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A Gehry Hotel in Basque Wine Country

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Photo: Javier Salas

Having trained his mind on (deep breath) shopping centers, suburban offices, museums, performing arts centers, department stores, houses, universities, a hockey rink, and a retreat for cancer patients, it was only a matter of time before he got into watches (for Fossil), liquor bottles (for Wyborowa vodka), jewelry and tabletop (a resounding 692 SKU’s for Tiffany), and, oh yes, the hospitality business. In October, four years late and reportedly $10 million richer, Frank Gehry saw his Hotel Marqués de Riscal bow outside the rural medieval village of Elciego, in the Basque country of northern Spain, with 43 rooms he also designed, a mammoth Caudalie Vinotherapie spa, and a 150-seat restaurant with Francis Piniego, a young Turk among Spanish toques, rattling the saucepans. In the months leading up to the opening of the hotel, which raises its tousled head among the Rioja vines of the 148-year-old Herederos del Marqués de Riscal winery, rubberneckers scaled the entrance gate, racing to see who could get pictures of a medusan building that had already attained the status of a landmark on the Internet first.

Starwood, which manages the property as part of its top-shelf Luxury Collection, is targeting it at that anything-for-a-thrill, no-price-too-high, no-distance-too-far subset of travelers who are appreciatively known as hotel freaks and are catnip to marketers. Sleep here and die. But the company might also want to think about crowd-control measures to handle tourists who lack the means or even the basic inclination to spend the night at the hotel but are not going to be denied this particular piece of eye candy.

Remember how 20 and 30 years ago people who had never given 30 seconds’ thought to an I beam or a fascia made the pilgrimage to John Portman’s iconic atrium hotels, like the Marriott Marquis in New York, just to gawk?With Riscal being greeted in Spain with as much excitement as the release of a new Almodóvar movie, that scene is about to be replayed in Elciego, population 900, whether it likes it or not.

The village is conservative, humorless, unsentimental, immaculate, sleepy, and beyond timeless, with a ravishing cathedral and a proud dourness that after four days I actually wound up finding kind of charming. Garlands of choricero peppers take the sun on wrought-iron balconies. In observance of the antique Basque custom, sunflowers are hung over thresholds to keep the wrong kind of spirits from entering. The residents of Elciego are still working out their feelings about Gehry’s building. Perhaps they may not always call it la cosa—"the thing." Riscal’s outreach message is that what’s good for it is good for the region. But that hasn’t stopped dark rumors from circulating. According to some of the smaller mom-and-pop bodegas, once checked in, guests are not allowed out, lest they be tempted by other people’s grape juice.

Whatever the realities of a stay at Riscal, which for many will be more successful as a design experience than a hotel experience, Starwood could not ask for an easier sell. Gehry, 77, is the most celebrated American architect of his time—the author of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Nationale-Nederlanden Building in Prague, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and the future LVMH Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy cultural foundation in Paris. (Riscal plans Gehry tours that will take in both the winery and the museum.) Marshaled on his shelf is every award that matters: the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor; the Japanese Praemium Imperiale, the art world’s answer to the Nobel; and the AIA Gold Medal, the top tribute of the normally hidebound American Institute of Architects.

But this is Gehry’s first realized hotel. Ian Schrager hired him to design one on New York’s Astor Place after falling out of love with and firing Rem Koolhaas and the Swiss firm of Herzog & de Meuron, but the building had not even reached the schematic stage when it was abandoned after 9/11. Grand Avenue, a mixed-use development project by Gehry currently under way in Los Angeles, will feature shops, restaurants, and a 16-acre park, as well as condominiums and a hotel in a 47-story glass tower. Mandarin Oriental is mum on the subject, but he says the company is handicapped to run it.

Shorthand for what is now regarded—a little too expediently and amid charges of "logo-tecture"—as the Gehry style, Riscal’s cocky, loony tunes unruliness (or the appearance of it) has its roots in the modest pink Dutch Colonial bungalow the architect remodeled for himself in Santa Monica in 1978. The house was taken back to the studs, then wrapped with corrugated aluminum and chain-link fencing; Cubist shapes look as if they are "crawling out" (Gehry’s words) of the existing structure. He still lives there. It’s an unnerving place.

Riscal also replays Gehry’s love of titanium, which he first used to clad the careening walls and restless whorls of the Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997. (Until then, it had been deployed mainly by the aircraft industry.) "The [museum’s] seeming disorder—a chaotic collision of forms—has no architectural precedent," the critic Witold Rybczynski wrote. In its reprising of titanium, as well as its location just 90 minutes south of Bilbao, the hotel is affectionately seen by the Spanish as a follow-up to the Guggenheim, as a homecoming poised to do ever greater things for the brand of Gehry in Spain. That’s assuming there’s anywhere higher for him to ascend. For if he was a star before creating the Guggenheim, he later became a demigod. In Bilbao today, strangers think nothing of walking up to him and asking him to lunch. Others reach out to touch him as if he were, say, Antonio Banderas, or even Joaquín Cortés.

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