The bare necessities

As I walk into the hotel lobby I notice two things: the stupendous view over Lake Lucerne on one side, and two porters manipulating a set of Louis Vuitton suitcases into the boot of a Maserati on the other. We have arrived at one of Switzerland’s swanky hotels, the Bürgenstock, after a short journey by boat and then a lovely timber-lined funicular carriage up a steep track. I can’t help thinking of Wes Anderson’s film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, although we’d been calling it the Magic Mountain after first seeing its silhouette perched high above the lake.

The Bürgenstock is a venerable place, as numerous displays of its glamorous past show. There are artefacts from its grand beginnings in 1873 and the gorgeous mid-century modern swimming pool is still there, around which the likes of Audrey Hepburn used to linger (she married Mel Ferrer in the church here in 1954). The original hotel buildings have all been revamped, and new buildings added, scattered around the compound, catering for every kind of guest except a poor one. The dominant new Bürgenstock Hotel is as big and shiny as an insurance office building in a city centre.

We’re staying in the resort’s latest addition, the Waldhotel. It’s the work of Matteo Thun, who was one of the co-founders of the Memphis design group, famous for its popcorn colours and wonky shapes, so I’m expecting something quirky. Whereas most of the Burgenstock’s buildings look out over the lake far below, the Waldhotel faces the other way, to a quintessential Swiss view of lush green meadows and quaint farmhouses and Alpine peaks beyond. The hotel’s remit is restraint and relaxation. Its exterior walls are covered in gabions (loose rocks held within wire cages) and the main façade is draped with a complex wooden framework. Inside the theme is herbal, from green flower arrangements and gentle herbal scents to raised beds of herbs on the terraces and paintings of plants in all the rooms. Even the restaurant is called Verbena. Our room is all pale wood and natural fabrics.

It feels vaguely clinical. But then it would. Because this is no ordinary hotel. Its full name is Waldhotel, Health and Medical Excellence. “We’re staying at a sanatorium?” I cried, when my partner first told me he’d made the booking. Was I being tricked into something? Would I emerge with an unwrinkled forehead and suspiciously full lips? He assured me that it was as much a hotel as anything else, but all the same, there are treatment rooms discretely tucked away on several floors where you can have your teeth fixed and brow smoothed or have a full body going-over. Suddenly I feel I’ve moved from the Grand Budapest Hotel to something more Murder She Wrote.

We saunter through the nearby woods to gaze out over the lake and discover the stunning exposed metal elevator that takes you to the top of the ridge – it was built in 1905 and featured in the James Bond film ‘Goldfinger’. We eat at the restaurant, the highlight of which is a decidedly diet-killing version of a Magnum ice cream, complete with edible stick. And we spend far too long lounging in the lovely spa, drinking herbal teas and feeling as floppy as rag dolls afterwards. It’s all perfectly delightful. But one thing keeps bothering me: the building itself.

Those gabion walls remind me of the retaining walls you see on new motorways. I’m sure they’re doing nothing more than facing the concrete structure, and I’m not a fan of veneers and fake finishes, something pretending to be something it isn’t. Why not build in stone, as some of the older hotel buildings have been? But my biggest beef is with that external wooden framework. Stepping out on to our balcony, I have to crane my neck to see past the various struts and lintels. I watch birds of prey soaring over the meadow below but keep losing them behind a lump of framework. It’s quirky, certainly, but it’s also damned annoying. Why is it there? What’s wrong with an open balustrade I can see through? It’s not a trellis for plants and it’s surely not for privacy, which you might want in a city building. It’s an overblown and pointless feature. The best I can come up with is that it shields people who might have had ‘surgery’ (taps newly-shaped retroussé nose) and who don’t want the paps to catch sight of them lounging on their balcony. It has a hint of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon without the gardens. I just don’t get it.

I’m not totally a form-follows-function person – I love the colourful details of Arts and Crafts houses, for instance – but I loathe fakery. The current trend in speculative building in Australia is for features galore, details that do nothing – a sloping bit of roof, a meaningless gable, a mish-mash of materials. They do nothing other than make you look and that’s a pretty shallow kind of purpose. There’s no pleasure in pointlessness. It wasn’t something I expected to find in Switzerland and especially not when the building is designed by a star architect. Maybe I’m wrong and that framework will one day be covered by wisteria, or whatever other plant can survive a Swiss winter at 900 metres, but somehow I doubt it.

It was interesting to experience just how strongly a building affected my enjoyment of what was a bit of a treat. Born an Earth Pig, I’ve always agreed with Frank Lloyd Wright when he said, “Give me the luxuries and I’ll gladly do without the necessities.” No matter how sumptuous the bed, how friendly the staff, how delicious the food, in the end the thing that mattered to me most was the building. Meaningful architecture is, I discovered, one of life’s necessities.

What buildings irritate you?

Categories: Architecture, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I agree 100% about fake finishes. Although, sandstone facing over concrete or besser block is not so bad. The gabions looked odd though.
    As for the lift, you’re a very brave man.

    Most new apartment blocks irritate me. Most have no style, no class. They look like what they are, low budget, thrown up quickly, for profit, constructions.

  2. I have a distinct feeling of vertigo after reading your piece(!) We went on a funicular ride in Santorini and the girls and I were terrified. And as for an open lift …

    I remember thinking what a visual mess when you posted that jagged photo of the hotel on Insta. And I also thought, because I’ve learned so much from your posts, where is the green? And I also don’t like caged rocks – it just makes me want to set them free. Your brilliant descriptions just made me think, does this building know what it is? As you know, I love a bit of luxury and it made me think of the Gritti Palace in Venice where I celebrated my 60th. Now that was a building that totally knew what it was! Filled to the brim with art, Venetian glass and history. Wonderful!

    Buildings which irritate me? I will have to think about that one.

  3. There’s a really irritating new building going up in Canberra right now: a higgledy-piggledy arrangement called Founders Lane. All the residents will bake in their glass boxes once the 42-degree summer comes back. It’s supposed to be an apartment block with charisma. Perhaps I’m being uncharitable, because it’s not finished yet, but so far it doesn’t “charis” me at all. And it’s on a godawful road.

  4. So glad I stumbled on this post, Colin, which I missed last summer. We are often in this area as husband works just 30 minutes away in Zug. In fact, we will be relocating to the Swiss German side this year! (But that’s another story…) So now I have some good stories about the buildings that I will look for next time I’m in Lucerne. I fully agree with you on that hotel facade — looks ill-kempt and overly busy, almost like scaffolding made of wood. I dislike anything that, as you say, is pretending to be what it’s not, also anything too busy, unnecessarily cluttered or colourful. I dislike fussy details of all kinds. Oh, and one final thing that I cannot stand due to over-exposure in my Canadian upbringing: an abundance of wood paneling!

    • I’m intrigued by your move – and to a German-speaking area, no less! Looking forward to your posts on that… It’s worth going up to see the Burgenstock and saunter about, averting your eyes from some of its worst excesses. We’d stayed the few days before in a traditional lakeside hotel in Weggis which was utterly charming and so peaceful – much more us. I can understand your froideur around wood panelling – I’m not a fan of the knotty variety but I think I could happily live in a Swiss chalet. I’d recommend the open air museum at Ballenberg if you’ve never been – dream houses of all types.

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