Architecture is more than just shelter, privacy, or a convenient means to display wealth. It can be all of those, of course, but fundamentally it’s “inhabited sculpture,” as Brancusi pithily put it. And when it’s hotels we’re talking about, these are sculptures that you can inhabit — with a little help from us. Below is a crash course in architecture, Tablet-style, from the Middle Ages right on into the future.
Château de Bagnols sets a spectacular example: situated in the heart of Beaujolais countryside in southeastern France, it’s your classic medieval castle, from flagstone to tower-top. Meticulous renovations preserved the exterior’s storybook elements — moat, fortifications — while interiors boast period frescoes, lavish silks, and genuine 17th-century artwork. Or try the quintessentially Scottish Isle of Eriska for a more intimate experience. We’re talking private-island intimate, and while we’re at it, there are only 16 rooms to be had, ensuring plenty of peace and space to contemplate the stunning views.
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The cloistered lifestyle was always conducive to a good night’s sleep, and the communal atmosphere that’s in evidence during waking hours is just what a good hotel aims for. Castel Monastero, formerly an 11th-century village and monastery, fully lives up to that pedigree — think vaulted ceilings and thick, rough-hewn walls hoisting stout beams aloft. Further north, in Maastricht, Henk Vos has transformed an erstwhile 15th-century monastery into design destination Kruisherenhotel, incorporating the likes of Le Corbusier and Philippe Starck into the Gothic monumentalism.
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They just might never go out of style. These Renaissance estates are fit in every way for a prince, or at least an aristocrat in good standing: perched on luscious patchwork hills, their weathered walls continue to cast a lordly look over acres of manicured cypress groves and quaintly shingled satellite buildings. Villa Mangiacane wears it astonishingly well, having spent centuries in ruins before its present incarnation. The building (and the grounds) boast proportions right out of a Grand Tour sketchbook, while every detail of the décor could belong just as well on a commemorative banknote or courtly woodcut. And Borgo Santo Pietro takes the antiquity even further, if that’s possible, fully old-world in construction, rustic cuisine, and country-house hospitality.
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These classic luxury hotels are known for operatic drama, faultless service, and more historical significance than you can shake a stick at. Take the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, by all accounts the finest hotel in India, and by extension one of the finest hotels anywhere. Its “face” — actually the back of the hotel, for reasons that are shrouded in myth — confronts Mumbai’s harbor with bombastic domes and arches, and the sheer volume of intricate patternwork in the fixtures and surfaces could absorb you for days. Or take the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest, perhaps the world’s preeminent statement of Hungarian Art Nouveau.
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This is a look that’s become the new standard for interiors; clean lines, curves, negative space, and floods of light can rescue even the most cramped or inconvenient spaces. When it’s at its best, though, it looks as fresh as ever. Case in point: Copenhagen’s Hotel Alexandra, the very best of 1955 in a Danish nutshell, including chairs by the likes of Jacobsen, Wegner, and Juhl. Meanwhile, in East London, Sir Terence Conran’s Boundary carries the torch with equal aplomb, each room a singular work by a contemporary hand, in tribute to one or another classic of the design world.
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The modernists said less was more; here, fewer is more. As in: fewer walls. Jade Mountain gets right to the point: its three-walled rooms offer unblemished views of the Pitons. If this was your view, you’d call in the demolition crew yourself. Calistoga Ranch, in the upper Napa Valley, abides by similar principles, comprising a clutch of freestanding cottages with outdoor “living rooms” and the requisite on-site vineyard. A bottle (or three) on the perma-balcony should start things off nicely.
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Nothing new under the sun, but the utter (near) immersion — sensuous sunset, gentle waves, and the spontaneous urge to just dive in right from bed — enchants us every time. The definitive statement might be Cocoa Island by COMO, Maldives, where each suite or villa takes the form of a traditional dhoni fishing boat, which perfectly suits the tranquil, unbroken views of the Indian Ocean. And in cooler climes, Switzerland’s Hotel Palafitte offers an ultramodern version, with plate-glass floors directly over Lake Neuchâtel.
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Though it’s not a traditional measure of talent, hotel design is becoming increasingly popular as a mode of architectural expression. At bottom, hoteliers simply want their building to attract guests; this dovetails quite well with an architect’s desire to think freely, even futuristically, while flexing structural muscle. Enter Ricardo Legorreta’s La Purificadora, an austerely modernist makeover of a 19th-century water processing plant. The 30-meter rooftop pool should get the conversation going, not to mention the artful juxtaposition of unfinished exteriors with pristine panes of glass and polished metal. And for our final act, witness Tasmania’s wacky Coles Bay landmark, the manta-shaped Saffire Freycinet. Though it wisely defers to the landscape’s gripping contours, the site still packs a hefty wallop, all outlandish waves and sleek minimalism. One almost expects to arrive via teleportation.
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