chairs upholstered in light-gray wool.

Upstairs, a mezzanine level features a row of interlocking C-shaped carrels, covered in dark brown wool felt and arranged along a walkway. The carrels allow passengers to work alone and still peek out on what’s happening in the rest of the lounge. At the far end of this row, the space opens into a large circular area, where the architects have created a kind of 1970s romper room for adults: a low banquette covered in thick wool felt by Italian designer Paola Lenti forms a U facing the tarmac, and a large peanut-shaped sheepskin rug is sprinkled with a cluster of Lenti’s wool felt blocks and a bulbous red plastic Aarnio Tomato chair.

Unifying the design is a sense that flying can be joyful and humorous, an idea Virgin Atlantic aggressively promotes. McKown acknowledges that he experienced several “self-consciously Austin Powers moments” while designing the space, in part because the airline has such a playful image (and because that International Man of Mystery, a velvet frock-coated relic of Swinging London in the mod ’60s, served for a time as Virgin’s poster boy).

“What I thought was really great about Virgin was that it put the spunk back into air travel,” says Tsao. “That’s why we allude to those early years of optimism about it.” He hastens to add that the project was far less historic recreation than inspiration: “We used all kinds of things, as a metaphor for the Plurality of contemporary life, so it’s not really nostalgia at all. It was a nod to the period.” And what could be more modern than that?

BONJOUR VITESSE

Sexy isn’t an adjective often applied to buildings, but Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport Terminal 2, Hall F (CDG 2F) is supremely sexy. All smooth curves, arcs, and filigree struts, it’s the ultimate icon of 21st-century modernity. And for extra cool points, CDG 2F appears regularly on MTV prime time and in films — the latest U2 video was shot here, as were a feature starring Catherine Deneuve and the latest movie by director Luc Besson. But to see it you have to fly to or through Paris on an Air France jet. Hall F is the Air France flagship, a dedicated terminal handling more than 40 percent of the airline’s passenger traffic that is the result of a well-spent $4.9-million investment by Aeroports de Paris. It is also the latest extension to France’s busiest airport, which has been designed in stages since the ’70s by Paul Andreu, the Frenchman behind most of CDG’s architecture. Terminal 2F is proof of Andreu’s evolution as an airport designer; compared with the bulky Brutalist profile of Terminal 1, which l ooks heavy and permanently grounded, CDG 2F appears lightly tethered to the ground, as if it can barely be restrained from taking off with the planes. But the terminal’s not all about looks. CDG 2F can handle up to 12 million passengers a year, 50 percent of whom are connecting to other flights.

One of 2F’s best points is the diagrammatic simplicity of its plan. Where Halls A-D are described by two adjacent and equally sized ellipses, each equipped with six aircraft docking points on either side, Hall F is half of a single ellipse twice the size of the others, some 1,312 feet long and 230 feet wide with two piers, called peninsulas, that extend 394 feet on the runway side. Evenly spaced telescopic gangways stick out around each peninsula, allowing speedy access to and from up to 22 aircraft. (Opposite will be Andreu’s curvaceous Hall E, to be completed in 2003.) The pier concept was devised specifically to increase the number of aircraft able to park in contact with the terminal. In other words, hello convenience and goodbye shuttle buses! Further aiding speedy ingress and egress, all halls are linked by rail and road networks, and below and between Halls C, D, and F is a station for the ultra modern TGV train, which connects the airport to the rest of France and beyond–30 minutes to Paris, 20 minu tes to EuroDisney.

From the moment you enter the airport, through a series of massive split concrete columns set within an otherwise all-glass facade, it is clear that Terminal F is a monumental celebration of flight. The concrete ceiling, finely ribbed like a sweater, seems to float above the front facade then dip down to tuck behind the check-in desks that line the length of the entrance hall. Gone are London Heathrow’s complicated elevators, endless corridors, and moving walkways; banished is JFK’s insular brand of corporate nullity. At CDG 2F the very swoops and folds of the building incline toward takeoff and seem to ease travelers on their way. Once Air France passengers have checked in, they simply pass through security(at the foot of the peninsulas in line with the check-in desks) to wait by theirgates. From there they can see their planes. The maximum distance traveled from entrance to farthest gate: a mere 492 feet. CDG 2F’s efficiency is remarkable, perhaps its greatest triumph is its atmosphere. Passengers can rela x on comfortable leather seats beneath a dramatic soaring 107,000-square-foot glass canopy that affords a spectacular view of the runways and aircraft. (At night pinprick spotlights on the ceiling look like stars.) 2F also offers abundant opportunities for upscale snacking and shopping: beneath the peninsula departure area, in the lower-level belly of the hall, passengers have the run of a central boulevard of fine French boutiques and eateries. Fast food is Carte d’Or double-chocolate ice cream, creme caramel, and le club sandwiches served in cafes featuring clusters of wood tables, each adorned with a jaunty Strack-esque lamp and surrounded by upholstered stools or chairs. Restrooms are plentiful and spacious, and the business- and first-class lounges (think luxuriously simple: leather armchairs, round maple-topped tables, marble floors) are housed in the tips of the peninsulas, with swift elevator access to the departure floor. Should the unthinkable overnight delay occur, the 256-room Sheraton Paris Airpo rt Hotel, with interiors by Andree Putman, is moored like a boat between Halls A-D and Hall F.

Despite traffic peaks of 90,000 passengers per day, all is calm and orderly. Hassle-free people movement is aided not only by the building’s transparency, which makes orientation easy, but also by clearly illuminated signs and omnipresent banks of information screens–it’s practically impossible to get lost.

It is a pleasure to be a passenger at CDG 2F, and this is just as Andreu planned. “I no longer intend my buildings to be finished entities in and of themselves,” the architect has said. “A building’s completion comes when it is inhabited by people who bring with them color and movement.” No wonder, then, that travelers don’t feel like anonymous drones shuffling on soulless conveyer belts, but rather, like Important International Airport People. It’s a space that positively invites one to strike sexy poses against the concrete, a la U2. And with room for expansion, it won’t be long before we’re all rerouting our flights so we can hangout there for an hour or two, and enjoy Paris in the meantime.

TAKE THE TRAIN?

ONE MORNING LAST NOVEMBER, a glitzy gala was in full swing in the middle of the cluttered concourse at New York’s Penn Station. Passersby peered beyond the security guards and velvet rope to witness a big band blowing jazz and waiters toting silver trays of canapes. Then, as if time had leapt backward into 1970s TV-land, Henry Winkler–a.k.a. the Fonz from Happy Days–appeared at the speaker’s podium. The motorcycle-riding Fonzie was an odd choice to herald the inaugural run of the Acela Express, Amtrak’s new, high-speed Boston-to Washington train. But glamorous references to rail travel aren’t easy to find in contemporary American culture. The best contender, the train-helicopter chase in Mission Impossible, comes with a rather unfortunate title.

Amtrak’s mission, if not impossible, is beyond the Fonz’s capabilities. Train travel is still perceived in the U.S. as a second-class mode of transportation. To Congress, the government-subsidized Amtrak is an unwanted stepchild, under legislation to break even by the end of 2002 or go into liquidation. As one Amtrak official was heard to say, the 150-mph electric Acela is the corporation’s last chance: “We’ve bet the farm on this one.” A one-year delay in its launch, due to equipment problems, hasn’t helped the gamble. The contrast couldn’t be greater in Europe, where governments pour billions into high-speed rail. The 186-mph French TGV trains have been running for nearly 25 years. Spain reinvented the TGV as the AVE for the Seville-to-Madrid run in 1992, and more than a million passengers used it in the first month. Germany’s high-speed ICE train, designed by Alexander Neumeister, is now in its third generation.

In the U.S., trains seem to have been frozen in time, coupled in the public mind with hobos and freight. When the Acela train slid into the New York station, the photographers and TV cameramen who stood on the platform focused their lenses not on a futuristic-looking piece of equipment, but on something almost stately. The Acela cuts the journey time between Boston and Washington to roughly five and a half hours, but Amtrak is not out to portray Acela as a European-style speed demon. Far from it; Acela’s brand identity, defined by a sail-like logo, is built on the idea of a “Zen-like standing still while you’re moving at 150 mph,” according to Brent Oppenheimer of OH&CO, who worked on the project with the design consultancy firm IDEO. Acela’s slogans–“Recharge, Unwind” and “Prepare, Ponder, Relax”–are more suited to a spa than a speedy railway.

The train itself, despite a racy snub nose, is firmly in keeping with the American railroad tradition. The body is mostly stain less steel, and the 304-seat interior has a prosaic feel. Lighting is bright and seats are upholstered in a wool-nylon fabric in corporate-looking blue/purple/green variations. Other materials–gray strips of carpet flooring, imitation wood veneers, aluminum edging, and bulletproof windows–are more rugged than luxurious. In fact, the Acela bears many hallmarks of a Detroit car: it’s safe, comfortable, thoroughly market-tested, and designed by committee to ensure public approval. Even the luxury add-ons, such as in-seat audio entertainment, seem modeled on the kinds of amenities that auto dealers emphasize to sell cars.

It might have been different. When the project first went out to tender in the early 1990s, several companies submitted bids, including Siemens, which developed the ICE train. Amtrak awarded the $710-million contract to the consortium rumored to have made the lowest bid, Bombardier Transportation, of Canada, and Alstom, of France. Bombardier–which developed the cars; Alstom provided the running gear–was better known for boxy regional trains and subway cars than for premium high-speed equipment. The ensuing design process could be characterized as an effort by Amtrak and its consultants to turn a standard Bombardier design into a world-class travel experience.

The Amtrak project management team first realized it needed help when Bombardier, its Montreal-based design consultant, Jean Labbe, and seat manufacturer Morelli Designers began submitting plans in 1996. Within months, lacking the experience to give design direction, Amtrak called in IDEO Product Development. IDEO put together a small Acela-specific team, many of whose members had worked on the Spanish AVE train revamp.

A painstaking design development stage ensued, with Bombardier presenting what Oppenheimer describes as a “relatively off-the-shelf” scheme and with IDEO suggesting and designing changes. The number of parties involved and their differing interests made the going difficult. Former IDEO designer Nick Oakley describes the process as a “multidimensional political fandango.” Labbe and Bombardier were faced with another interfering design group. “I felt that we were battling against Bombardier tradition and conventional practice,” says Oakley. “If you tried to introduce interesting materials or fabrics or carpeting, they’d say, ‘We want the carpet to be laid in strips so you can rip it up and replace it, and it has to be fireproof, and these are our suppliers.”‘ Bombardier was eager to get the project out on time and within budget. (As of press time, Bombardier had not returned Interior’s calls for comment.) IDEO argued that the Acela project had to be positioned as part of an overall strategy for the Northeast C orridor and that design decisions should be based on a general service philosophy. This, according to Oppenheimer, meant asking basic questions such as, “Who were we designing the equipment for? What kind of traveler?”

Amtrak, for its part, paid great heed to market research data from passengers and staff, wanting every design decision validated. Compared with the officials who’d overseen the AVE’s development, the U.S. company gave its designers a short leash. “Amtrak is at one end of the spectrum and the Spanish train was at the other, in terms of the willingness to take the experience and point of view of the design teams involved,” says Adrian Corry, who worked on the IDEO team. “Everyone [at Amtrak] was very cautious in their approach.”

The most dramatic revisions to result from the “fandango” included a complete redesign of the cafe car, which initially had been conceived to look like a stainless-steel “airplane galley,” according to Corry. IDEO proposed raising the windows four inches so that when the train tilted on curves, snacking passengers saw the horizon rather than an unsettling view of railroad tracks. With the help of Amtrak data on catering staff requests, the designers reconfigured the cafe service area to discourage Amtrak personnel from turning their backs to customers while preparing food. Curved wood-veneered and polyester-resin-topped counters, barstool seating, and video feeds encouraged passengers to see the area as a short-stop eatery rather than a long-stay dining room.

IDEO also reconfigured the toilets as part of a separate vestibule, away from the passenger seating area. Each car has two bathrooms, one of which meets ADA standards. Amtrak wanted the restrooms to be upgraded to the level of hotel facilities; IDEO provided a window, a large mirror, and better lighting.

Amtrak’s sensitivity to customer requests and its preoccupation with safety also yielded some idiosyncrasies. Acela’s tilting technology ensures a smoother ride than any other U.S. train, but Amtrak was fearful of overhead luggage flying around at high speeds. They insisted on closed containers rather than

the open baskets preferred on European trains. More elaborate is a feature that allows passengers to rotate their seats 180 degrees. Amtrak argues that rotating seats facilitate meetings and encourage social contact. “Amtrak was absolutely determined to do this,” says Corry, arguing for a stationery model. “If the seats were fixed the train would be a generation better than it is.” Oakley adds that a nonrotating seat would have required less space and facilitated integration of the cantilevered tables in the seat backs.

If there’s truth in the notion that innovation doesn’t test well, and focus groups react against change, this wasn’t Amtrak’s concern. Acela’s design was ultimately dictated by a desire not to scare off passengers with high styling. “Truly it was designed for American travelers, and a tremendous amount of research went into the design–everything from consumer testing of the seats to questions about color,” says Amtrak’s executive vice president Barbara Richardson. Or, as Oppenheimer notes, “From the beginning Amtrak stated that whatever we did, there had to be a significant return.”

By the end of the year, Amtrak plans to have 20 high-speed trains in operation and the entire Northeast Corridor rebranded under the Acela identity. Even the old regional trains will carry the Acela logo, which IDEO proposed should become synonymous with the idea of a “seamless journey.” The benchmark will be the Acela Express train, but the transformation is meant to be achieved through systemwide improvements to station interiors, signage, and customer service.

It’s an ambitious program. And everything now hangs on reputation. Before, Amtrak positioned its premium rail services as distinctive brands. Now, one bad passenger experience on a local run can take the wind out of all the other Acela sails. Congress is also watching closely. The Acela-improved Northeast Corridor is projected to bring in $180 million a year for Amtrak, stimulating high-speed programs proposed for other areas of the country. Yet Amtrak’s national deficit for 1999 was close to $500 million.

One missing component of the rebranding exercise and Acela advertising salvos is the environmental argument. Even by conservative Department of Energy estimates, an electric train offers energy-efficient d distance travel with relatively low environmental impact. According to a DoE study, a train passenger uses slightly more than half the amount of fuel per mile of an airborne traveler. Electric trains create air pollution only at the power source. Since they run between city centers, they’re less likely than planes to require passengers to use other forms of transport. “How many people walk to the airport?” asks Ross Capon of the National Association of Rail road Passengers. “The fact that the train leaves from a downtown area means that it reinforces the vitality of an energy-efficient city center.”

To survive and grow in the U.S., however, rail needs a massive investment. The “High Speed Rail Investment Act” now before the Senate would allow Amtrak to issue $10 billion in bonds to raise capital. And to make its case to a Republican-controlled House, Amtrak has one strong argument: federal support for highways last year was $28.5 billion; for air travel, $10.1 billion; and for rail, less than $600 million. Says Barbara Richardson, “What we’re arguing for is not to be supported on the operating front but to be provided with the necessary capital. We can generate profits from a well-run system.”

For now, Amtrak is left to hope that air and road congestion will help its case, and, as word of the swift, comfy East Coast ride spreads, that Americans will begin to see rail in a new light. “I think that the popularity and strength of the service will really come through word of mouth,” hopes Richardson, “and when people hear that there is another way to go, I think they’ll leave their car keys at home.”

THE ULTIMATE DESIGNING MACHINE

Henrik Fisker is drawing a car in chalk. With quick sweeps so familiar he could probably do them in his sleep, he sketches the new BMW Z8 sports car on a black sheet tacked to a wall, showing how the shape compares to the classic 508 of the late 1950s (Elvis owned one). Fisker, the Z8’s chief designer, is Danish. BMW, of course, is German. But we’re in the offices of Designworks/USA, in Newbury Park, California, much closer to the L.A. Freeway than to the Autobahn.

Designworks, an industrial design studio where Fisker is president and CEO, began in a Malibu garage in 1972. Its founder, Chuck Pelly, a legendary car designer whose credits include the sporty Scarab, staffed the company with his most talented students from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena–the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of the auto world. In 1995, BMW, one ofDesignworks’s clients and eventually a part owner, bought the company outright to be a satellite design studio. Designworks had a big hand in developing BMW’s X5 sports activity vehicle and new 3-Series, but from the start, its purpose has been cross-pollination. Here, according to Pelly’s plan, automotive technologies and materials find applications in non-driveable goods like computers for Compaq, phones for Nokia, and desk accessories for Haworth. The goal, says BMW’s design chief, Chris Bangle, is shaping “anything that moves your body and your heart.”

Product design requires space to create and view models, but it also demands tight security. Over the years, the collegial openness that helped Designworks invent products for such varied companies as John Deere and Thermador came into increasing conflict with its parent’s security needs. On the one hand, designers profited from a free exchange of ideas–everyone from the clay modelers to the front desk receptionist critiqued projects. “On the other hand, BMW had some real secrets and kept needing to carve out more space for the closed-off clay studio,” Bangle explains. The conflict couldn’t be resolved without a major office expansion. Last year, Gensler’s Santa Monica office began one that will soon nearly double Designwork’s 38,000 square feet and tidy up the place, which Bangle admits is informal, if not scruffy.

According to project principal Gene Watanabe, the original structure–a classic 1970S California tilt-up–“was the most nondescript little white concrete building you’ve every seen.” Gensler’s job was to increase and protect the space without distorting the building’s proportions. Though most of the addition expands the automotive clay studio, the firm’s other task was to prevent the non-automotive departments from feeling neglected. All in all, the specs were a challenge. “They told us they needed lots of security and then in the next breath said they wanted lots of light and air,” Watanabe says. “But what the building really wanted to be was a bunker.”

To integrate the old and new portions, Gensler introduced a 305-foot-long exterior wall punctuated by a glass entrance topped with a thin, winglike marquee. Only a tiny notch suggests the juncture of the two parts. (Bangle, for whom the new facade resembles a ship sailing across the site, refers to the shape as a “knifing prow.”) Nicknamed “the flank,” the wall is punctuated by a long strip of clerestory windows that soften the idea of a division between workers who have access to company secrets and those who don’t. Here and elsewhere on the perimeter, windows vary in size and capacity depending on the activities of the spaces they look onto–transmitting less light to the computer labs, more to the lobby. The section bordering the clay studio at the back is made of Kalwall. At night, onlookers see mysterious silhouettes projected from the active studio’s yellow light, while the space itself remains alluringly inaccessible.

Inside the clay studio, the gems of future auto shows begin life as earthen lumps. Despite the use of scanners and other high-tech tools to transfer three-dimensional shapes to and from computers, modeling is a hands-on, sculptural process. The enlarged space makes room for expensive raised metal plates on which the models will be measured and examined from all angles. Auto-design-group offices, currently shoved away in halls, will be ranged in this part of the addition along a catwalk like mezzanine that emphasizes the involvement of all workers with the clay studio below.

A stroll through Design works reveals diverse products in the making: ski goggles for Scott/USA, ergonomic interface graphics for Sanyo/Fisher. But beginning with the entrance–the company’s public face–Bangle wanted to make clear that Design works is not a high-tech startup, but an avant-garde, global design firm. Moved to a front-and-center position in the renovated facility, the entrance leads to an exhibit area whose focus is an outdoor turntable showing off new products in natural light. When a sensitive prototype is on display, a veil will be drawn around the turntable to thwart prying eyes (especially those of competitors buzzing the site in helicopters). At other times, all Designworks employees will be able to take pride in the company’s innovations.

Bangle’s interest in privacy embraces more than security. It was his idea to provide a tower-like room poking out of the roof that he calls “the tree house.” He conceived it as a raw space, temporarily decorated by its inhabitants, where designers could solve knotty problems by fleeing upward to “lofty” thoughts. Bangle’s prototype was a house he knew as a child that an eccentric had built on top of a stone column left by erosion in the Wisconsin Dells, but he also had the work of a more classical architect, Jefferson’s office at Monticello, in mind.

As executed by Gensler, the tower offers a simple space with a whiteboard for doodling. Bangle, meanwhile, has moved on to other ideas: he dreams of building a virtual, digital studio–a Voodoo studio, in Bangle-speak–that would somehow let designers work anywhere inspiration strikes.

Though Bangle’s ideas are lofty, his feet are on the ground. Sometimes his whole body is. When presented with Gensler’s model of the expanded Designworks, he lowered himself on his hands and knees and carefully studied it from all angles. He loved that the wood was left natural, so the emphasis was on form and perspective, just as in the model for, say, a BMW. Watanabe was amazed. “I never had anybody look at a model for the same things I do,” he says.

Space station orientation

In space, what your architect doesn’t know can kill you. Squared edges might snag a life-support hose or another vital piece of equipment. The routes to escape vehicles must be clearly marked–in fact, everything must be very clearly marked, since visual cues give zero-gravity astronauts their sole sense of orientation. Then there’s the simple matter of dinner. Seating seven astronauts at an ordinary table could be fatal (and not for lack of scintillating conversation). “If you have seven people sitting around a table and they’re all exhaling,” says Garrett Finney, lead architect at NASA’s Habitability Design Center, “there’s this potential to build up [CO.sub.2] and start to suffocate everyone around. In space, there’s no natural convection, so it doesn’t rise or fall–it just stays there.”

In brief, life on NASA’s planned “habitation module” for the International Space Station would be nasty, brutish, and short were it not for the engineers and designers who create a livable environment in one that is distinctly unlivable, a place where a table is not just a table, but a piece of equipment as vital as an oxygen tank. The “hab module,” as it is called–still some five years away from deployment–is not a capsule for space flight, as are NASA’s shuttles and Russia’s Soyuz, but a machine for living: aboard the ISS, astronauts will be dwelling in space for record amounts of time.

NASA engineers are well trained in ensuring survival on short-term space flights, but the mission of the year-and-a-half-old Habitability Design Center–made up of everyone from architects to aeronautical engineers to human factor specialists–is more earthbound: to make the astronauts feel at home. This is the horizon of a new discipline, space architecture. “Because people are being sent up there for longer periods of time,” says Finney, “everyone realizes that something more than engineering solutions has to happen.” As Janis Connolly, NASA manager of HDC, describes it, the center’s goal is “putting the human factors and such in the beginning of the design process, rather than having us come into the game as these designs have already been developed.”

In general, says Finney, a Rome Prize-winning architect more accustomed to building below the stratosphere, space architecture is rife with “lots of basic stuff you never have to think about on Earth.” Color, for example, is not merely a matter of aesthetics. The case of the “local vertical” is instructive. The arrangement of equipment has to be consistent to give astronauts a sense of personal orientation. For this reason, the tops of the habitation modules will be painted off-white, while the bottoms will be in color. The color, however, cannot be so dark that it absorbs available light (which needs to be a minimum of 10 feet of candlepower at any point, notes Finney), nor can it conflict with the palette used for emergency and equipment markings (for instance, green for oxygen). Because the various modules look essentially the same, each features different colors to help provide “mental mapping.”

Earth architects take gravity for granted, but aboard the ISS, there is no “normal” body position, and the simple act of opening a kitchen cabinet–above and beyond the cabinet itself–poses a thorny design problem. “It’s like elementary high-school physics,” says Finney. “If you try to turn a switch and you’re not attached to anything, you’re just going to turn your body–it’s all equal and opposite reaction.” Hence the architects installed a variety of foot and hand restraints throughout the modules to enable personal movement and the operation of controls. Yet, like most things aboard ISS, even small conveniences are not simple. Velcro, which is commonly used on shuttle flights to attach objects to surfaces, tends to degrade overtime in the absence of gravity, says Finney, eventually shedding a powder, which on the ISS would become a part of the air system–and the astronauts’ lungs. Also, restraints, like everything aboard the ISS, must fit a wide user profile that ranges from the 5th percentile Japanese woman to the 95th percentile American male. The question then becomes, do you design an adjustable restraint, or a fixed restraint that can accommodate featherweights and heavyweights alike?

Historically, NASA has been good at designing individual pieces of technology, Connolly notes. “One of the things HDC is looking at is the overall context in which this hardware fits,” she says. “We’ve gotten away from developing the piece parts and hoping they fit later by looking at an integrated approach: How does this table relate to the window, and to the galley, and to the location of the stored food?” On Russia’s Mir and currently in the Russian service module on the ISS, the treadmill used for exercise is located near the wardroom table.

Because heat doesn’t dissipate by it self in space, the jogger ends up running in a ball of his or her own sweat. “It’s actually kind of disgusting,” Finney says. “You have little globules floating around right where you’re trying to eat.” Astronauts do require enormous amounts of exercise, though, to prevent muscle atrophy and to maintain bone density, so HDC is thinking about where to put an exercise unit on the hab module without creating a similar conflict. Complicating the issue, HDC, like NASA as a whole, must rely on simulated environments or brief experimental phases to replicate space conditions; these range from the world’s largest indoor pool, the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, to the (C-135, or “vomit comet,” an airplane that flies in parabolic arcs, allowing 25 seconds or so of zero gravity about 40 times in a two hour-flight.

In shaping the habitation module, the HDC must balance the social functions of architecture and design with a bewildering array of engineering and safety constraints placed upon even the smallest detail. For a table designed for the wardroom, a common area, HDC acknowledged the social importance of dining in a group. But that is where the comparison to an Earth table ends. This one, which will probably be made of aluminum, needs to be quickly removable in case of an emergency in the “rack” (NASA’s term for the standardized compartments that comprise the module’s walls, floors, and ceilings) below. It also needs to breakdown into sections so it can fit easily on the shuttle, the conveyance for the entire hab module. The table’s edge matches the standard hab module handrail so that tools and gadgets can be clipped to both spots. Then there’s the space in the middle, which Finney dubs the “accessory trough.” twill feature an air circulation system, to prevent the “asphyxiation problem,” as well as a suction acc essory, a screened sort of box over which one might eat–to prevent crumbs from drifting into the air system–or perform experiments that require a screw to stay in place. (On the Russian space station Mir, notes Finney, cosmonauts shaved over the suction box, placing a napkin to catch stubble.) And then there’s the “ladder restraint” below the table. The ascending toeholds mean that astronauts of varying sizes can easily “sit” (the space table has no chairs; astronauts assume what Finney describes as a “dead man’s float” position), as well as “torque” their bodies for comfort by quickly switching to another rung–rather than reaching under the table to undo a strap.

Some perennial space problems still need solutions–such as hygiene. HDC envisions a “Full Body Cleansing Compartment,” which may or may not be a shower. “A shower is a design solution,” observes Connolly. “The requirement is full body cleansing.” In space, of course, designing a shower is more than a matter of picking tile and a shower-head. Of primary concern is water itself. The ISS is a “water poor” environment where even urine will be treated and reused (unlike on the space shuttles, where water is generated as part of the fuel-burning process). Previous space station efforts such as the U.S. Skylab and the Mir attempted, but later abandoned, showers. “On Mir they tried to have a positive airflow that would blow the water down to the floor,” says Finney. “What happened was that the surface of the water globules would spin around but the globules themselves wouldn’t move anywhere.” Also, beads of moisture tend to be attracted to one another, as well as to the body; the water may float up to the astronaut ‘s mouth and interfere with breathing.

One side effect of the habitation module’s uniformity is that the astronauts themselves become interior design elements; the cotton clothing they wear for comfort becomes a welcome source of nonregulation color. The only other fabric surfaces are on the exterior and interior of the crew quarters and stowage bags. These are limited to two shades of NoMex, a DuPont fabric used in firemen’s coats. “Only a few colors have been approved for space flight,” notes Finney, “meaning that they’ve been sent to a lab and ignited–different dyes are differently toxic when burned.” The palette is now overwhelmingly white with some blue, but Finney hopes that areas will be set aside to accommodate personal design touches by the astronauts, ranging from family photos to, say, an Indian scarf.

But in space, as on Earth, there’s no accounting for taste. When the legendary designer Raymond Loewy employed a series of earth tones in his design scheme for Skylab, in the late 1960s, it was to make the occupants more comfortable by reminding them of their home planet. The plan backfired, Finney relates: “‘It’s drab as hell up here,’ the astronauts said. ‘We need some interior decoration.”‘

3 days in Rome

Rome is everybody’s memory,” Eleanor Clark wrote in Rome and a Villa. “The thing now is to find away into it.” Indeed, the “way in” to Rome is not easy. Historically dense and full of secrets, Rome tends to unfold itself–its real self–only very slowly. The city does not swing like those youthful upstarts Paris and London, and it generates little in the way of forward fashion or cutting-edge design. But the 2,700-year-old metropolis bridging the Tiber remains the quintessential model of urbanism, and for good reason: it works. (Note: all phone numbers show be prefixed with Italy’s country code, 39, and Rome’s city code, 6.)

3 MUST-SEES

Any guide will direct you to the Pantheon (the most awe-inspiring interiorin the city), the Forum, the Vatican, the Baths of Caracalla, the Imperial Palaces on the Palantine, Hadrian’s Villa, the Colosseum, the Borghese Gallery-all places any informed student of Western civilization must know. Here, instead, are a few destinationsjust offthe well-worn path.

Termini Vicinity

If you arrive in Rome by train, you cannot miss Eugenio Montuori’s massive Termini Station, completed in 1950. Modified during construction to leave a fragment of the Servian Wall (390 B.C.) intact, the glass, concrete, and travertine building was recently renovated as part of the city-wide jubilee-year renewal project. Freed from soot and grime, the curved cast-reinforced concrete ceiling is again a marvel. A similarly triumphant rehabilitation is a branch of the Museo Nazionale Romano that has been installed in the nearby Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. The palazzo now showcases the most dramatic collection of mosaics and frescoes in the city. Piazza dei Cinquecento 68; 48903501; Thurs.-Sat. 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun. 9 a.m.-8 p.m.

Piazza del Colosseo

The Gladiator fanatics posing for portraits outside the Colosseum tend to overlook the Domus Aurea, under the nearby Baths of Trajan. Nero’s Golden Palace, which originally encompassed more than 200 rooms and covered an area 25 times larger than the Colosseum, was such a reviled example of the emperor’s despotism that the entire building was buried after his suicide in 68 A.D. The ruins were discovered by Renaissance artists, who mistook them for elaborately painted caves and meticulously copied their decorative detail–hence the term grotesque, from grotto. Even stripped of much of their intricate ornament and bejeweled encrustation, the 18 or so newly restored spaces are among the most starkly beautiful in the city. Piazza del Colosseo, 39749907, daily 9 a.m.-8 p.m.

San Clemente

For further subterranean adventure, visit San Clemente, just down Via San Giovanni in Laterano, another spoke that radiates from the Piazza del Colosseo. Enter the 12th-century church at street level, head to the rear, and descend into the remains of the 4th-century church on which it was constructed. Continue farther down to the level of ancient Rome, where you’ll find a mysterious 1st-century B.C. Temple of Mithras (an ancient cult that rivaled early Christianity), a catacomb, and a still burbling spring that dampens these ancient, aromatic spaces. Via San Giovanni, 70451018, open daily 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. (Apr.-Sept. until 6:30 p.m.)

ALSO WORTH A LOOK EUR

Try to visit the EUR (Esposizione Universale di Roma), Marcello Piacentini’s planned community, begun in 1938 and designed for the international exposition of 1942. Here are numerous curious and overscaled monuments to fascism, including the Palazzo dello Sport and a very oddly proportioned cathedral, but the highlight is certainly the Palazzo della Civilta del Lavoro, which features a smooth travertine facade punctured by an unrelenting procession of arches reminiscent of a de Chirico painting. The now dilapidated lobby opens onto a raised terrace overlooking the Tiber valley. Via Cristoforo Colombo; 54252000; Mon.-Thurs. 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Fri. 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m.

Acea

Centrale Montemartini

Also in honor of the jubilee year, 400 works of ancient sculpture from the Musei Capitolini collection have been put on display in a cleaned up (and somewhat tarted-up) power plant south of the city center. The juxtaposition of classical sculpture and colossal industrial machinery makes fora lively dialogue, while the soaring, late-19th-century interior–a sort of reduced Gare d’Orsay–warrants a visit in its own right. Musei Capitolini: Piazza del Campidiglioni, 39746221, Tues.-Sun. 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Centrale Montermartini: Via Ostiense, 106; 5748042; Tues-Fri. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat-Sun. 10 a.m,-7 p.m.

The Janiculum

By midday, when the city is dry and dusty, climb up the Via Garibaldi and visit Bramante’s Tempietto (or “little temple”), the miniature jewel of Renaissance architecture. The round domed chapel, which is composed of 16 Doric columns and a classical frieze and balustrade, marks the place where St. Peter is believed to have been crucified. Close by is the Acqua Paola, one of the greatest Roman fountains, which is still fed by cool, clear water carried down from Lake Bracciano by the aqueduct of Trajan. On summer evenings a cafe sets up tables in front of the fountain; across the way, a terrace offers striking views of the Roman panorama. Via Garibaldi and Via Giacomo Medici

WHERE TO STAY

The recently renovated Hotel de Russie (Via del Babuino, 9;328881; doubles from $400), just off the Piazza del Popolo, offers rooms and suites done up with a mid-century panache that would be common-place in New York or L.A. but seems almost radical on this old, refined shopping street. The hotel has long been favored by exiled Russians, both pre- and post-revolution, English Grand Tourists, and early-20th-century artists, among them Picasso and Cocteau.

At the Albergo del Senato (Piazza della Rotonda, 73;6784343; doubles from $140), rooms with marble baths, wood floors, and walls upholstered in conveniently sound-muffling fabric look out (if you’re unlucky) onto scaffolding, or(if you’re lucky) on the Pantheon. Ignore the somewhat fussy lobby.

The family-owned Albergo del Sole (Via del Biscione, 76; 6885258; doubles from $200) is an old staple of the Campo de’ Fiori. Rooms are minimally appointed and the staff is sometimes less than embracing, but its location–just steps from the piazza’s colorful fruit, flower, and vegetable market–and its terraces make it a prize.

WHERE TO EAT

Although Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood is a mecca for tourists, it does have genuinely authentic comers, especially south of the Viale Trastevere, where the elegant, convivial father-and-son-run Spirito di Vino (Via dei Genovesi, 41; 5896689; closed Sun.) occupies a building that was a synagogue in the 14th century and, long before that, part of a street of Roman shops. Be sure to order the mixed appetizers and ask Romeo, the father, for an after-dinner tour to the ancient wine cellar.

In the last ten years, the blocks around San Lorenzo have been colonized by Rome’s artists and young people. They eat well and modestly at Da Franco (Via dei Falici, near Piazzale Tiburtino; 4957675; closed Mondays), where an eight-course all-fish meal is served family-style six nights a week, beginning at 8 p.m. The experience lasts for several hours, and the cozy restaurant fills up as soon as its doors are unlocked.

For an authentic neighborhood restaurant slightly farther afield in Monteverde, try II Cortile (Via Alb. Mario; 5803433; closed Sun. evenings and Mon.). The antipasto table is one of Rome’s more varied and can make a meal unto itself.

WHERE TO SHOP

Skip the Italian equivalent of mall stores on the Corso, and instead check out these subtler sources. At Arte Antica Kown (Via dei Chiavari, 11; 8801118), an antique shop just steps off the Campo de’ Fiori, Korean painter Young Kown assembles 18th-century carved and gilded objects and old pottery with an artist’s discerning eye.

Paget Caroleria d’Epoca (Via del Gesu, 90; 7811370) proves that even in an ancient city you can be nostalgic for 20th-century ephemera. This well-hidden stationery store specializes in vintage note cards, pens, and art supplies.

Like most Italian cities, Rome is full of open markets; here they open at 9 a.m. and close at 1 p.m. At the especially charming mercato at the Piazza S. Cosimato, in Trastevere, you’ll find a superb cheese-monger and an abundance of delectable fruits and vegetables. The market is an ideal place to conclude a visit to Rome–or, for that matter, to begin one. As EleanorClark said of the etemal city, “You could start anywhere, it really doesn’t matter, you will see so little of it anyway.”

Restaurant design

IT SEEMS IRONIC that any alum of the high-profile Rockwell Group would crave anonymity. But Nancy Mah and Scott Kester, co-principals of Nancy Mah Design in New York, say they want to be invisible. The partners share a fantasy of creating two restaurants side by side so different in mood and concept that nobody could ever trace them back to the same studio. “We’ve found it important not to have a signature style,” says Mah, defying an accepted formula for successful restaurant design.

In fact, the year-old firm indulges in color, pattern, and fantasy–classic Rockwell obsessions. Among its projects: a walnut-paneled bakery in Nagoya, Japan, that feels like an Hermes boutique; two Manhattan sushi restaurants where both food and decor are splashed with hot Latin color; and a soon-to-be-completed downtown New York club based on a tiki bar theme. Can the apple fall far from the tree? Or has what Mah calls “the wow factor” of restaurant design taken over the whole forest?

Mah, 37, and Kester, 40, met at the Rockwell Group early in 1999 where they worked together on Ruby Foo’s, a pan-Asian restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Kester had been there a year and Mah for two when they left to open their own studio; they received the commission for the second Ruby Foo’s shortly after. (David Rockwell declined to comment for this article.) Though the partners don’t see a family resemblance among their current projects, the self-trained Mah, who, while at Rockwell, helped complete Michael Jordan’s The Steak House in Grand Central Station and Nobu in Las Vegas, believes she inherited a taste for sumptuousness and whimsical coloration while employed at the powerhouse. “I’m definitely a bolder designer now,” she says.

“Being as theatrical as possible and creating a big first impression are both important lessons…for some kinds of spaces,” Mah believes. But she and Kester want to create interiors that deliver beyond the threshold. They take pride in turning the most undesirable table in the house into what Kester calls “the fat-guy table.” By building a wall around the service station at the upscale Manhattan nightclub Lotus, for example, and elevating the back booth on a platform, they transformed what is essentially a social Siberia at this style-conscious club into a shrine-like alcove. And at a time when theme-park excess is at a premium, the partners note that diners relate strongly to details like the textured underside of a table “since people’s hands tend naturally to fall there,” says (ester.

Such subtleties have practical roots. Mah worked as a restaurant hostess, waitress, bartender, and manager before trying her hand, in 1989, at designing Poiret, a small bistro in Manhattan. Her years of observing the choreography of waiters and diners informed subsequent design commissions for New York’s Bryant Park Grill and Lutece. She learned that the job “wasn’t all about what the space looked like, but more importantly about making it flow so that customers would feel wonderful as they walked in,” she says.

Kester, a Harvard architecture graduate who began designing eateries for the Niemetz Design Group in Boston, agrees with Mah that human interactions offer the most compelling part of restaurant design–“focusing on the whole flow of how people face each other or hang out at the bar or just get their coats,” he says.

Neither Mah nor Kester looks to other interiors for inspiration; in fact, their favorite restaurants are “owner-designed,” which is to say, not designed at all. A neighborhood Japanese restaurant that changes its flowers three times a day strikes exactly the right note of intimacy for them. And though their commissions are highly art directed, the partners try to match the same spirit of spontaneous accommodation. For the Miami nightclub Rumi, for instance, they tempered the room’s challenging dimensions–17 feet wide with 35-foot ceilings–by introducing six-foot-high banquettes. Under the designers’ own lighting system, the seating areas feel like little rooms. “People want to be part of the action,” explains Mah, “but rarely do they want to be the center of it.”

Mah and Kester’s designs are eye-catching–and yes, they can border on spectacle–but for clients, the real beauty is in turning every table into a Cinderella story. “If you can get an extra seat in,” Mah says matter-of-factly, “that’s another $40,000 to $50,000 a year.” Psychology class is over. Economics class has begun.

RAIL BLAZERS

IT IS SAID THAT RAILWAY STATIONS were the cathedrals of the 19th century. That makes the Great Eastern Hotel something of a 21st-century sacristy. Built in 1884 above and around the Liverpool Street train station in the East End of London, the elegant red-brick edifice embodied the romantic confidence of the late Victorians. As restored and reinvented by London-based architectural firm the Manser Practice, with interiors and graphic design by Conran & Partners, it’s become a modern British classic.

One of the grand terminal hotels of railway’s golden age, the Great Eastern was designed by Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament (a second wing was added to the hotel 17 years later by the less architecturally renowned Colonel Robert Edis). Its fortune, alas, declined with the era of glamorous train travel. By 1995, when Manser Practice principal Jonathan Manser spotted an ad in the Estates Gazette announcing that the Great Eastern was for sale, the building had fallen into seedy disrepair.

Still, it was at tremendously valuable piece of real estate. The Great Eastern is the only hotel within The City’s Square Mile, London’s financial center and Europe’s business capital. More than 51 million people pass through Liverpool Street station every year, and the area borders the fashionable neighborhoods of Hoxton and Shoreditch, known for burgeoning art scenes. In addition, the hotel had plenty of space well-suited to restaurants, which the locale was short on. Manser approached Arcadian Hotels (now owned by U.S. company Wyndam International) with a proposal to refurbish the hotel, and they subsequently invited Sir Terence Conran’s real estate company, Conran Holdings, into joint partnership on the venture. In 1997 refurbishments began, continuing for three years at a cost of over $112 million.

The expense has more than paid off, and while impressive measures were taken to preserve historical details–the team worked closely with English Heritage, the U.K. government’s main branch for historic properties–there’s nothing retrograde about the reborn Great Eastern. Throughout the hotel, contemporary design nests in classic Victorian architecture, and extravagant details are juxtaposed with simple styling. In a neighborhood where culture and commerce live youthful cheek by elderly jowl, it’s a harmonious, and very British, marriage of contradictions.

A new entrance leads into the recently built central lobby with a six-story rotunda (nicknamed the Baby Guggenheim for its likeness to the New York museum’s spiraling ramp). Beyond, an elevator shaft provides access to all floors and to both the east and west wings–previously it was not possible to cross between the two without going outside. In the new lobby, plaster reliefs by artist John Atkin, inspired by locomotive parts, adorn the perimeter of a space clustered with Mies van der Rohe Brno chairs and chocolate-brown wool boucle Perobell sofas strewn with fake fur throws and scatter cushions. The walls are paneled in American walnut, the floor is marble, and the overall tone is one of casual luxury. “The use of materials, the detailing, the internal references all deliberately trade on the historical background of the hotel and luxury travel,” says Manser. “It’s all about polished timber, leather, and chrome, the materials that gave the 19th-century empire its backbone.”

Conran’s designers based concepts for the 267 guestrooms on the traditional attire of City businessmen and their Victorian forebears. No two rooms are alike; the customization, according to Richard Doone, Conran & Partners’s managing director for the project, “was about taking advantage of the quirkiness of the original building.” Thus one room has a blood-red-painted foyer and dressing room, anothera wood-lined walk-in closet that recalls a humidor; some rooms have fireplaces, others original moldings or chandeliers. Some of the rooms on the top floor have barreled porthole windows big enough to sit in, while the 21 suites on the lower floors feature high ceilings and unique furniture pieces (a Philippe Starck chair here, a Tom Dixon Jack light there) and a choice of open plan or traditional layout. Standard fixtures include classic Eames EA106 chairs, giant linen antimacassars, Frette bed linens, 1930s chrome desk lamps, vanity units with integrated hairdryers and mirrors, and Matthew Hilton sofas and chai rs upholstered in quality suit fabrics (pinstripe, houndstooth, Prince of Wales check) with bed valences to match, the latter secured with cufflinks. The business suit references carry over to the corridors, where the carpet patterns range from pinstripe to herringbone. This clever conceit adds up to a rather masculine ambience: “It wasn’t our intention,” says Doone, “but given the references it was probably inevitable.”

Back down on the the ground floor, where a hairdresser, a dance studio, and various cheap snack shops squatted for years in the hotel’s formerly resplendent function rooms, the Great Eastern now offers six restaurants designed by Conran & Partners, splendid in their variety and synthesis of past and present. The hotel’s boys’-club feel reaches its zenith in George, a bar featuring carefully restored oak paneling, Georgian wired-glass windows, communal tables, and tankards hung around one of the hotel’s original function rooms. Contrast this with Miyabi, a sedate 28-seat, bamboo-finished Japanese restaurant; or Terminus, a contemporary updating of a classic railway brasserie, with shiny black granite bar and picture windows facing the street. Then there’s the elegant Fishmarket Champagne Bar, where a horseshoe-shaped bar clad in aquamarine and silver mosaic tiles sets off the original wood-paneled walls. Fishmarket’s adjoining sister restaurant features sea-green walls, plaster cherubs on the ceiling, and an impressive altar of seafood set before white linen draped tables.

The Great Eastern’s signature restaurant, however, is Aurora; it dates back to 1884, when it was known as the most popular place in town for high tea. Restored with meticulous care, the 176-seat restaurant features ornate moldings on the ceiling, while columns and painted friezes above the windows form a backdrop to its most striking feature: a massive stained-glass dome that stretches across the entire central portion. When back-lit at night, the room is nothing short of stunning.

In a period when high-concept boutique hotels have sprung up on every cosmopolitan corner, the new Great Eastern might have been dismissed as an off-the-beaten-track business hotel with delusions of hipness. As Manser puts it, “the massive quality of the building and the materials used are the antithesis of the normally transient nature of hotels. This hotel feels rooted in something much more permanent.” The Great Eastern is dead–long live the Great Eastern!

Hotel lighting

AS MUCH AS WE MIGHT LIKE to thin of hotels as homelike, the art of lighting them has less in common with split-levels than with theater sets. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the spate of recent boutique hotels, where, bathed in color, and defined in spotlights, visitors have the chance to role-play while they brush their teeth. The design team’s task has accordingly taken on a thespian persuasion. “You’re creating public theater, and stages where people act out their fantasies,” says architect David Rockwell. “Hotels have every physical thing you could possibly need, so what differentiates them is aspirational — who you want to be for the evening.”

At Johnson Schwinghammer (JS) Lighting, the firm that illuminated Rockwell’s scheme for the new W Hotel on Manhattan’s Union Square, the average inventory could as easily be used for a Broadway show: spots to single out props and architectural features, framing projectors with shutters to cast precise blocks of light, gobos (small screens) for deflecting and shaping light, and gels for color. “The theater is the spawn of a lot of lighting fixtures,” says JS Lighting designer John Pfeiffer, “and a lot of great effects.”

Founded in New York in 1985 by Clark Johnson and Bill Schwing hammer, JS Lighting found its way to boutique hotels through work on retail interiors — notably the flagship Barney’s store on Madison Avenue, which opened in 1993 with an innovative multilamp track system. As the boutique hotel boomed, JS Lighting was approached by a succession of design teams to work on projects that have redefined the hospitality industry. Beginning with the Philippe Starck-designed Delano in Miami Beach, the firm went on to light Studio Sofield’s Soho Grand in New York, Rockwell’s Won Lexington Avenue, Starck’s Mondrian in West Hollywood and his Hudson on Manhattan’s West 58th Street, and Rockwell’s Union Square W, which opened on the premises of the old Guardian Life Building at the end of last year.

At the W Union Square, the theater analogy extends to the construction of an actual narrative–perhaps even a plot. Drawing inspiration from the hotel’s proximity to Union Square park, Rockwell imagined a hotel infiltrated by nature, with twisting bamboo over the front entrance and a lobby with topiary interior walls and ambercast glass floral ceiling fixtures. The Renaissance Revival style of the 1911 building, and its location in Manhattan’s former fashion district, provided a second theme, based on the abstracted form of a meretricious Victorian corset. The double-height reception area, with its rising, twisting staircase is marked by illuminated plaster niches that curve upward. “The side walls ripple and the ceiling bulges up,” says Rockwell, merging the languages of architecture and anatomy. The effect is a kind of restrained opulence, inviting fantasies of Merchant Ivory films in which turn-of-the-century flaneurs meet clandestinely in hotel tea rooms.

Forbidden sensuality is also the narrative underlying Philippe Starck’s Hudson hotel, where JS Lighting created a “monastic” level of illumination punctuated by moments of brilliant drama. Starck hit upon the monastery theme when presented with the dark brick structure–formerly a television studio. Corridors and public areas are deliberately murky to accentuate light splashing from the chartreuse neon ceiling above the entrance escalator, glowing in a magical, grottolike courtyard garden, or pouring out of the lounge bar floor.

Starck was at his most mischievous in the Hudson’s tiny guestrooms, where a transparent glass wall separates the shower from the bedroom: only a flimsy curtain prevents the bed’s occupant from enjoying a display of his or her partner showering. “There’s a whole implied sexuality in that,” admits designer John Pfeiffer. “It’s one of my favorite moves.”

Inevitably, not all hotel projects offer the same budgets and creative freedom as the high-profile Starck and W venues. “Sometimes there isn’t a concept,” says Bill Schwinghammer. “We’re just trying to help out and add to what the architect is doing.” At 60 Thompson, the latest hotel in New York’s Soho, for example, JS Lighting created a relatively low-cost scheme to accentuate Aero Studios’s materials palette of leather and stone. The firm came up with custom sconces in the hallways and an energy-efficient system using long lines of fluorescent light–gelled to look warmer and more incandescent–in coves along the floor, walls, and ceiling.

Navigational assistance is one of the finer points of good lighting, providing visitors with direction without the clutter of signs. The late-19th-century Claridge’s hotel in London, which is undergoing a restoration by architect Thierry Despont, challenged the designers to reorganize and repair public areas while contending with a protection order from English Heritage and several layers of previous designs. In the inherently art deco foyer, Despont commissioned a light sculpture by Dale Chihuly to bring the space into the 21st century. Since the sculpture, containing 800 pieces of hand-blown glass, was not internally lit, JS Lighting installed a series of tight spots in coves on either side and above the piece, creating distinctive shadows and the slight impression that the sculpture is in motion. The move also provided a central navigation point. “It gave the hotel more of a heart,” says Schwinghammer. The final touch of any lighting project is when the lighting designers move around the space focusing an d adjusting spots. “There’s an enormous difference in a space before and after it’s focused,” says Pfeiffer. “When I first went into the W Union Square, it looked horrible. When we actually focused the light and started hitting things and gelling it and doing all the little last steps, the place came together.”

As with the dress rehearsal of any performance, this last step makes for a stressful countdown. But as Clark Johnson puts it, such is the lot of the lighting designer. “There’s never a dull moment, I tell you.”