Built for the 1992 games, SOM and Jaume Tresserra's Hotel Arts Barcelona is still a gold-medal design performance—all 44 floors of it
Lisa Lovatt-Smith -- Interior Design, 3/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Twin towers may have ominous overtones at the moment, but these particular twins, which have towered alone for 10 years over Barcelona's reclaimed seafront, still exude a powerful glamour. One of the towers, the one with the distinctive steel-grid facade, was the last major project designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's Bruce Graham before his retirement and is now home to Ritz-Carlton's Hotel Arts Barcelona—the first of only two Ritz-Carlton properties in Europe. As the Hotel Arts name implies, it's here that Ritz-Carlton made its first major commitment to incorporate local and international art and design into guest rooms and public spaces.
After the late 1800s, when that maverick Antoni Gaudí left his remarkable stamp on Barcelona, the city turned its back on the Mediterranean Sea that had spawned it. When construction began on the Hotel Arts in 1989, the city was entering its Olympics-inspired building boom, which turned the waterfront into highly desirable real estate. It would not be too much to say that the towers are the three-dimensional expression of that switch in communal mind-set. The 500-foot-high hotel building's significance is all the more apparent as Barcelona, even by European standards, is prevalently low-rise. Jean Nouvel, Ricardo Bofill, and Norman Foster have recently unveiled plans for challenging commercial skyscrapers, but until then the twin towers by the sea reign supreme.
Views are a major selling point for the Hotel Arts, and Graham took full advantage of them with walls of floor-to-ceiling windows. You open the door of your room…and there, far below, is the sea, the golden ribbon of beach, and a superb collection of yachts. There are shades of both Blade Runner and those first Copacabana-style high-rise hotels from the fabulous '50s.
As you approach the hotel—strolling along the beach from the colorful cluster of seafood restaurants near the old port, for example—Frank Gehry's copper fish sculpture appears next to the pool, surreally suspended above the sand as if about to plunge. This magnificent piece gives you an idea of the Hotel Arts concept (and also gave Spaniards a tiny foretaste of the curves and flips of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, completed several years afterward). The emphasis on art and design is apparent inside the hotel as well. There are collage murals by Miguel Rasero and furniture by architect Oscar Tusquets in the tapas bar, a Mies van der Rohe leather daybed in the ground-floor corridor that leads to the elevators, and paintings, etchings, and prints by local artists almost everywhere you look.
Yet it is in the exclusive apartments on the top 10 floors of the hotel that its true potential is realized. The furniture and fittings on these floors were conceived—kitchens and bathrooms excepted—by Catalan designer Jaume Tresserra, renowned for his delicate, ingenious cabinetmaking. (A defunct New York firm, TCI, handled lower floors.) What distinguishes Tresserra's work, unfailingly polished and modern, is an uncompromising insistence on quality, an almost religious respect for woods on the part of himself and the artisans who craft each piece. Hand-carving, inlay, the choice of Spanish white walnut, and layer upon layer of varnish are among his trademarks, but the relentless pursuit of excellence is married to a sense of fun, and he attributes his love of detail to a close friendship with jewelry designer Elsa Peretti. All 27 of the Hotel Arts apartments—with their impeccable furniture of walnut, sycamore marquetry, leather and silk-velvet upholstery, sandblasted glass, and stainless steel—are unique, each apartment interior treated as a separate project. "My methods, including fine hand-varnishing, are just not compatible with mass production," he admits. George Bush, Sr., and Margaret Thatcher, two of the many guests who have written to Tresserra, bowled over by his designs, didn't seem to object to the exclusivity.