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OUT OF THE FRYING PAN AND INTO THE HOTEL : A DESIGN FIASCO'S LASTING LEGACY

By Alan Behr

ZERMATT, SWITZERLAND, 16 APRIL 2009 - Like many resorts grafted onto once-remote places of transcendent beauty, Zermatt has a back-story of poverty and fortitude. Until year-round rail service was established in 1928, passes would completely snow over in the winter, cutting off the population. The mountains that everyone now agrees are so inspiring were, to those placed by them under seasonal house arrest, also a source of dread and superstition. Those who survived the hardships came upon the same good fortune as did the roughhewn natives of Portofino (where they were fishermen), Saint-Tropez (more fishermen), the island of Saint-Barthélemy (cattle smugglers), Key West (explorers and "wreckers"), and the Hamptons (still more fishermen and potato farmers). It happened to each when people from far away found them and returned often to spend their money.

On two walls of the Stars Bar at the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, you can see the names of thirty-one founding families of the village (some of which no longer exist), along with their family crests. Local families form the Bürgergemeinde Zermatt (the Civic Community of Zermatt), which owns hotels, including the Zermatterhof, along with restaurants, bars and souvenir shops, a majority interest in the ski lift company and a good amount of the woodlands, streams and mountains that bring the visitors to Zermatt. A walk through the village introduces you to such familiar local names as Biner (Rafael Biner is the current general manager of the Zermatterhof), Seiler (the family business of which owns several major hotels in town) and Julen, among others. Max Julen won the gold medal in the Giant Slalom in the 1984 Olympics, and his name appears on a hotel and a restaurant. Vrony Cotting-Julen runs a popular mountain restaurant, but it is her brother, Heinz Julen, 45, who has had the whole village talking.

Heinz is a tall man with long, dark hair and the kind of restless intelligence that seems to force its owner into constant motion. He speaks with affection about how Vrony's restaurant occupies what was once the family's mountain home, used in summer while tending to the cows and pigs; Heinz recalls taking the long walk down the mountain during those opening weeks of school when family and animals were still quartered on the mountain. Heinz became a ski instructor but talent gave him other callings, from painter and sculptor to gallery owner to furniture designer and, most famously, hotelier.

As you ascended toward "Into the Hotel", you would pass by a club called "Into the Club" and a meditation area wickedly named "Into Yourself."

You don't just build a Hotel in Zermatt, where all available land has either been bought up for residential or commercial purposes or held in the family for sentiment, and where environmental regulations are so tight, internal-combustion vehicles are banned in season. Assuming you can get hold of a large enough site, you may have to blast and chisel through a mountainside, then notch your chalet-style creation into the rock. The result can look rather like the architectural equivalent of a grazing Steinbock (the ibex, a native wild goat) - something familiar, endearing and characteristic of the Alps. Heinz began blasting, but he had no intention of building anything so conventional that it would be mistaken for another chalet.

Awkwardly named Into the Hotel, the building was to fit the Ian Schrager/W take on the hotel experience into the Zermatt idiom, as reinterpreted by Heinz Julen. As you ascended toward Into the Hotel, you would pass by a club called Into the Club and a meditation area wickedly named Into Yourself. The Heinz Julen touch is about mixing a contemporary vision with technological whimsy: using hydraulics and a pulley system, the center of the dining room would convert from a fountain into a hanging, glass-enclosed fireplace, as mood dictated. From their perches atop five oversized chandeliers, electrically powered angels would wave white ostrich feathers. The doughnut-shaped bar would rise via a central column, stopping at one of four different levels during the day. In guest rooms, a bed, sofa and table would rest on a turntable that would swivel as needed in order to provide a view of the Matterhorn or a black bathtub, itself covered by a wooden lid until ready for use or display. The television would be inset into windows, so you could face the Matterhorn and watch the news at the same time. If you booked the rooftop Presidential Suite, you and five friends could sit in a whirlpool that would push itself through the roof to the crown of the building, allowing you to splash at the top of the world.

One of the truths about art that students, critics, professors and even practicing artists are loathe to admit is that, in all eras and among all cultures, art follows money. Into the Hotel may have been a hotel as art, but blasting into a mountainside and sticking a luxury property on top of it is not for aesthetic expression alone. Heinz approached his friend Alexander Schrärer, whose family runs the Swiss furniture company USM, and he got a partner/patron. Heinz appears to have had a largely free hand to realize his design, supervising all phases of construction, and even getting his partners to use Heinz Julen furniture in place of their own pieces, which are themselves well regarded. The hotel philosophy would be "Home to Art," and there would be two exhibition galleries; instead of a hotel brochure, prospective guests would receive a catalogue of upcoming exhibitions.

Into the Hotel was set to open on 17 December 1999, but delays, storm damage and a fire conspired to deny the hotel the crucial Christmas season. The hotel staff - the courteous and good-looking people who turn guest wishes at Swiss luxury hotels into instant possibilities - were now asked to help with the construction. You can get a sense of Heinz's charisma and the belief that he inspires in his talent by the fact that eighty percent of the hotel's staff, from porters to barmaids to the concierge team, put on overalls and pitched in to sand, paint and install fittings.

Heinz's life began with an eccentricity: he was born on leap day, so the new opening date was February 29, 2000. That target was met, and Into the Hotel got into business. Word quickly spread of an exciting new place to stay in Zermatt. Heinz says he was contacted by Travel + Leisure magazine and, after the visit of a writer and photographer, was told that a cover story was pending. It looked to the locals as if the season would end with a bang - and it did: seven weeks after opening, Into the Hotel was shut permanently. Ask around town what happened, and the answers divide the peaceful resort into two camps, giving perhaps a sense of what it was like during l'affaire Dreyfus, when everyone in France had an opinion for or against the man accused. Those on the side of Heinz say that the USM people were jealous of the publicity he received and were too impatient with teething troubles. People reported seeing the hotel stripped to bare concrete, the Julen furnishings tossed through the square wounds in the façade that once held windows - not even to be given away as a charitable donation, noted one witness.

Those opposed to Heinz point to the doomed impracticality of his project - the window-mounted televisions didn't work properly, and the place was never really finished and perhaps never would be, at least not in accordance with his initial plans if the requirements of the SIA-the Schweizerischer Ingenier- und Architektenverein (the Swiss Association of Engineers and Architects) were to be observed. In short, say the USM camp, Into the Hotel , though visionary, was not up to code, and perhaps never could be made right economically.

Legal battles and the nose

It might seem odd that a local celebrity who is serious about his art and who operates a design studio, factory and shop; one of the best restaurants in the village (Heimberg); a clever après-ski bar (Snowboat); and a must-visit nightclub/concert space/art gallery/movie theater (Vernissage); and who has had such recent successes as the design of Rüsterei, a popular restaurant in Zürich, would be so deeply affected about a hotel gone south years ago, but Heinz still speaks about Into the Hotel with evident pain. He has published a book, now available in his shop, called Into the Performance: Heinz Julen and His Hotel in Zermatt, in which he chronicles the story in words and pictures. The dénouement , also provided in the book, followed the lines formed by a friendship that turns to an ex-friendship:

Heinz painted thirty portraits of key collaborators. In November 2000, at the Internationale Messe für Gegenwartskunst (the International Contemporary Art Fair) in Oerlikon and again in Zermatt, he exhibited them under the title Der letzte Raum einer Vision (The Last Room of a Vision). In the portraits, everyone was shown bare-chested and together, they formed a shrine to a lost dream. Twenty-eight of his subjects cooperated, letting Heinz take photographs of them to use as the basis for his paintings. The two who did not were Alexander Schrärer and his companion, Maryana Bilski; Heinz painted them from photographs on hand and memory, and included them in his installation. They sued Heinz to stop him from using or reproducing the paintings, going as far as to claim, said Heinz, that, by depicting Bilski with a large nose, he intended a slur on her Jewish origins. In a case that balanced the right of artistic freedom against personal rights, Heinz lost in the cantonal court and again on appeal to the nation's highest court. The penultimate photograph in Heinz's book shows the police hauling away the two portraits (frames and all, noted Heinz). The court awarded them to the plaintiffs and ordered that Heinz donate three thousand Swiss francs to a foundation that provides stipends to young artists in Canton Bern. If not already destroyed, the portraits remain in the possession of their subjects.

Into the Hotel was ultimately reinterpreted by the New York-based architect Ali Tayar and reopened as The Omnia. It's an attractive and comfortable boutique hotel, also contemporary in style and feel, and tastemakers in the village, whatever their opinions about the prior project, appear quite pleased with the replacement.

On 27 June 2008, Heinz got his wish to have a hotel in Zermatt when the Matterhorn Focus opened. A young couple with roots in the community, Sonja and Christian Noti, wanted to build a chalet-style apartment house in which they would have a place to live on trips back from Zürich, where they held jobs. Heinz convinced them to turn the apartment house into a hotel, and not a typical chalet hotel, but one that had the Heinz Julen feel. This time around, funds were quite restricted, and Heinz, tempered and perhaps mellowed from his prior experience, delivered an arresting and stylish but completely user-friendly property - perhaps unintentionally proving the adage that limitations, from financial restraints to outright censorship, can sometimes invigorate art.

Heinz's trademarks are there: his roller-back chairs, his glass enclosed fireplace - all made locally in his factory - as well as the reliance on muted shades of gray and beige. The Matterhorn Focus is not, however, a junior version of Into the Hotel. Like all unique hotels, it has its own mind and it tells its own story, in part from the personality of its designer, and in part from the personalities of its owners, its staff and its guests. Art may follow commerce, and the Matterhorn Focus may, like all innovative architecture, serve as inhabitable art, but resort hotels are about having a good time. If that should happen here and at The Omnia for enough people in enough seasons, Into the Hotel will not have lived and died in vain.

A regular contributor to Culturekiosque, Alan Behr practices intellectual property law in New York. He last wrote on Auf der Strecke (On the Line), the short film from Germany and Switzerland, nominated for Best Short Film at The Academy Awards 2009.

Calendar Tip: Zurich

Giacometti - of Egypt
Through 24 May 2009
Kunsthaus
Heimplatz 1
8001 Zürich, Switzerland

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