From Belle Époque to Art Déco in 30 yards

A brief look at…
Brussels | Hotel Metropole

The ‘Metropole’ is the dowager of historic grand hotels in Belgium’s capital city. With 286 rooms it is also by far the largest in this category. Famous for the almost overwhelming Belle Époque splendor of the hotel’s ground floor spaces, the property has become a local sight in its own right, a picture-perfect relic of bygone times in today’s fast-paced world. But despite the turn-of-the-century allure of the lobby, reception and restaurant, the ‘Metropole’ is actually an unexpected, hybrid assembly of buildings and decorative styles that span from 1890 to 1925 and on to 1932. Resulting in an often-confusing network of hallways and that give evidence of the hotel’s expansion over time, it is quite easy to overlook many decorative treasures from the Roaring Twenties.

Facing uncertain outcome since it has been officially closed since April 1 of 2013, it was the initial success of the landmark ‘Café Metropole’ overlooking Brussels’s busiest square that provided the base for the hotel’s existence. Subsequently established in a neighboring building that originally housed a bank, the ‘Hotel Metropole’ opened its doors in 1895. To this day, the hushed atmosphere of the iconic reception room with its front desk, stained-glass windows and chandeliers is the legacy of its former use as the antechamber for discrete financial transactions. The atypical aspect of the public rooms in the ‘Metropole’ is further carried into the central, elongated lobby – a gallery, in reality – where the famous, still functioning, cage elevator is one of the hotel’s most cherished and photographed features. Servicing the oldest part of the hotel, it masks the main stair hall in the original part of the building that actually begins two stories above. But the most surprising aspect is the geometric aspect of the secondary staircase, truly an Art Deco masterpiece and a radical breach with the ostentation that was fashionable three decades earlier.

Not considering the noble materials of the décor, the ‘Metropole’ is perhaps one of the most utilitarian European grand hotels, lacking the symmetry and spatial sequences, which one might expect. In that sense, it is an interesting, early example of spatial conversion and adaptation of uses – a fact carefully concealed by its apparent, well-preserved opulence.

Hotel Metropole
Place de Brouckère 31
1000 Bruxelles
Belgium

Tea with Mussolini

A brief look at…
Brescia | Hotel Vittoria

Intact Art Deco ensembles are a design rarity. In the hotel world, especially few properties have managed to maintain the geometric elegance of this style through the past decades (however, exceptions like ‘Claridge’s’ in London still exist and have even made it their hallmark). In Italy, where Art Deco is often referred to as Stile Liberty, existing examples take a decidedly political turn. Subject of controversy to this day, many Italian cities underwent a radical urban ‘renewal’ that began by the end of the 1920s and reflected a monumentality which vaguely hinted on precedents from ancient Rome. Deemed fit to symbolize the values of the ‘new Italy’ by the government of the time, examples abound in nearly every town from South to North, and are typically illustrated by public buildings like railway stations, post offices and courthouses.

Home to the ‘Beretta’ gun manufacture since the 16th century, Brescia is an industrial city in Northern Italy that is surprisingly charming – and often overlooked. Here, in the middle of its baroque historic city center, a monumental urban ensemble unveils the urbanist aspirations of Italy’s Fascist government: an array of elegant, marble-clad civic buildings that enclose a representative forum. While similar projects were planned all over the country, Brescia’s ‘Piazza della Vittoria’, however, remains the singular exhibit in the chapter of Italy’s Fascist architecture that comprises also a luxury hotel. Opened in 1931, the 65-room Albergo Vittoria has survived nearly unchanged in the style of the time.

Piazza della Vittoria

Although part of this coherent urban ensemble in a broader sense, the hotel is almost completely hidden behind the buildings in the ‘front row’. Located on a quiet shopping street with its characteristic arcades, the hotel’s marble facade and its lack of ornamentation is striking. Apart from the circular sculptural ornaments that frame the letters of the hotel’s name, the building’s openings mirror the admittedly subdued aesthetics of the neighboring piazza. Marble also abounds within the building itself, making it a rather somber, yet extraordinary example of 1930s design that nevertheless reflects a very ‘Italian’ savoir faire. The ubiquitous revolving door reveals an elegant succession of ground floor spaces that still feature their original detailing and which find their spatial culmination in an extravagant, almost square ballroom on the second floor.

But despite these qualities, hotels like the ‘Vittoria’ remain a tightrope.
The lack of full appreciation for the artistic value of this peculiar décor and the muddle of judgement that is naturally associated with the period during which it was realized, set up a real challenge. In other words, how to successfully carry a rather solemn sophistication into the 21st century…

Hotel Vittoria
Via X Giornate, 20
25121 Brescia
Italy

On the Grand Boulevard, the three lives of a grande dame

A brief look at…
Budapest | Grand Hotel Royal (now Corinthia Hotel Budapest)

In contrast to Prague – the near picture-perfect ‘other’ capital city to which it is often compared – the upheavals in the second half of the 20th century have not been kind to Budapest’s cityscape: several Allied bomb raids, the 1956 revolution and the subsequent carelessness for its prewar architecture have taken a hefty toll on the city’s buildings. Especially vulnerable because of their exposed location on the Dunakorzó promenade in Pest, the traditional cluster of grand hotels on the river (Hungaria, Bristol, Carlton and Ritz) vanished after their destruction during the war. On the Buda side, the situation was only slightly better: severely damaged, the spa hotel Gellért – a fashionable destination during the 1920s and 1930s – could be saved but remained closed for necessary repairs that stretched over nearly three decades…

For the Grand Hotel Royal, the inner city location on the ‘Grand Boulevard’ was perhaps a saving grace. When it opened in 1896 to mark the Millenium Celebrations of Hungary, the 350 room hotel was considered the largest, most modern and most luxurious hotel in Central Europe. Suffering only minor damage, it almost naturally resumed its position as Budapest’s premier hotel in 1961 after an extensive remodeling which broke with its Austro-Hungarian architectural heritage, adopting a decidedly contemporary décor. By 1991, however, its charms had worn off completely, the hotel was closed, its landmark facade on Elizabeth Boulevard preserved and the building subsequently gutted.

Similar in many ways to the challenges that the reconstruction project of the new Hotel Adlon in Berlin was confronted with, an entirely rebuilt hotel opened in 2003, embracing a mixture of reinterpreted classical and inventive contemporary styles. Today, having begun its third life cycle as a hotel, the unique E-shape footprint of the building, its exteriors, the original ballroom and the incorporated ‘Royal Spa’ (originally a neighborhood public bath) are the sole remnants of the hotel’s earlier existence – a fact likely to be ignored by many satisfied guests who favor all the commodities of a contemporary five-star luxury hotel that lay underneath the apparent historical appeal of its shell.

Corinthia Hotel Budapest
Erzsébet körút 43-49
1073 Budapest
Hungary