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A Gehry Hotel in Basque Wine Country

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Photo: Javier Salas

Depending on who you talk to, the architecture critic of El Pais or the Elciego shopkeeper, the Basque politician or the sunbaked vineyard worker, Gehry’s design erupts with sublime grace or horrific violence at the Riscal winery, which owns the hotel and is banking on selling a trillion bottles of gran reserva on its back. Unless my calculations are wrong, it would take 411 years at full occupancy and with annual rate increases of 72.5 percent, plus pet supplements in a third of the rooms for half the time, for the hotel to recoup its investment if rooms and logowear were the only things it had to sell. However the beans are counted, marriages between Spanish vineyards and marquee architects are "in the air" as a powerful branding tool, says Gehry. Three of Riscal’s neighbors—Ysios in Laguardia, Baigorri in Samaniego, and Viña Real in Haro—have important new buildings, by Santiago Calatrava, Iñaki Aspiazu, and Philippe Mazières, respectively. None has lodgings, but they do make a nice loop of visits and tastings.

"Why did Riscal build a hotel?Certainly not to improve tourism. It’s to sell more wine," general manager Michel Nader told me. "How do you sell more wine?With a new image, a new dynamic. When guests leave us happy, they buy five or six cases, and they tell their friends. On the other hand, if something goes wrong during their stay and they end up not liking the place, I suppose it could be bad for the wine."

The approach to the hotel is up the narrow ramp of a small hill, with vineyards on the right and handsome, severely tailored offices and production facilities—many from the 19th century—on the left. You catch teasing glimpses of the building on the dry and scratchy way into Elciego, but this is the first time you see it head-on, in all its tangled glory, lifted above the ground level on thick columns, a small overhung plaza at the entrance. The second, third, and fourth floors are composed of rectilinear sandstone elements buried in a knot of curvilinear ones made of titanium and mirror-finish stainless steel. Whatever your sympathies, or antipathies, the hotel stops you dead in your tracks.

Unlike at the Guggenheim, titanium is not integral to the structure. If you hired King Kong to unravel and peel away all the fat, luscious ribbons of metal, you’d still have a complete, fully functioning building. Those anxious to assign inspirations to the design will be pleased to learn that Gehry did indeed choose pink titanium to signify red wine (the color is often deeper, depending on meteorological conditions) and gold to represent white wine and bottle netting. The undulating ribbons are not, however, a metaphor for the foil on a bottleneck, as so many have confidently concluded without bothering to ask, but rather for wine flooding out of a bottle.

"The idea was to make a hotel that takes advantage of the vistas, which are extraordinary," Gehry says, referring to the vineyards, the San Andrés cathedral, the Valdezcaray mountains to the south, and the Cantabrian mountains to the north. "The titanium and steel are purely sunshades, or sun visors, framing the views." On the breakfast terrace one morning, I made a scribble of the aperture created by the overlapping visors, looked away to take a bite of toast, and looked back to discover I had sketched the outline of a dove by Braque. "Riscal is flamboyant; to me it looks like flowering tresses in the wind, a beautiful apparition sitting on top of this small plateau, visible from all directions and participating in the life of the town and winery."

Terence Riley’s swan song earlier this year as chief curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art was an electric show of 53 models and photographs of newly built, under-construction, or about-to-be-built commissions in Spain, including Jean Nouvel’s steel-and-glass expansion of the Reina Sofí a museum in Madrid; Koolhaas’s riverside conference center in Córdoba; Enric Ruiz-Geli’s Hotel Habitat, which will be cloaked in a mesh matrix of LED solar-hybrid cells when it opens in 2007 in Barcelona; and Gehry’s Riscal.

"The hotel is in the same family as the Guggenheim, a refinement of his experimentation with fluid forms, which is not to say a clone," notes Riley, who is now director of the Miami Art Museum. "Silver titanium became such a trademark of the Bilbao project that Gehry looked for other means of tweaking that experience. During the Franco dictatorship, when tourism was Spain’s largest source of foreign income, the government ran an ad campaign promoting beach vacations. Now, of course, North Africa and the Caribbean are much cheaper for that kind of thing, and there’s a recognition that people will not continue to go to Spain to lie on a beach and drink sangria. So the country is turning to cultural tourism, to art, gastronomy, music, dance, and architecture."

The fact that Gehry’s model in the MOMA exhibit did not show the hotel’s annex, which is also all but absent from the winery and Starwood’s Web sites, tells you everything you need to know about it. I wish it weren’t true, but Riscal has a dirty secret. The main building houses the restaurant and only 14 guest rooms; in a classic case of bait-and-switch, the remaining 29 rooms and the spa are in a facing bunker-like wing, in stucco with a canal-tile roof and linked by a footbridge, that is as deadpan and triste as the principal structure is expressive and gay. (The model leaves the bridge hanging in the air like a diving board.) Gehry, a busy celebrity with 150 employees, did not design the annex. When I talked to him, he didn’t even know his office had. The building gives the impression that the owners ran out of money or, worse, that the architects ran out of ideas.

The good news is that decorative attention was lavished equally on all of the accommodations, which go beyond streamlined to attain a kind of mega or meta sleekness, and that to make up for their location many in the addition are bigger. The exterior’s snaking forms are quoted in wall lights and extravagant burnt-caramel leather headboards that climb 15 feet to the ceiling. (The common corridors do a wriggling little dance of their own.) The bedrooms are separated from the halls and bathrooms by a pocket door, a nice touch. About those bathrooms—I hate to think how many Brazilian quarries were devastated to dress them in dark green, polished maritaca granite. Gehry’s Cloud Lamp, a puff of nearly tear-proof polyester he came up with while fooling around with some paper cups and a stapler, looks like a balled-up piece of paper. The nice thing is that you can reshape it any way you like without worrying about getting a note under your door from reception asking you not to play with the furnishings. The other benefit of the Cloud is that when you are aching to return to the hotel but can’t quite make the trip to Elciego, it allows you to re-create the Riscal experience at home. Design Within Reach sells a version for $490. These are swaddling, sleep-in rooms—except that there are too many temptations to keep you in bed beyond nine.

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