Small Wonder

31 January 2007 (Last Updated January 31st, 2007 18:30)

The Marqués de Riscal Hotel in Elciego, Spain shows how Frank Gehry's signature style can work on a much smaller scale. A close cousin to Gehry Partners' best-known work in Bilbao, the hotel nevertheless represents a real departure for the practice. Jim Banks asks project designer Edwin Chan what makes it so unique.

Small Wonder

Landmark projects such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles have firmly linked the name Frank O Gehry with monumental, boldly designed urban structures. However, the latest addition to Gehry Partners'
portfolio shows that the practice is willing to turn its hand to smaller projects too.

The Marqués de Riscal Hotel in the Rioja Alavesa region of Spain is a luxury property operated by Starwood Hotels that opened in September 2006.

It lies in the Vinos de los Herederos del Marqués de Riscal vineyard, where the historic
wine cellars are an increasingly popular attraction. With only 43 rooms, however, the hotel is on a much smaller scale than recent Gehry projects.

"Small projects are usually the engine of innovation, and it is important to keep a balance between them and the larger, urban projects," explains Edwin Chan, project designer at Gehry Partners. "With small projects you can't think about too many
different options, but you still have more freedom."

Despite the appeal of the project, the proximity of Bilbao, the scale of the hotel and the feasibility of using a prestigious architect based in Los Angeles were significant areas of contention between firm and clients, almost scuppering the project
before it began. Fortunately, the clients remained enthusiastic, and the gift of a 1929 vintage bottle of wine (1929 being the year of Gehry's birth) sealed the deal.

"We had just completed the Guggenheim, so we were unsure if we wanted to do a small project that is only two hours away," recalls Chan. "We also questioned the financial commitment of using an architect from Los Angeles, but the clients were very keen
and they assured us the cost would be manageable."

DEVELOPING INITIAL CONCEPTS

As senior designer on the hotel, Chan was involved from the earliest stages, and his initial perceptions of the site were formed when he ascended the raised ground on which the hotel now stands. From this vantage point he saw clearly that the position
of the building would have a strong impact on the surrounding landscape. He also saw the potential to offer guests some spectacular views across the valley and the vineyards.

The site itself contains a number of historic structures, including a winery and a nearby church.

"With small projects you can't think about too many different options, but you still have more freedom."

The clients, however, wanted a futuristic structure for their Ciudad del Vino – City of Wine – which comprises the winery, a museum, a spa
facility, a banqueting hall and a hotel. Bringing the old and the new together harmoniously was a key challenge for the project.

"The clients wanted a chateau for the 21st century, visible across the entire valley, with views of the impressive medieval church in Elciego," explains Chan. "It was important that the building should have a dialogue with the church."

The final design for the hotel, which offers 43 uniquely shaped rooms with a view, comprises two sections connected by a spectacular suspended footbridge. A rooftop lounge makes the most of the panoramic views, while the 1,200m² wine cellar has
been converted into a banqueting venue with a capacity of 400.

The whole building is raised above the site on columns, which allows the space underneath to be used as an entry plaza. Once again, Chan saw the potential for impressive views of the vineyards and the church of San Andres in Elciego, which is framed
by the two wings of the hotel and the elevated bridge that links them.

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS

The importance of the hotel's relationship with the church determined to some extent the choice of materials used in its construction.

"With only 43 rooms, the Marqués de Riscal is on a much smaller scale than recent Gehry projects."

The exterior is warm Spanish sandstone used in bold, rectilinear sections to mirror both the soft colouring and the
solidity of the church.

The warm colouring of the stone changes throughout the day with the movement of the sun. As they spent more time on-site, the design team realised that the changing light and the intense heat of the sun would be key considerations. Indeed, they would
determine the form of the building's most striking feature: the billowing titanium canopies that spill out from the top and side of the hotel.

"We realised that sunshading would be an important part of the design, but we didn't want to use the usual decorative canopies," says Chan. "We decided to make it an integral part of the architecture, so we used the coloured titanium. The colours
symbolise flowing wine, or perhaps a flamenco dancer."

At first sight, the canopies are reminiscent of the Guggenheim in form and finish, but on closer examination they play an important role both aesthetically and functionally.

The use of titanium panels at the hotel has extended the architects' understanding of what can be achieved with the material. "This is the first time we have used coloured titanium on an exterior, though we had previously used it for interiors," notes
Chan. "The red and gold colours were entirely new, and while the material used for the Guggenheim is thinner and more bubbly, the titanium at the Marqués de Riscal is smoother and thicker."

"The warm colouring of the stone changes throughout the day with the movement of the sun."

Since it opened in September 2006, the hotel has become instantly recognisable as a Gehry building, and has been praised for its formal and functional qualities. Indeed, despite the fact that it is Gehry Partners' first hotel project, very few
alterations have been made to the original construction.

"We did not design it as a Starwood hotel, but once it was built, the client realised the potential and brought in Starwood," explains Chan. "We were a little worried that they would change the style, but they have been very respectful and changed
very little."

The success of the project has opened the way for Chan and his colleagues to consider more hotel projects in the future. And their strong relationship with Starwood, which has put environmental concerns at the heart of its business model, may lead to
future collaborations on sustainable design. So, while the hotel may be relatively small as Gehry projects go, its impact has been anything but.