Vienna's New Design Hotel

Courtesy Ateliers Jean Nouvel

Jean Nouvel’s art-filled Sofitel is Vienna’s cool new design hotel, and a 21st-century beacon for the city.

Dinner in The Loft, the top-floor restaurant at the new Sofitel Vienna, is breathtaking. Fifteen-foot-high glass walls provide 360-degree, drop-dead views across the city’s historic center, with the great Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral front and center. Designed by Jean Nouvel, the room reflects the French architect’s taste for minimal interiors—all crisp, clean lines and battleship grays. But there’s a twist. Overhead, the ceiling is a riot of gold, amber and blue, a kaleidoscopic image of fall foliage and sky. It’s one of three large-scale works created for the hotel by the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist.

Because the ceiling is curved slightly, its reflections in the glass appear to extend out into the horizon, creating the remarkable illusion of Vienna suspended in permanent, brilliant sunset. The colors are also highly visible from outside the building, serving as a kind of beacon or, as Nouvel likes to say in his heavily accented English, “a magic carpet floating over the city.”

For Nouvel, The Loft was always going to be the signature space of the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom, the proper name of the 182-room, 18-story hotel located along the Danube Canal, a several-minute walk from the cathedral. The $180 million building, which had a soft opening in December and will be officially launched by Sofitel in March, is a resolutely 21st-century landmark for a city that clings tightly to its imperial Hapsburg and Art Nouveau past.

At 65, the Pritzker Prize–winning Nouvel has done so many notable buildings—the Cartier Foundation and the Arab World Institute in Paris, the Agbar Tower in Barcelona, the Copenhagen Concert Hall—that it’s hard to boil them down to greatest hits. Famously, he does not have a signature style. Despite being a self-professed expert on hotels (“I spend one third of my life in them,” he says), Nouvel has designed few over the years. What he personally wants in a hotel, he says, is “to feel something.

Viewed straight on during the daytime, Nouvel’s Sofitel might strike some at first glance as a fairly ordinary glass box. Indeed, the architect says he set out to create “the most abstract building possible.” His design, chosen over proposals from Richard Rogers, Rafael Moneo and several others, features low, wide windows that give the building a squat, muscular feeling, despite being one of the tallest structures in Vienna. But as one moves around it, Nouvel’s use of asymmetrical volumes, cantilevers, planes intersecting at unexpected angles, lots of transparent and mirrored surfaces and occasional bursts of color all contribute to a sense of energy and surprise.

The aggressively minimal rooms are nearly monochromatic, either white or gray, plus three that are all-black—colors Nouvel admires for their quality of nothingness. “I always have the temptation of the void,” he says. “Kind of a neutral materiality.”

Contrasting that neutrality is a massive plant wall by Patrick Blanc, the landscape designer and botanist known for his vertical gardens, and a repeat Nouvel collaborator. Located at the rear of the building, Blanc’s wall is visible through the hotel’s lobby and public spaces on the lower levels (including a retail atrium filled with high-end design shops). But the real pop comes from the artworks by Rist. Best known for her hugely popular video installation Pour Your Body Out (7,354 Cubic Meters), exhibited in the atrium at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2008–09, Rist was commissioned to make several works, the most prominent being the restaurant ceiling. In addition, she created a huge aquatic scene over the winter garden (which occupies a triangular void a third of the way up the building) and another one at the entrance, where visitors are greeted by an abstracted close-up of a woman’s eyes, nose and lips underwater. At night those illuminated swaths of color define the building. Nouvel describes them as “explosions.”

Sitting down with Nouvel at the Sofitel’s lobby the day before it opens, he seems a bit tired. It’s been a long day of press conferences (including a consecration by the local bishop), tours of the hotel and small talk. And he’s dissatisfied. It’s the lighting around us—“too bright,” he says with a shrug. That’s not the only thing. The flowers. The staff had put out a large vase of long-stemmed red roses, which he promptly ordered removed, only to have them replaced by branches that were, in his view, absurdly chunky. “Like firewood,” he jokes.

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He livens up when talking about Rist. “I thought that Pipilotti was the right artist because she has this very alive and provocative attitude,” he says, noting that her work has an accessible, even optimistic, quality. “I didn’t want to be purely intellectual. I took this approach of almost no color, and I needed a contrast.” He says, without false modesty, that he believes the building will be best known for Rist’s art than for his architecture.

Like all of Nouvel’s buildings, the Sofitel began with him thinking about its context and how to “create complementarity and continuity with the local culture, which in Vienna,” he says, “is linked to painting, to interior decoration, ornament.” His most literal reference was to use diamond-shaped panes in the winter garden that directly echo the iconic roof tiles on St. Stephen’s Cathedral. In an effort to connect to Vienna’s artist community, he brought in art students to execute abstract-patterned works that are drawn in graphite and ink directly on the walls of every guestroom. Most of all, there is a continuity of spirit—a melding of design and art, of luxury and modernity—that mirrors the principles of the great Wiener Werkstätte.

For Sofitel, the Vienna property is arguably the most dramatic example of a global rebranding initiated by its parent company, Accor, the French hotel group. After reducing its portfolio from 204 to 133 hotels in recent years, Sofitel has been overhauling existing properties and building new ones to reflect a new, more upscale image. It has enlisted top French designers like Nouvel and Andrée Putman and given them the autonomy to implement their own style and personality.

“We don’t want to be cookie-cutter,” says Robert Gaymer-Jones, COO of Sofitel worldwide. “We are making sure the style of our brand is unique in every location. If we have a hotel that is challenging and provocative, that’s great—it creates awareness. The last thing I want to be is boring.”

Nouvel, for his part, says he viewed the project as “a real opportunity to create a new attitude for the five-star hotel.” There was at least one concession Sofitel forced him to make. Those all-black rooms. No more than three, they insisted, even though Nouvel pushed for more. While granting that one might not want to sleep in a black room every night, he says, “It can be erotique.”

Next up for Nouvel is the first of his projects in Doha, Qatar: a cylindrical 45-story tower, wrapped in an Islamic-pattern brise-soleil, slated to open in May. “This building cannot be in New York or Paris,” says Nouvel. “It has an Arabian feeling, continuity, sense of light, geometry.” He has major cultural buildings in the works in Doha, Abu Dhabi and Paris (see “Nouvel in Progress”) as well as a hotly debated 82-story skyscraper in New York that would rise next to MoMA and become the second-tallest structure in the city, if built.

His firm, Ateliers Jean Nouvel, is smaller than it was in the go-go days of 2007. And Nouvel is spending more time at his home in the south of France. Over dinner in The Loft—including pâté and frog’s legs and several bottles of wine—his partner and director of business development, Alain Trincal, talks about how Nouvel has expressed a desire to scale back his workload and delegate more. But letting go doesn’t come easily.

After most of the dinner guests have gone, Nouvel can be found in the stairwell leading to the restaurant’s bathrooms, members of his team at his side. He is obsessing, it seems, over something that’s wrong with a small green emergency-exit sign. Turning to say good night, he shrugs and says, “It’s the details.”

Rooms at the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom start at $330; 1 Praterstrasse; 43-1/906-160; sofitel.com.

Under Construction: Jean Nouvel

Ateliers Jean Nouvel has some 60 projects around the world under construction or in development. Here, a snapshot of three—two of them in the Persian Gulf, where, Nouvel says, “the danger is creating buildings without identity, without culture. No rules, a little wow, different shapes, without reason to be there.” For more details, visit jeannouvel.com.

Philharmonie de Paris: The first major concert hall to be built in the French capital in nearly a century, the $250 million Philharmonie de Paris suggests a loosely stacked pile of bent and crumpled aluminum-clad plates from the outside, with 2,400 terraced seats surrounding the orchestra inside. Slated to open in 2012.

Louvre Abu Dhabi: Part of a 21st-century cultural complex on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island that includes buildings by Norman Foster, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, the Louvre’s $120 million outpost features a huge lace-like dome over a 260,000-square-foot campus of exhibition pavilions, plazas and canals. Slated to open in 2013.

Qatar National Museum: A series of low pavilions in the form of tilting, intersecting disks, the Doha museum was inspired in part by a desert rose. It’s “a symbolic building,” says Nouvel, that addresses “the Qataris’ identity—the meeting of the sea and desert.” Slated to open in 2014.