At the end of 2010, on the other side of the Danube Canal from the Old City and its familiar landmarks, only a quarter of an hour's walk from St. Stephen's Cathedral, one of the most ambitious architectural projects ever to grace Austria's capital was unveiled - the Sofitel Stephansdom. The architect of the glittering 18-storey glass tower is the French star Jean Nouvel. It's certainly one of the most striking hotels in Europe, not only because it's located in what many think of as an architecturally conservative metropolis, but also because there are few cities that would be allow such an extravagant mega-hotel to be built so centrally nowadays. Jean Nouvel was essentially given carte blanche for his design - his imagination is visible in the interior design and not only on the exterior. The first impression on crossing the threshold is one of a laconic, reserved, cool minimalism. The space seems to be an autonomous territory that might as easily be found in Singapore or Hong Kong. In truth, the tower could be plunked down in any large city.
Vienna enters Nouvel's design through the windows, at a distance, rather like a painting. The French architect has intentionally designed the windows as frames, and these can be adjusted depending upon how intensely you'd like the city to appear. The palette in the rooms is monochromatic - white, grey and black. From the ceilings to the floors, on the north side of the tower, the rooms are white. On the south side, they're grey. On the west side - black. Completely black rooms might sound forbidding, and there are only six such units - but they are actually among the highlights of this hotel. The dramatic effect somehow melds with Vienna's mystery, where Habsburg pomposity, Hundertwasser's wildness, Adolf Loos's groundbreaking modernism and Freud's couch all feel at home. The black rooms are open in their design, the bed visually seeming to blend into the panoramic window. The bathroom, lest you are not an exhibitionist, is behind a black satin curtain. You feel like you're on a stage, the audience being the cityscape beyond the window - intriguing, enticing, seducing. The only thing that might be lacking would be a painting by Egon Schiele, the provocative early 20th-century Viennese artist. One of his darker paintings would fit in here - perhaps a study of the human body and its sexuality. Until the 30th of January, there's a retrospective of Schiele's audacious art at the Leopold Museum. If you happen to stay in one of Nouvel's exceedingly dramatic black rooms, a visit to the exhibit seems especially appropriate.
The whispers continue - whenever the face of a city changes radically, people question the need for such surgical intervention. The striking effect of the tower can't be denied, though, especially in the evening, when the Sofitel Stephansdom becomes a vast vertical screen for a horizontal light show. The Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist's lighting divides the tall tower into three levels of psychedelic light. The central element of the Sofitel is its rooftop restaurant, Le Loft.
Antoine Westermann, who sports three Michelin stars, is in charge here. The interior is spectacular, Nouvel's design making the roof seem to float. Rist's lighting makes the ceiling explode with colour. In stark contrast to the austere minimalism of the interior, the ceiling pulls you into a maelstrom, first making you smile and then becoming addictive.
There's another installation by Rist in the lobby, reminiscent of a view through a kaleidoscope. Then there's the remarkable surrealism of the winter garden, where there's a view of part of the roof - its glass surface transparently mimics the design of St. Stephen's, visible across the canal.
The atrium of the hotel boasts a huge hanging garden, its vertical surface over 600 square metres in size. There are 20,000 plants in the garden designed by the French botanist and artist Patrick Blanc. Plants that can grow and blossom without being on the ground are a passion of his, and they've been the focus of his study for the last two decades. He travelled to Thailand and Malaysia to observe and research such plants, developing a unique technology that replicates this natural phenomenon in man-made environments. Blanc has already designed twenty vertical gardens, and his designs are unsurpassed in their intricacy. It's Blanc's work that have set the trend in vertical gardens - there's one at the Caixa Forum in Madrid, another on the north wall of Jean Nouvel's museum of civilizations at Quai Branly in Paris. Many shops and restaurants around the world have also followed the fashion. The Sofitel garden is Blanc's latest triumph, its lushness supported by seventy 400-watt lamps.
Beyond one of Sofitel's panoramic windows, you can also see the famous Ferris wheel in the Prater. It was erected in 1896 in honour of the Emperor Franz Josef's golden jubilee. It achieved iconic status because of the 1949 film noir The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed. You can see this remarkable classic cinematic depiction of post-war Vienna at the Burg Kino, where it's screened several times a week. The Ferris wheel used to offer the most amazing views of Vienna, though it now has serious competition from Le Loft atop the Sofitel, which can be reached in a black lift that might cause some to experience claustrophobia.
Hotelbetriebs GmbH, FN 337376 t
Handelsgericht Wien, DVR-Nr 4001939
Keywords: hotel, hotels, Vienna