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?