Philippe Starck's Arcades

First Impressions

Our evening began with a presentation by Vito Acconci and my head was filled with images of collapsible structures, as well as of images of ignited nipples and an old man masturbating. After dropping a few Jacksons on beverages and a rather delicious Koren Barbecue on 32nd street, I'm prepared to analyze our observations.

We visited the Hudson and the Paramount, with forays to the Millennium and Algonquin for contrast. We did not visit the Royalton, although that is another of Starck's designs.

Ian Schrager's hotels (including the Paramount and the Hudson) and Starck's portfolio

The Hudson had a very modern exterior, with an interior reminiscent of a hunting Lodge as envisioned by David Lynch. The Paramount had many of the same ideas, but felt more like the design had been tacked on to an existing structure, rather than being a part of the space.

Both interiors were very charming, at least the lobbies were. The upstairs areas were a little dumpy, but had nice ornate additions. A photographer I worked with once told me, "You can't shine shit." This wasn't exactly that, but I was continually reminded of the idea of a Potemkin village - the exterior presented to the pedestrians on the street, and even to the casual observer at the bar inside, did not always match the rather mundane aspects of the hotel interiors.

Insider and Outsider

Just like a body sometimes rejects transplanted organs, a city can reject an architectures that would be at home somewhere else.

Aiports all over the world look the same, because they all fill the same purpose, and are used by people who are from somewhere else.

While Starck's stuff is extremely interesting, it doesn't seem to include the neighborhood in their design. The Paramount, Hudson, and Royalton have the quality of creating spaces that could almost be in any city in the world. They felt almost like being in a really nice Starbuck's. Perhaps that was his goal (and part of why we're investigating them), but I find the 'classic' New York hotels more charming.

In the same way that McDonald's and Starbuck's look pretty much the same in every country, Starck is almost doing the same with his hotels. When traveling abroad, it's nice to see a McDonald's with a menu, or condiments, or whatever, that reflect the local culture. I'm sure that Starck's designs also reflect the local culture, to a degree, but it seems they are more intended as escapes from their suroundings. For tourists in New York, I imagine that after an overwhelming day of sightseeing in Manhattan, they would be ready for a relaxing change back at the hotel. But the Starck hotels didn't feel relaxing to me. The lights and contours of the room created an energy, almost a tension, that could be good or bad depending on one's mood.

Benjamin's writings about the arcades suggested that they were made for and used by residents, while Starck's work, almost all hotels are by their nature designed for and used by non-residents.

When I first moved to Manhattan, I went to Starbuck's quite often, but now after having lived here for several years, I almost never go. Part of the reason is the decline in their quality of coffee, but it also has to do with my idea of what New York is. I now avoid all franchises, with their plastic awnings and white-painted drywall, in favor of places with pressed-tin ceilings and exposed brick - because that's what New York means to me. If I wanted Taco Bell, I would move to Lubbock, Texas.

But, looking at the Paramount, with its old, ornate stone exterior, I can imagine the hotel as a kind of impostor, offering its visible face to New York pedestrians as yet another example of classic New York architecture, but inside it's entirely different.

And sometimes I do want that. One thing that New York lacks is trees, and the fact that parts of the Hudson interior feel like a forest is actually very appealing to me, not despite the fact that it's so different from the sidewalk outside, but because so.

New and Old

The paramount has slightly more of an 'old-world' or 'traditional' feel, but only slightly, while the Hudson seems more modern. Both make great use of colored lights to shape the space, especially the Hudson.

The Royalton, on 44th street, is another Starck design, and has an almost sinister quality, very theatrical and reminded me of the imagery from the Cremaster Cycle by Matthew Barney

I didn't like the mix of furniture at the Paramount.

The modernism makes the space somewhat sterile, but he overcomes this with trees and a sometimes intense red light, both of which manage to warm up the room again.

Being at the Paramount made me feel a little like I was on stage, which isn't necessarily what I would want. While the Starck hotels had high ceilings and very specific lighting, The Algonquin hotel, on 44th, has more pillars (older building) that physically separated the space, lower ceilings, and more ambient light.

It's a more comfortable place to have a drink and a conversation ($11 for a cosmopolitan, but it's worth doing at least once) The Millennium, also on 44th (with Virgil's across the street - best BBQ in Manhattan), feels more like a train station and more like 'old New York' with a lot of exposed stone and archways.

Interior and Exterior

The 'tragedy of the commons' effect is different in different cities. In developing countries, city dwellers would want to escape the filth outside. In Japan, they would be fleeing the lack of aesthetics in urban areas. In New York, people may want to escape the noise, pollution, garbage, and pavement. Thus, trees, accoustic-dampening surfaces, and clean floors make sense.


Japan and New York

It's interesting to compare the hotel lobbies with images of other Starck designs, such his 'biomorphic structures' in Japan

Based on just pictures, it looks like he had more license for whimsy in his overseas projects, although maybe it's just because New York hotel owners consider money more, and try to imagine tourists from Kansas, and how they might react to a completely outrageous design. Some of the Japanese projects look completely over-the-top, possibly even sacrificing usability for visual impact. Most Japanese cities are extremely ugly, so I can imagine that Starck's designs would be more welcome there.

In Osaka, for example, there is pretty much no architectural beauty outside. One has to go inside for that. That idea is certainly reflected in Benjamin's writings, the idea of improving the inner space at the expense of the public space. I can cut them some slack, though. The rural areas all over Japan are strikingly beautiful, and they seem to make every effort to not disturb them with billboards or any other sort of interfering technology.

Perhaps because the typical Japanese city is ugly, they are more willing to experiment with radical exteriors.

While New Yorkers want to keep the stone, columns, arches, etc. with which they're familiar.

I'm pretty sure I saw the Asahi Beer Hall when I was in Tokyo.

I remember people refering to it as 'the flying turd' because of the 'organic' shape on the roof - a shape repeated in some of the door handles in Starck's other spaces.

Most designers I've known are guilty of forcing their own ideas, even when they're not appropriate. If a designer is 'really into' a theme such as 'tree branches' or 'cubism' or even a particular color, you can bet that the theme will end up in a contracted assignment, regardless of whether it makes sense. I have to wonder if this turd theme has ever been appropriate in any of its incarnations.

That's all.