For a city seemingly stuck in a stifling bourgeois past, Vienna has a surprising tradition of surprising buildings. From Loos to Kiesler, Hundertwasser to Hollein, the city throws up counter-intuition and kitsch in equal measure. The latest Viennese blockbuster has not come from within, however, but has been imposed by a French hotel chain and its French architect, Jean Nouvel.
Like Nouvel himself, the Sofitel Vienna is clad largely in black with a conspicuously shiny and pinkish top. Like its close relative and contemporary One New Change in London, it drunkenly winds a dangerous route between ugliness, surprise and novelty. Unlike One New Change though, it is quite good. Both buildings see Nouvel toying with the sinister folded planes of the Stealth Bomber, not just its form but its deep blackness. In London he used the fragmented mirrors, black surfaces and glass atria of the mid-life crisis nightclub; in Vienna they appear again, but this time in black accessorised hotel suites and slick lounges.
The first game is played with the traditional tripartite split of the structure into base, shaft and capital. It’s all quite international style, a glazed lobby, an internal street, until your eye reaches the junction with the shaft where a huge wedge has been removed from the structure to create one of the most dazzlingly and admirably pointless spaces I have ever seen. This huge sky lobby (well, sky-ish, it’s only a couple of floors up) is a lounge for those coming out of the spa. Not a bar, or a club, but a mad space strewn with a few cheesy loungers that gives onto a wonderful view across the city.
Above this are the monochromatic rooms in white, black and grey. The white rooms are laughably baddies’ lair, the black searingly mid-life crisis. But the grey, even Loos would have approved of. The day I was there, they were accessorised with the leaden, snow-pregnant sky and dirty, half-frozen canal. The hotel has the finest views of the city beside the nearby Prater ferris wheel and the windows double as executive toys. A series of shutters can be slid around to create an array of shapes, a kind of De Stijl window on the world.
The highlight however is up on the 18th floor. The restaurant/bar sits under a canopy decorated by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist. It is a collage of autumn leaves which sits somewhere between the super-graphic floors of OMA’s Seattle Library and an over-literal retro-chic printed bowl clad in M&Ms. But backlit, the autumn colours glow like a shimmering headscarf of golden silk. From the outside, the ceilings appear to float – the structural glass fins that shore up the roof melt into the night and all that is left is that golden gossamer.