At the Venice Biennale this summer, New York architects Ricardo Scofidio and Elizabeth Diller toured the world with slides of the "Hotel Interclone," the joke being that only the ethnic patterns on the bedspreads cued visitors that they were in Baku, Bangalore, or Kampala. Local decoration is a fig leaf camouflaging a growing world monoculture aided and abetted by high-rise boxes and interior design: One hotel room fits all.
In the mid-eighties, with his Eraserhead haircut and loopy grin, French designer Philippe Starck hardly looked like a social revolutionary fighting the cancerous global conformity. But when he outfitted the Royalton in New York with eel-like handrails and reptilian sconces, and brought Surrealism off the canvas into the lobby, he propelled the notion of the boutique hotel beyond the style pages into boardrooms.
Starck was playing David to the corporate Goliaths. Since Starck's eels -- and the more recent design by Christian Liaigre for the elegant Mercer hotel in SoHo -- the idea of mind-opening interiors in boutique hotels has been appropriated by large hotels and chains, where standardization once promised consistent quality. But a one-off sensibility and downright eccentricity are difficult to reconcile in a cookie-cutter real-estate world that profits from thinking inside the box. In New York, four recently opened hotels seem caught in an unresolved identity crisis between the corporate environment and the desire to be cool and unique.
The hotel that brings the blood to a boil is the 203-room TriBeCa Grand at 2 Sixth Avenue, owned by Leonard and Emanuel Stern. TriBeCa has already been gentrified, but until this hotel, it hadn't been themed. The in-house architects of Hartz Mountain Industries fashioned a glib warehouse-wannabe structure that "fits" into the surrounding context by aping the brick exterior and arched structural bays of the old buildings nearby: The architecture implies that ye olde warehouse has been converted into a hotel (as was the case with the Mercer). But the new eight-story building with the friendly green awnings violates the social compact that glues the neighborhood together. Despite the $400-per-square-foot loft prices, many artists are still bivouacked here, and they give the neighborhood its texture and authenticity. The hotel lies outside the historic district, so there was no reason not to attempt a design that emulates the area's artistic aspirations. A brilliant design on this wedge of land could have deepened rather than cheapened TriBeCa's character. The Grand amounts to a voyeuristic Tree Tops, leaching the spirit of a neighborhood that it treats as an artist petting zoo. Its single saving grace is the ground floor, an open forum that mixes dining, drinking, lounging, and urban browsing in a tall meeting hall. The citizens of TriBeCa now have a covered town square, though they'll probably want to boycott it.
Even Hilton has gone hip, or as hip as it can go, at the 444-room Hilton Times Square, on 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, and its corporate cousin in Battery Park City, the 463-key Embassy Suites hotel. The interior designer of both, Alexandra Champalimaud & Associates, quotes the charming eccentricity of boutique hotels by planting cushy, bulbous chairs in the public spaces. Both display the fruits of an ambitious art program, curated by the New York Public Art Fund, to affirm the uniqueness. Diva, a fictional portrait by Kurt Kauper, dominates the sky lobby at the 42nd Street Hilton, and a fourteen-story Sol LeWitt juts into the centerpiece atrium at the Embassy Suites.
But the two share the problem common to virtually all new hotels these days: One firm designs a shell; another decorates it; perhaps a third designs the rooms. The assumption that the building is a boxy container to be stuffed with smaller boxes is a major, if not insuperable, setback: Architects abort their concept at the shell, and interior designers don't have much to work with. The sequential disconnects thwart the possibility of a through-design. Beyer Blinder Belle, the architects of the Times Square building, created a Mondrianesque façade that holds its own within the hyperactive collage of other façades in the base building, an entertainment complex. But the hotel, which really starts on the fifteenth floor, at its lobby, wants to break free of the surrounding mass. The sadly underappreciated Morris Lapidus, who did brilliant hotel plans in Miami, would have known how to move the form off the pedestal and claim its space in the sky.
Downtown, the flagship Embassy Suites, by Perkins Eastman Architects, is hardly more than a misplaced suburban import dressed in brick to match other suburban imports straight from the office park. Framed by the stiff architecture, the art inside simply points out the conventionality of the basic design. There is more energy in a single gestural stroke of the mural by Pat Steir behind the front desk than in all the rest of the hotel. Champalimaud's Starck-ish chairs don't achieve critical mass and can't redeem a much larger problem.
The only one of this summer's new hotels that makes a serious attempt at architecture is the 398-room flagship Sofitel on 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Here Yann Leroy, an architect with Brennan Beer Gorman, fashioned a tower that plays on the French romance with the New York skyscraper. He negotiates the huge building in the awkward T-shaped site, starting with a low-rise limestone frontispiece that respects the scale of the adjacent New York Yacht Club. However, the skyscraper that rises behind, with protruding glass bays, is a heavy-handed overstatement of dated futurism: The building is much more subtle in its detailing than in the big moves. The interiors, done by Paris-based designer Pierre Yves Rochon, prove Louis XIV lives on in the luxury industries he cultivated in the name of French gloire and export. The luxe, calme et volupté may be very vieille France, but you at least have to respect the skill and execution -- even if naughty Philippe Starck thumbed his nose at all that in the Royalton across the street.
Maybe we have to wait for Ian Schrager, the impresario of the Royalton, to advance the state of hotel architecture in an up-from-the-ground building. He has hired Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron to design a new hotel on Astor Place. The building reportedly is taking shape as a box with curved volumes carved from the interior. It may be self-evident that one should let architects take their ideas to the inside of a building, but Schrager seems the first to risk it. Will he again set a new non-standard?
The most intense architectural invention these days is occurring on computer monitors, and one of the few visions to emigrate from the screen into real space can now be found at P.S. 1. The New York firm SHoP/Sharples Holden Pasquarelli has demystified the computer's impact on architecture with a highly tactile construction that explains in sticks and bolts just how these anti-gravitational cybervisions, which freely twist onscreen, can turn a sunny day into a romp at the beach. Last summer, Philip Johnson designed a conceptually shallow D.J. pavilion for P.S. 1's courtyard. But this year, a real piece of architecture emerged in a competition held by P.S. 1 and moma, the first in their five-year Young Architects Program.
That the winning entry brings on smiles at the gate should not deceive visitors: Though small, this is an original and significant work. Starting with standard beach props -- umbrella, cabana, beach chair, and body board -- the architects morphed the forms into continuously curved, self-structuring surfaces that rotate in a constant state of transformation. In the largest of three islands in SHoP's wooden archipelago, a banquette curves up to become the walls of changing rooms and then arches to form a shaded passage that splits into a cubby sized for children. Ever since amorphous images first flickered on their screens, architects have been bedeviled by the problem of translating the complex curves into reality. SHoP's simple answer was to factor standard two-by-two pieces of cedar into their computer. The 6,000 parts of the Tinker Toy now magically ratchet into the undulating surfaces the architects call Dunescape.
Situationist Guy Debord said we have become passive spectators in a society of consumption. The P.S. 1 installation turns visitors into participants in a happening, and obliquely critiques moma's garden, a picturesque composition that telegraphs "hands-off." SHoP's interactive forms invite sunning, sitting, wading, drinking, cruising. The forms precipitate the situation and sculpt the event.
Back in the galleries, the only exhibit that can compete on the interactive front is Splat, a room in which visitors dip their bare feet in pigments, push off on a swing, and paint a wall with their soles. The mural blossoms over time, like an action painting or a Situationist event. The idea was actually devised by a 10-year-old and implemented by Fly By Productions, under the direction of Carola Dertnig, with Marjorie Ortiz, Lori Reinauer, and Pia Moos. Picasso spent a lifetime cultivating the inner child. Between Splat and Dunescape, you leave P.S. 1 feeling 10 again.