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July 26 2012

Anyone for a night in the Royston Vasey room?

Hotel plans are submitted at last for Bretton Hall in the middle of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. In its rooms, The League of Gentleman was hatched. Would guests ever leave?

It's been a long and sometimes nervous wait, but the hole in the middle of the excellent Yorkshire Sculpture Park looks set to be filled at last.

Never as stark a contrast as its notorious counterpart in central Bradford, the empty space of Bretton Hall has nonetheless detracted from the glories of its park, as visitors stare at the unused 18th century grandeur and mutter about recession.

Now a long-awaited planning application has been submitted to Wakefield council by Rushbond PLC for the large and posh hotel which has been talked about ever since Leeds University's famous extension campus moved out in 2007. The document proposes an initial 77 bedrooms in the grade II* listed Georgian house, with 120 in due course. Alongside it would be 39,000 sq ft of offices, rising to 100,000 if all goes well.

The jigsaw still needs a hotelier or spa operator, or investment company, to make the concept a reality, which will be the acid test of whether economic recovery is sufficient to bring the building back to life. Rushbond's managing director Jonathan Maud is optimistic; the scheme comes fully-detailed and costed by architects, down to the restoration of period features; and the catchment is exceptional: visitor numbers at the Sculpture Park top 350,000 a year and the nearby Hepworth Wakefield has beaten its own first-year target five times, with over 500,000.

Maud reckons that 400 lasting jobs will be created by the business park, looking out over fields dotted with Henry Moores and other sculpture in rolling green countryside less than two miles from the M1. For all the travails since the banking crash, his firm has maintained a track record of delivery over its 25 years, most recently the conversion into shops of restaurants of Leeds' Majestic cinema, famously the home of the longest run of the Sound of Music in history.

Bretton Hall was started by the fabulously wealthy Wentworth family whose palaces Wentworth Castle and Wentworth Woodhouse are behemoth landmarks of South Yorkshire, and completed by the Beaumonts who were also never troubled for cash. But its real glory days came under the legendary reign of Sir Alec Clegg as chief education officer of the West Riding, which turned it into a college. The tradition continued when Leeds University took over in 2001.

Alumni are many and various, with much potential for the naming of suites. All three main protagonists in The League of Gentlemen, Steve Pemberton (1989), Mark Gatiss (1989) and Reece Shearsmith (1990), are among them. A night in the Royston Vazey Room would be unforgettable.


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December 15 2011

Stay in your very own Frank Lloyd Wright house

Three of Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic houses can be seen on a day trip from Pittsburgh – and there's even the opportunity to spend the night in one of them

Frank Lloyd Wright was coming towards me in his trademark pork-pie hat and opera-goer's cape, frosty eyebrows raised, when I woke up. As a rule I don't dream of world-famous architects – never, so far as I recall, have I dreamed of Frank Gehry or IM Pei – but there were extenuating factors. I'd nodded off over a biography of Wright, reading about how he'd arrive unannounced at a house of his design to see how its owners were treating it. And the house where I lay, the Duncan House, an hour south-east of Pittsburgh, was an actual FLW, one of only half a dozen where Wright-lovers can stay the night.

Left in sole possession, my wife and I struggled that first evening to make ourselves at home. To begin with, we tried going for a walk. The house is at the end of a mile-long private driveway, set amid a 125-acre wooded estate. In October the trees were in their autumn finery, spanning the spectrum from deep red to palest yellow. Climbing a hill, we looked out over the rolling Laurel Highlands, one of Pennsylvania's prettiest landscapes and a favourite getaway for Pittsburghers, before following a trail to a secluded pond. On our return leg, we looked in on the estate's two other houses, both designed by a pupil of Wright's and bearing his influence.

Back at home base, we tried walking around the single-storey house, considering it from every angle: the horizontal bands of bleached mahogany, the gutterless eaves, the stonework of the chimney, and the carport (Wright hated enclosed spaces like garages, attics and basements). Inside the house was a vintage 1950s American kitchen, like the set of Happy Days, but instead of cooking we made a picnic at the living room table. This was our favourite space, the heart of the house with its cathedral roof and fireplace, and the expansive windows that allowed us to sit warmly inside without missing the magnificent foliage. It wasn't until we were ready for bed that we noticed another typical FLW feature – no curtains or blinds on the windows.

So, up at first light, we made the 40-minute drive south through the Laurel Highlands to Fallingwater. Wright built Fallingwater in the 1930s, when he was pushing 70, and such was its impact that he never again lacked for commissions. People have been visiting, photographing and writing about the place ever since but it still has the power to startle at first sight. The family who commissioned Fallingwater, owners of a Pittsburgh department store, anticipated something more conventional: a weekend cabin with a view of the falls. What they got instead was a bravura exercise in modern architecture and engineering – the core of the house resting on boulders with terraces of reinforced concrete cantilevered out over the falls. To their credit, they were content to foot the bill, which, in true Wright style, never ceased to climb.

Seven miles from Fallingwater and now under the ownership of Lord Palumbo, Kentuck Knob is another FLW favourite. Crowning the brow of a hill and shrouded by trees, Kentuck Knob is built around a hexagonal kitchen and its angles just keep getting odder. Wright hated the dark, Victorian houses of his childhood, calling their rooms boxes within boxes; one of his abiding aims was to break down those boxes and blur the line between inside and out. Built for local ice-cream barons, Kentuck Knob achieves these aims with considerable charm. Adding to its appeal, the house and grounds are dotted with modern art – works by Claes Oldenburg, Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Serra – from Lord Palumbo's collection.

Having toured these two houses, we returned for a second night at the Duncan House and found ourselves looking on "our" FLW with fresh eyes. Now that we'd learned a little about Wright's methods and motives, certain things made more sense: the absence of decoration (Wright abhorred "inferior desecrators"); the narrow gallery leading to the bedrooms (a mere passing-through space, to be minimized as far as possible); the built-in shelving; and the division of the house between living areas (spacious and open) and private spaces (smaller and darker, places to sleep and take shelter rather than for living).

FLW houses try to teach their inhabitants how their paternalistic designer would you to live: together, around the fireplace; in harmony with nature; simply and without clutter. If Americans have largely ignored his lessons, holding on to their garages and basements, preferring to live in bigger and bigger boxes on sub-divided estates, that isn't Wright's fault.

The Duncan House is no Fallingwater. In common with the other five Wright houses where you can stay the night (all in the Midwest), it's a Usonian. Usonians, designed and built in the last decades of Wright's life, were prefabricated houses that could be assembled according to one of a dozen blueprints. They were meant to be affordable, bringing good design within reach of middle-class America. (Though affordable was always a very relative term with Wright.)

The only way you'll ever get to experience Fallingwater is on a guided tour. Staying at Duncan House felt a bit like being able to take a Rembrandt home from the gallery – not a major work, a sketch, but a Rembrandt all the same.
We certainly got to like the place and were sorry to leave – perhaps, if we'd been allowed to stay, we'd have become better people! Lingering on our last morning, I took time to flick through the comments book. In the couple of years since the Duncan House opened, Wright aficionados from all over the world have stayed there, adding an extra, personal facet to their FLW tour. It's not cheap but very few were complaining. 'The dream of a lifetime' wrote more than one.

The Duncan House, 187 Evergreen Lane, Acme (+1 877 833 7829) costs $425 per night (two night minimum); the house sleeps up to six – extra $50 per night for fourth, fifth and sixth guests. Fallingwater, 1491 Mill Run Road, Mill Run, (fallingwater.org; book tours several months in advance). Kentuck Knob, 723 Kentuck Road, Dunbar (kentuckknob.com; advance bookings recommended). Flights from London to Pittsburgh with various US airlines start at around £340, if booked via kayak.co.uk.


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July 09 2011

Museum peace: Japan's Naoshima island

The "art island" of Naoshima is dotted with calming concrete installations a world away from Tokyo's frenetic pace. Pico Iyer enjoys a moment of serenity

Japanese cool has, for decades now, been associated with everything fast, hi-tech and jangly; it's the TVs on taxi dashboards, the control-panels on toilets, the underground universes around major train stations that keep buzzing even after a natural calamity that stunned the rest of us. And if you're looking for a world-defining Japanese art form, you're more likely to turn these days to anime and manga than to any of the country's classical painters or mock-European forms. So it was shocking for me to go to the sleepy, faraway island of Naoshima – now turned into an "art island" rich with museums and installations – and find the coolest thing I've seen in my 24 years of living in Japan. It was, in some ways, the reverse of technology.

The structures around Naoshima are super-hi-tech, 23rd-century constructions of grey reinforced concrete, with every next-generation innovation; but they take you back to the principles of spareness, simplicity and concentration that graced the haiku, brush-and-ink paintings and Noh dramas of old. Where technology makes you speedy, up-to-the-minute and all-over-the-place, Naoshima so calms, grounds and slows you that you feel as if you've stepped into a meditative shrine.

The journey to the old fishermen's haunt in the Seto Naikai, or Inland Sea, is like a journey through the past. I set out from my home in Nara on a brilliant late-autumn afternoon, the trees blazing red, gold and radiant yellow all around me. To get to the remote island involved a bus, a train, another train to Kyoto, a bullet-train to Okayama and then another local train, a slow ferry and a bus before, five hours later, I arrived at Naoshima's Benesse House, the showpiece hotel where I was staying. With each change of vehicle, modernity seemed to thin out a little and I was closer to the old. By the time I left Okayama, I was in the middle of a much earlier Japan of unmanned ticket offices and deserted piers. The faces were simpler here – two local girls, swathed in grey earmuffs, had the countenances of Noh masks – and there were few signs in English.

The train from Okayama clanked along, the opposite of a bullet train, stopping at an empty platform every two or three minutes, and as we inched past, I could see regiments of uniform houses, with grey tiled roofs, bunched against a hillside, smoke rising from the rice-paddies in front of them. By the time we arrived at the ferry town of Uno, I could hardly recall the Godiva coffee-shops and high-rises of Kyoto.

When I reached Naoshima itself, I began to feel as if I'd stepped out of time altogether, in a world so deep in the past – and so far ahead in the future – that I lost all sense of when I was. Benesse House is a stylish and sleek construction, with Bose CD players on every desk – but no TVs or internet reception – and each room individually designed by the self-taught Osaka architect Tadao Ando. Its corridors are full of original contemporary canvasses and eerie light sculptures projecting classic Japanese landscapes through the near-dark. And the effect of all the modern art is, oddly, to take you back to the transfixing simplicity of an old ryokan, or traditional inn, where simply watching the sun make stripes across the tatami mats, or figures cast silhouettes against the paper windows, becomes so absorbing you never want to leave your room.

After the Benesse Company, a publishing firm centered in Okayama, took over the southern half of the island in 1985, working with the then-mayor Chikatsugu Miyake, it called in the minimalist Ando and invited him to design a huge swatch of natural park to be an international centre of art. Rising to the opportunity – surely any architect's dream – he opened Benesse House in 1992, then created a Benesse House Museum (with hotel rooms on the second and third floors) up the road, and then built what is now known as the Oval, a James Bondian series of six more rooms for guests on the top of a mountain behind the museum, reached by private monorail. In 2004, he completed the Chichu Museum which is a 20-minute walk away.

In all my 50 years I've never seen a place as pure and elevating as the Chichu, and it speaks for the pristine futurism that makes Naoshima such a unique place. There are five major pieces – a set of Monet water lilies, a large chamber with a reflecting 6ft granite sphere at its centre by the American land artist Walter de Maria and three light installations by the American James Turrell. Rather than observing these pieces, though, you more or less inhabit them. In one Turrell piece – Open Field – you walk into a room flooded with an unearthly orange light. Then, one at a time, you step up some stairs and into another large room suffused in soothingly deep blue light. Turn around, and the people in the room behind look like art works. Turn back, and you're in a kind of dream state.

Ten minutes walk from the Chichu, I came upon a new museum, opened only last year, to show off the works of the Korean-born Lee Ufan, again in a tall, grey, windowless Ando construction in a field. One of the pieces there, a single rock placed in front of a great earth-coloured slab, with a light shining on it, looked like a moving representation of a figure praying. Walking back from there towards Benesse House, I passed 88 buddhas along the side of the road made from industrial waste. A huge cube sat on a beach, and a "Cultural Melting Bath" hot tub on the cliffs above. At one point, on the silent road framed by glowing trees and the Inland Sea, I realised I could hear water lapping against the shore from two different beaches, each in a different key.

The protected spaces and air of discerning clarity mark every detail in Naoshima. There are no pachinko parlours on the small island of 3,600 people, no video arcades, no clamorous department stores. Cars are rare and you can walk from one site to the very farthest in about an hour. If you look out to sea, you can watch the fishing boats slowly drifting to one of the quiet neighbouring islands; when you head into one of the museums, sometimes slipping off your shoes before entering a room, you're in a prayerful hush again.

While Benesse House is clearly the classic place to stay, budget-minded travellers can sleep in one of 10 Mongolian yurts on the beach 10 minutes' walk away, for less than £30 a night, or in various family-run minshuku, or guest houses, among the island's villages.

In one 18th-century village, Honmura, 30 minutes' walk from Benesse House, six old wooden houses showcase the most contemporary of modern art works. Everywhere you look in Naoshima, the locals, and visiting artists, are coming up with new projects. There's the "I ❤ YU" bathhouse in the port town of Miyanoura – where you bathe surrounded by a zany, eclectic "scrapbook" of work, including an aeroplane cockpit and a collage of erotica – and the Miaow Shima café in Honmura where you can sip coffee among a dozen sleeping cats.

Naoshima is not like anything in the west, but more an ultra-cool reference and homage to what Japan has been doing all along, in cutting away distraction and using frames and light and silence to still the mind and train one in attention.

And at a time when the modern nation has absorbed such a series of shocks, and is thinking about what grounds and steadies it, it makes more sense than ever to seek out this forward-looking shrine to the past.

Essentials

Doubles at Benesse House (00 81 87 892 2030; benesse-artsite.jpen/benessehouse) cost from £246 per night. Yurts on the beach (Tsutsuji-so Lodge, 00 81 87 892 2838; tsutsujiso.no-blog.jp/english) cost £28 per person per night. To get to Naoshima, take the bullet-train to Okayama and a local train to Uno, followed by a 20-minute ferry ride

Pico Iyer is the author of The Lady and The Monk, a novel about the first 24 years he has spent living in Japan


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June 27 2011

Fogo, Newfoundland: the world's wildest arts scene?

A dramatic community project is transforming a windswept island of fishermen off Canada's Newfoundland coast into a cutting edge artists' haven

A 110-square-mile, windswept outcrop of bald rock overlooking the raging north Atlantic, off Newfoundland, Fogo is home to 2,700 fishermen or descendants of, and a considerably larger population of gannets whose shrill cries provide a constant soundtrack.

This is life right on the edge. Indeed the Flat Earth Society considers Fogo Island one of the four corners of a flat earth.

It's also the least likely place you'd think of finding members of a cutting-edge international art scene. But that's exactly who's coming to Fogo now.

By all accounts, traffic should be going in the other direction: for centuries the inhabitants of Fogo lived between wind and waves in search of cod – until a 1992 cod moratorium strangled their livelihood and the small island suffered as the population moved away.

But that's forgetting the enterprising nature and deep sense of home of Fogo's people. And the equally deep pockets of one islander – a dot.com success story who came back with an experiment to give Fogo a future, by using its past.

Zita Cobb, who left Fogo in 1979, returned a multimillionaire in 2006 after helping California-based JDS Uniphrase become a world leader in fibre-optics during the high-tech boom.

Cobb and her brother established the Shorefast Foundation with the idea of revitalising the community by weaving together the fundamental components of Fogo's heritage – fishing, craftsmanship, nature and tourism. Shorefast put $6m into the project, the federal and provincial governments $5m each.

First, Shorefast planned to put Fogo on the map as an international art destination, and hired Newfoundland-born, Norway-based architect Todd Saunders to design a series of artists' studios. Four of them were finished last year, three more were unveiled on 23 June.

Each studio is completely off grid. Scattered over the island, the ultra-modern constructs are jarring and dramatic blades of volcanic stone built on rock, perched seemingly precariously over the water. While radically different in appearance from Fogo's weather-beaten clapboard houses, in subtle, abstract ways they have a relationship with them. Both are built on stilts over the water and seem to cling to the shore like their life depends on it.

Each artist's studio is located in an island community – or outport as Newfoundlanders call the coastal settlements too small to be a village – such as Joe Batt's Arm, Tilting or Seldom, and visiting artists, chosen by Shorefast will embark on projects which will benefit the community.

Elisabet Gunnarsdottir, an Icelander hired by Cobb to lead the Fogo Island Arts Corporation (artscorpfogoisland.ca), says that Shorefast is guided by principles of geo-tourism. "We want to engage the community. We are trying to create a tourist destination that sustains the character of Fogo, its aesthetic, heritage, and the economic wellbeing of the residents."

For that they'll need tourists. Enter the second component of Cobb's project: the Fogo Island Inn, a luxury hotel. The five-star modernist inn, also designed by Saunders, will have 29 oceanfront rooms when it opens in June 2012. It will also feature a spa, heritage library and art gallery. Cobb says all profits will be reinvested into the community.

The inn will be filled with handmade items that reflect the character of Fogo. Guests will wake up in beds covered in quilts befitting Fogo's long tradition of community quilters. The inn's interiors are by London-based Ilse Crawford – former Elle Decoration editor and the designer behind interiors including Soho House New York and the restaurant at the Grand Hotel Stockholm – again with local materials and designs inspired by traditional ideas.

At $400 a night the inn is targeting a weathly, niche clientele. But there are less pricey accommodation options too. The Quintal house, an 1840s fisherman's house has just been renovated and transformed into a three-room B&B by Nadine Decker (+1 709-658·7829, quintalhouse.ca, doubles from $115).

If you're on the island in late July, a must see is the Great Fogo Island Punt Race to There and Back, a project to revitalise the once ubiquitous all wood punts, which is organised by Nadine Decker's uncle Pete. Local boaters row through rough open waters 10 miles and back to Change Island. In the backdrop you might be able to see remnants of the spectacular parade of icebergs and ice floe heading south in the spring.

Visitors can also photograph the rotund Atlantic puffin that land on the island in June. And hike the Turpin's Trail, a five-mile route that starts at a sandy beach, and ends at Tilting, an Irish heritage village or go partridgeberry picking with Pauline Brown who organises the Fogo Island Partridgeberry Harvest Festival.

Some might be happy just trying a scoop of partridgeberry ice-cream from Growler's Ice Cream (125 Main Road, Joe Batt's Arm). Or chowder and chatter at Nicole's Cafe next to Quintal House. And visitors can also bear witness to the slow comeback of the fishing industry thanks to the Fogo Island Cod Pod, a newly sustainable method of baited fishing.

Travelling to Fogo requires will and time. The easiest way to get there is a flight to Gander, which was once one of the largest airports in the world where every transatlantic flight used to refuel. It's then a one-hour drive on a motorway, stretches of which might be blocked by moose, until you reach the aptly named town of Farewell. Then it's a one-hour ferry crossing.

But those who make the trek will be rewarded with a unique place and unique people and a new tourism industry that could possibly be a model for other small, endangered communities.

How to do it

Air Canada (aircanada.com) flies to Gander from Heathrow via Halifax or Toronto from around £600 return including tax. There are many daily ferry crossing from Farewell to Fogo – $5.50 one-way


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May 05 2011

Obama DJ and Jamie Cullum launch £200m St Pancras hotel

Development by Manhattan Loft Corporation and Renaissance chain marries US corporate style with Victorian Gothic

St Pancras International. The name of London's most charismatic railway station is no idle boast. And it isn't just that trains scythe from here to continental Europe at about 200mph. Non, madame – I mean, no siree.

The £200m, 245-bedroom, five-star hotel fronting the station, which was officially opened on Thursday night, has been developed by a team led by Harry Handelsman, founder of the Manhattan Loft Corporation, with the Renaissance chain of hotels owned by Marriott, the company founded by J Willard Marriott in 1927, when this Mormon missionary and his wife opened a root beer stand in Washington DC.

So, it was no great surprise to find the great iron and glass lobbies of the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel resounding to hip-hop, psychedelic and soul sounds conjured by DJ Cassidy, who played at President Barack Obama's inaugural ball in 2009. Earlier in the evening, Jamie Cullum tickled the ivories for the hotel's 2,000 guests.

The decor of the new hotel is an extraordinary marriage of US corporate style and reinvented 19th-century English Victorian Gothic. Into this improbable mix, and between generous floral displays, guests can find a fine collection of contemporary art including works by Donald Judd, Joseph Beuys, Richard Prince and Gary Hume.

It all needs a little fine-tuning, yet this architectural phantasmagoria is, without doubt, one of the most remarkable hotels in the world. Where else can you look from your bed through a vast Gothic window inspired by some of the great medieval churches and cloth halls of northern Europe and watch eel-like electric trains slither out from under a sky-blue Victorian train shed?

Originally opened on 5 May 1873, the many-towered and spired Midland Grand Hotel was not just "too good for its purpose", as its architect George Gilbert Scott claimed, but altogether too grand to turn a profit.

Closed in 1935, there was much derision for this fairytale building where drainpipes running down the lobby walls feature lions spouting stylised iron water from their fierce mouths while dragons bite their ears. Its existence was threatened before its salvation came when Eurostar trains were directed to St Pancras.

Today, the hotel and the station, which was rebuilt at a cost of £800m and reopened in 2007, are working together once again.

St Pancras station is now a mighty concatenation of flats, shops, bedrooms, trains, restaurants and restored public spaces, unmatched for its sheer complexity and architectural chutzpah by any other railway terminus.

It has taken more than a decade to complete, cost at least £1bn and oozes energy, ambition, high Victorian romance, modern comfort, artistry, kitsch and charm. Oh, and pets are allowed. Great Danes, Irish Wolfhounds or even Hounds of the Baskervilles.

"There is simply no crowd I can't move," said DJ Cassidy, "and there is no better feeling than that."

Gilbert Scott might have been able to claim the very same thing, along with a little help from a trainload of modern architects, conservationists, engineers, financiers and hoteliers.

And, if Obama ever needs a London hideaway, the hotel boasts its very own £8,000 a night presidential suite, complete with its own butler (but no DJ). If the newly complete, new-look St Pancras has one glaring fault, it's this: its attractions – from a new Marcus Wareing restaurant named after Gilbert Scott himself to a bar in the linenfold-panelled former booking hall – could easily make you miss your train.


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February 13 2011

Renaissance Hotel

George Gilbert Scott's landmark hotel above St Pancras station has been sumptuously restored after generations of neglect

It is nearly a century since the Midland Grand hotel, the Victorian palace attached to St Pancras station, last flourished, and 76 years since it was a hotel at all. It is almost a half-century since the struggle began to rescue it from oblivion, 26 years since it had any full-time use and five since construction started to return it to its original purpose as a luxury hotel, now with some apartments attached. On 14 March the first guests will enter the St Pancras Renaissance hotel, as it is now called, where the rooms will cost from £250 a night in a modern extension, up to the many-roomed Royal Suite for £10,000. It will have cost £200m of construction to get this far.

Meanwhile, it has stood, like the weird house of a crazy old lady in some village, unmissable, spooky and inaccessible. The life of the city swirls around it and under it, in and out of some of the busiest train and underground stations in Europe. It has been possible to see inside on the occasional tour, and its interiors have been shown worldwide to unknowing millions, as locations for Harry Potter, 102 Dalmatians, Batman, Richard III and other films requiring lavish gothic creepiness. Now, its restoration nearly complete, it feels like both a lost world and something familiar, that has always been part of the furniture of London.

Inside, it is a thing of movement, a web of stairs and endless corridors. Even the coffee room, one of its most splendid interiors, is built on a radiused curve, like a railway viaduct, as if you had not quite left a train carriage. Then, as if unsettled by instability, it is fixed with history. Medieval architecture is imported by the hundreds of tons, to ballast the risky Victorian world of capital and industry, of bank crashes and train crashes.

Palaces and churches are evoked with pointed arches and ogees, bunches of colonettes, carvings of flowers and fruit, trefoils and quatrefoils. The materials include granite, alternating pink and white stone and wrought iron. The decoration, as it would have been in medieval buildings, is as dazzling as it can be: within a square foot or two, you can find royal blue, vermilion, gold, green, pink and a mustardy yellow. Great floral splodges march across the wallpaper like space invaders. Its looping, swooping, theatrical main staircase is decorated with 2,300 fleurs-de-lis. There are paintings of the Virtues and of a chaste love scene from the Roman de la Rose, perhaps antidotes to the potential lustfulness of a hotel.

It is both magnificent and a little demented. With its churchy aura, it feels uncomfortable with its own hedonism. Although its imagery is of nature and springtime, it feels a touch clammy and stifling. While admiring it, you can see why people in the early 20th century reacted against this kind of thing, in favour of simpler, fresher, less pretentious spaces.

When it was completed, the Midland Grand was the last and grandest of the railway hotels built to serve passengers at major termini and to act as an advertisement for them. It was designed for the Midland Railway by the prolific George Gilbert Scott, architect of dozens of churches, Glasgow University, the Albert Memorial and the Foreign Office, and for whom the project was the fulfilment of his greatest dream, to design a great gothic public building in London. For him, the making of this monument went beyond mere uses; it was almost "too good for its purpose," he said.

Its innovations included lifts, fireproof construction and a generous supply of flushing lavatories, but these were not enough to defend it from the competition when newer hotels introduced things the Midland Grand did not have, such as ensuite bathrooms. In the 20th century, it declined, until it closed in 1935. After the war, it housed various offices of British Rail, which carved up its interiors with partitions and suspended ceilings. Seen as obsolete, inefficient and tasteless, it was threatened with demolition. It took campaigns by John Betjeman and others to save both the hotel and the great shed of St Pancras station – now the Eurostar terminus – behind.

Its eventual rescue is the work of Harry Handelsman and his property company, Manhattan Loft Corporation, London and Continental Railways and Marriott Hotels, working with the architects RHWL and Richard Griffiths, and the close attention of English Heritage. The prodigiously successful hedge-fund manager (Lord) Stanley Fink put many of his millions behind it. Of all these, the driving force is Handelsman, for whom it has become an obsession. He increased his stake when other partners fell away, nervous of a complicated, risky project in an unproved location. Now he describes himself as the "custodian" of the building.

He freely admits that the budget "spiralled" and wears the cost as a badge of honour. When a fragment of rare wallpaper was found in one room, it was reinstated at a cost of £47,000 for the single room. He says that he "wanted to go the extra mile, even though it cost tens of millions". He is confident that he will "recoup his investment, because it will be the most beautiful hotel in London". His cheerful air suggests he is not being driven to bankruptcy by an architectural folly.

The genius of the project lies in its deal-making and risk-taking, the stacking up of partnerships, funding and uses such that it can, for the first time since the early 1920s, be a going concern. It has cost no public money since English Heritage supported the restoration of the exterior in the early 1990s.

With this history go some compromises. The restoration lacks an overall concept of how the old relates to the new, such as was possible, for example, in the state-funded, not-for-profit Neues Museum in Berlin. It feels more like a series of individual decisions than something with a guiding intelligence. A new wing to the rear, housing 189 bedrooms, is clad in a modern version of Scott's red-brick gothic by restoration specialists Richard Griffiths Architects. This is among the best of its kind, confident and not completely imitative, but it sits oddly with the modern, standardised block it covers.

The relationship with Marriott, which vetted every detail from its headquarters in Washington DC, causes awkwardness, as the corporate world seems to have lost its taste for fantasy since the days of the Midland Railway. Sometimes, Scott's individualism collides with ubiquitous international hoteliana. Worst is the fitted carpet in the corridors, whose architecture demands something with a less domestic quality: it is like socks worn with a ballgown and its space-killing squishiness makes my flesh creep.

But these are details compared to the far more significant fact that one of the country's architectural marvels is returning to life. That it is doing so, after so many decades and obstacles, shows the power of fantasy in cities. Usually, everyone bemoans building projects that take a long time and run over budget, but here nobody, not even those writing the cheques, seems to mind.


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July 27 2010

Rub shoulders with famous ghosts at Zeffirelli's villa – only €5,000 a night

Acclaimed director's Italian retreat on the Amalfi coast reopens as luxury hotel – three years after sale

"Leonard Bernstein, Laurence Olivier, Maria Callas, Elizabeth Taylor – it sounds like a legend, doesn't it?" mused Italy's most celebrated opera and film director, Franco Zeffirelli, as he recalled the guests who had passed through his retreat on the Amalfi coast.

For 35 years, until he sold it in 2007, Villa Tre Ville was a place that gave him "the opportunity to put together my mind with those of creative geniuses", he told the Guardian. "But I cannot enjoy it any more, and so it is right that other people should be able to enjoy it."

This month, Zeffirelli's house started a new life as a hotel, offering guests the chance to brush shoulders with the ghosts of celebrities past and present. The three-villa estate's links with the arts go back to the 1920s, when it was a meeting place for Russian cultural exiles. Sergei Diaghilev was a guest. More recent visitors to Villa Tre Ville have included Liza Minnelli and Elton John.

When Zeffirelli's biographer, the late David Sweetman, travelled out to meet him, he later recounted how: "Eventually, some ancient servant let me in, and I was shown on to this opera set. I've never seen anything like it. It seemed, just possibly, the most beautiful place on Earth."

Built on the rocky coastline near Positano, Villa Tre Ville offers sublime views over the Mediterranean. But its originality as a hotel, which will go at least some way towards justifying prices of up to ¤5,000 (£4,171) a night, is that its new owners have left it as untouched as possible. The biggest suite, named after Zeffirelli himself, is much as it was when he moved out. The bedroom furniture, inlaid with mother of pearl, was brought by the director from Syria. Guests will even be able to browse through the books he left behind.

Villa Tre Ville was bought by a local hotel owner, Giovanni Russo, who has two establishments in Sorrento. "The thinking was to alter it as little as possible", he said. "And we have made really very few changes."

The old bread oven had been turned into a shower cabin, he said. But even an eccentric greenhouse, made from part of the set for one of Zeffirelli's productions of La Traviata, had been kept and adapted for use as accommodation.

The cheapest of the 12 suites and rooms is available for a mere €1,100, including breakfast, but not VAT.

Zeffirelli said the years in which he owned the estate "were the very best years of my life, when I was climbing the steps of my career. But it could not go on forever. The time of climbing the steps of Positano is over. And I have a beautiful house in Rome where I can read and entertain my friends."

For a man of 87, he remains extraordinarily active, having just completed a cycle of operas staged at the Arena in Verona. But his work schedule has gradually diminished, and next year, he said, he was booked to direct "only three operas".

Zeffirelli's biographer recalled that getting to Villa Tre Ville was a rather less than luxurious experience. "It took hours. The taxi bill was unreal, but eventually we arrived at the top of this little winding road. And there was just a gate, and I had to go down all these bloody stairs to the villa."

So that the estate's well-heeled visitors do not face the same difficulties, the new owner of Villa Tre Ville has installed a lift to carry guests down from the road. "This was the real change we made", he said. "And it was a major work of engineering."


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July 22 2010

Dearth in Venice

Hotel immortalised in Thomas Mann novel – which quietly closed several months ago – to reopen as luxury apartment complex

It was one of the most elegant hotels in the world, the setting for Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and the residence of choice for Hollywood stars from Clark Gable to Keira Knightley. But Venice Lido's Grand Hôtel des Bains is no more after quietly closing its doors several months ago – to be reopened as a luxury apartment complex next year.

The news will upset cinephiles and art lovers the world over, and for ever change the face of the Venice film festival, which is held nearby.

Andrea Martini, film critic and professor of cinema theory at Siena University, who stayed at the hotel for 22 years in a row while covering the festival, is devastated by the news. "I always got room 422, one of the old rooms, still with parquet and art nouveau furniture, with a little terrace overlooking the sea. The bedsheets were in white linen; it was so worn out, you could see through it."

He is angry at the city for not doing more to preserve it. "I'm in mourning," he said. "It may look frivolous at first, but it is actually a very serious matter. Somebody at the Venice town hall is at fault for not preserving what is an international and historical treasure."

Its new owners say the hotel will be entirely renovated and restructured, and will open in late 2011 as the Des Bains residences, a complex of apartments, some for sale and some for rent.

Cristina Fossati, of Est Capital, the real estate fund that bought the hotel in 2008, says the renovation will benefit Venice and the lido: "Est Capital's Real Venice real estate fund is renovating the town's entire 2.2km sea promenade," she said.

The Hôtel des Bains is not the city's only historic public building to be transformed in this way. The huge old Al Mare hospital, as well as three palazzi in the centre of Venice, have been sold to Est Capital.

With an ever-shrinking population and fewer taxpayers, city authorities say they cannot afford to maintain their own historic buildings, let alone step in to rescue private ones. "The municipality chose not to intervene," said an employee from the mayor's office who asked not to be named. "The hotel has always been in private hands. At least the listed reception rooms will remain intact."

Director Stephen Frears, who stayed at the Des Bains in 2006 when he won the festival critics' prize for The Queen, said the sale represented the end of an era. "I'm only glad that Dirk Bogarde isn't alive to have seen this," he said.


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March 31 2010

Much of a Dutchness

The Netherlands was once a byword for architecture that was cool, calm and collected. Not any more. Jonathan Glancey is thrilled by a madcap new hotel

Can this be real? I'm in Zaandam, near Amsterdam, standing in front of a hotel that looks like a pileup of traditional Dutch houses, all grafted together in bright greens and blues, their pediments, gables, windows and roofs pulling and pushing at my eyes.

My mind is not, however, playing tricks on me. And no, this is not an April Fool. This is the Hotel Inntel Zaandam, a madcap fairytale of a building. In fact, this 12-storey structure is, for a while, hard to take in. It looks like a trick, a conjuring act, as if some maverick architect ran off to join the circus, and learned how to balance one building on top of another, possibly while riding a bike. It's a stupefying, funny, delightful building – a quirky addition to the skyline of Zaandam, capital of the Zaanstad region and a town best known (until now) for its cocoa, biscuits and Europe's first McDonald's.

"I didn't set out to shock," says Wilfried van Winden, chief architect of WAM, the Delft-based practice behind it. "But this is, of course, an outspoken building. And the language it speaks is the architectural language of Zaanstad. It makes a big statement, sure, but the building is not an imposition – it belongs here." All the facades you see, explains the architect, are based on traditional Zaanstad houses. "From a stately notary's dwelling," he says, "to workers' cottages." Van Winden's favourite is a re-creation, high up, of a blue house that features in a work by Claude Monet, painted during a trip to Zaandam.

Funny buildings rarely come off. There was a painful period, not so long ago, when architects worldwide practised a style we learned to call post-modernism. This mostly involved the cutting and pasting of historic building details on to office blocks, shops and hotels in a puerile attempt to make big new buildings – blocky by nature – lively and entertaining, as if every town could be improved by looking like Las Vegas.

The one country to hold out against this was the Netherlands. Instead, the Dutch pioneered a line of cool, calm and collected urban buildings that have long been held up as a model of modesty, intelligence and decorum. Yet there is also an exuberant tradition in Dutch architecture that has been sidelined in recent decades. One has only to think of the extraordinary housing complex in Amsterdam called Het Scheep (the Ship). Built in 1917, with soaring prows, a mast-like tower and a wealth of ornamentation, it shows that Dutch architecture over the past 100 years has been a rich affair.

During the last decade, new forms of neo-traditional buildings have sprouted in Dutch towns. Many are kitsch, but some are wholesome, appropriate and well handled. WAM's hotel, however, is in a class of its own; it will certainly put Zaandam on the tourist map. "The best compliment I've had," says Van Winden, "is from friends who say the building makes them smile. This should be enough for any architect."

Curiously, this building started out as the Golden Tulip hotel, part of a small chain, but it was bought, almost immediately, by the Inntel group, who promptly changed its name. The idea for its design came to Van Winden while he was thinking about the nature of hotels in town centres. These, he thinks, should be more like a "home from home" rather than concrete boxes. In the Inntel's 160 bedrooms, everyone gets to live in a little house rather than an anonymous space that, however plush, could be in Amsterdam or Auckland. Guests are already taking photographs, so they can tell friends and family: "Look where I stayed!"

The planners said: 'Go for it!'

The hotel, which cost ¤15m (£13.4m), rises not from some freakishly isolated site, but from a new development of traditional streets lined with neo- traditional buildings. This might not be to everyone's taste, yet these streets and buildings root the hotel in an urban flowerbed that seems all of a piece.

A modern building of this size is not, of course, wholly traditional in construction. The core of the hotel is concrete, while the "houses" that rise up it are timber and clapboard, meaning that many of the rooms, especially the suites, really do feel like individual and even authentic houses. Cleverly, they come across as both familiar and enticingly new. The city's planners gave the hotel the green light because, although a little unusual, it fitted into the area's overall design. They were also intrigued, says Van Winden. "What they said, in a way, was, 'If you can really build this, go for it.'"

Van Winden founded WAM a year ago. As you might expect, his style is hard to pin down. Those who might wish to caricature him as a cartoonist or a clown will be disappointed by the refined and generous Modern housing he recently designed in Amsterdam. And for all its apparent craziness, this hotel is, at heart, a rational building, with an interior that is carefully planned. While the bedrooms are essentially modern, they're adorned with images of traditional Zaandam streetscapes, as well as colourful old adverts for Zaandam cocoa powder and biscuits, blown up to cover entire walls.

Like the facades, these root the hotel firmly in Zaandam. As Van Winden says, "When you wake up here, I don't think you'll say, 'Where am I?'"


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March 16 2010

Verblasste amerikanische Hotels

  

Das 1949 eröffnete Shamrock Hotel bei Huston war in den vierziger Jahren mit 1.100 Zimmern das größte Hotel der Vereinigten Staaten. Es wurde 1987 abgerissen.

  

Das Washington Hilton ist ein Beispiel für den Stil der “swinging ’60s”. In diesem Hotel verübte John Hinckley, Jr. im März 1981 einen mißlungenen Mordanschlag auf US-Präsident Ronald Reagan.

  

Das Hotel Traymore wurde in seinen Anfängen 1879 erbaut und wuchs sich im Lauf der Zeit zur führenden Unterkunft in Atlantic City aus. In den fünfziger und sechziger Jahren begann der Stern des Hauses zu sinken, 1972 wurde es abgerissen.

  

(Gefunden bei Atomic Antiques)

Reposted fromglaserei glaserei
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