WITH A SINGLE BUILDING, Parisian architect Jean Nouvel changed the face of Lucerne. First opened in 1998, the Kultur und Kongresscentrum Luzern–a combination music hail, convention center, and museum known by the sinister-sounding German acronym KKL–was unlike anything in the postcard-perfect Swiss hamlet. Its imposing angular forms, saturated in a moody wash of wine red and bottle green, and prominently displayed on the shore of Lake Lucerne, introduced the town of medieval bridges and glockenspiels to Nouvel’s brand of modernism: streamlined but packing a few unexpected punches. The problem for many visitors who came to town to marvel at Nouvel’s opus, including fans of the annual international music festival, was that Lucerne’s lodging–largely staid beaux-arts and chalet-style hotels–seemed hopelessly old-fashioned by comparison; bedtime was a design fanatic’s worst nightmare, so to speak.
Fortunately, Urs Karli had come to the same conclusion. So the local hotelier, club king, and restaurateur who introduced Lucerne to Asian fusion and Tex-Mex hired Nouvel to design the town’s first boutique hotel, just a short stroll from the KKL. Karli christened the $4.9 million property The Hotel, a moniker promising a minimalist inn. But to apply this label to Nouvel’s work would be missing the mark. While its composition is certainly spare and its furnishings almost spartan, the hotel has elements that are nothing short of baroque, though rendered in color and light instead of plaster and gilt.
Before opening as The Hotel last April, the 1907 stone structure had various other incarnations: as a kindergarten, office building, women’s school, apartment house, and, fittingly, Lucerne’s first catering and hotel management school. Karli reconfigured its seven stories into 25 guestrooms–a mix of junior suites, garden suites with private patios facing an inner courtyard, and basic studios–plus a cocktail area aptly named The Lounge, and Bam Bou, an Asian fusion restaurant.
Seen from outside, The Hotel might be mistaken for a seven-story art installation by the likes of Dan Flavin or James Turrell. The windows, uncluttered by drapes, reveal colored light glowing from the interiors and one completely unexpected twist: glimpses of still images from films, printed on seamless canvas and mounted on lobby walls and bedroom ceilings. The scenes are Nouvel’s take on baroque frescoes, but instead of mythological or biblical tales, the imagery–mostly love scenes or erotic tableaux from 25 of the architect’s favorite films–conveys what he calls “a cinematographic anthology of desire.” Among the images are amorous moments from Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons; Ranier Werner Fassbinder’s homoerotic Querelle; Bernardo Bertolucci’s sumptuous Sheltering Sky; and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Al di Ia delle Nuvole. Given the surreal nature of Nouvel’s cinematic homage, it’s fitting that he also included visuals from such surrealist cinematic masters as Luis Bunuel, Wim Wenders, and, of course, Frederico Fellini.
These celluloid-inspired frescoes can’t but dominate the spaces; they also set the color palette that Nouvel and Parisian color specialist Alain Bony, who worked with Nouvel on the KKL, chose for the interiors. For instance, they picked pinks and mauves to echo the colors of the Fellini stills and blue-violet hues in the room displaying the Antonioni images. To increase the guestrooms’ chromatic effect, Nouvel kept the elevators gray and dimly lit and left the corridors sterile.
Nouvel also designed all of the hotel’s furnishings, down to the desks, night tables, and armchairs. He picked a mix of low-tech and sleek materials that wouldn’t detract from the drama of the cinematic ceilings and installed wide-plank wooden floors and painted plaster walls, stainless steel armoires, platform beds, and light fixtures. Clean lines and strong forms take precedence over materials; the desks are simple slabs of wood, while the armoires are tall boxes whose metal surfaces reflect the colors around them. The bathrooms boast square tubs; some also have large windows that overlook the hotel’s inner courtyard, thickly planted with bamboo.
The furnishings throughout the rest of the hotel are equally spare: blocky club chairs and solid wood coffee tables in the lobby, a streamlined stainless steel check-in desk. The lobby’s only decorative flourish is another lush film still: from Fellini’s II Casanova. The sleek bar adjoins the lobby, while the restaurant is tucked into the basement level. This room receives daylight, however, thanks to both large internal windows that link restaurant to lobby and double-height windows facing the street. Canted mirrors mounted near the streetside windows create the slightly confusing optical effects that Nouvel played with in recent projects, such as the swirling, mirrored atrium of Galeries Lafayette’s Berlin outpost.
Nouvel has always preferred expressing immateriality and sleight of hand to weight and solidity, as in the photosensitive, Islamic-inspired sunscreens of his famous Institut du Monde Arabe building or the gossamer glass walls of the Fondation Cartier tower, both in Paris. “Architecture that shows off everything at once is pornographic architecture,” Nouvel says of his approach. “I have always defended the inverse thesis, that of eroticism.”
In The Hotel, he pushes such concepts to new limits: saturating spaces with light and color to create a world much like a darkened theater or even like the realms preserved on celluloid. While his fellow hotel-designing Frenchman Philippe Starck relies on objects like oversized flowerpots and mismatched chairs to make surrealistic playgrounds, Nouvel does so through intangible means. In the process, he redefines minimalism–and offers a new take on the dreamlike worlds of the film greats he honors.