Ron Arad stays true to Moretti’s brutalism in his hotel revamp, while injecting a sense of the political intrigue the site has been party to
The Times They Are A’Changin’ indeed. Robert Venturi, in ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture’, identified Italian modernist Luigi Moretti, living in Rome and trained in the classical tradition, as a progenitor of the postmodern style that rose in 1960s USA. Moretti’s 1949 Il Girasole – a delicate, bijou, luxurious apartment block in Rome, ‘poised between tradition and innovation’, inspired Venturi’s broken pediments and nuanced asymmetry at his Vanna Venturi House, which became as much the poster boy of the USA’s new indigenous identity in 1964 as Bob Dylan himself was.
So how post-modernly ironic that in 1962 it was Moretti who was appointed to design the Watergate complex, a 4ha development of high-end apartments, offices, hotel, gardens, pools and shops in the USA’s centre of power Washington DC – like a cultural prophet being flown into their adopted hometown – on a stupendous scale. The private realm of Hollywood celebs and the political elite drinking in its bars and terraces, Watergate’s vast, sweeping concrete curves, overlooking the Potomac river, were to become known to the wider world via the 1972 political scandal that took its name and ruined a president. Although the complex fell from grace and into disrepair, when Ron Arad was asked in 2012 by new owner Euro Capital Properties to design the Watergate Hotel’s new public spaces as part of a $125 million refurb, he must surely have felt the burden of history on his shoulders.
Or perhaps not. Ron Arad practice director Asa Bruno, whose father had worked in the diplomatic corps, used to visit the complex as a teenager and recalls its ‘pervasive, overarching masterplan’ and brutalist high spec then very much as he does the Barbican Centre’s now. ‘Moretti used classic, primitivist forms in a big way here,’ says Bruno, ‘and our challenge was to honour that aesthetic with something contemporary but timeless – we wanted to avoid anything that might be thought “trendy”.’
In a way, they were helped by the building’s 1960s engineering – a behemoth of concrete, its curving plan was beset with thick columns supporting cantilevered terraces and a section of low ceiling soffits. With little budget for structural works, Arad’s remodelling of the lobby interiors involved no transfer structure but some breaking out of the ground floor slab down to basement level to create 5m high volumes and open up views down to new bar and restaurant levels and the Potomac river beyond.
Concrete informed the choice of internal finishes too. Arad wanted not only to reflect the physical curves it subtended but the robustness of its materiality. ‘Our decision was to go for a palette of solid, durable materials and run them the length of the internal walls. We went for tubes of bronze, brass, copper and steel in their elemental forms, feeling that if these could visually dominate lobby and circulation spaces by curving their way through them, guests would be less aware of the low ceiling heights,’ explains Bruno. It’s a diversionary tactic that Nixon would have been proud of.
In the whisky bar meantime, at the time infamous for furtive, smokey, late-night politico meetings, Arad was keener to bring a fresh spirit to proceedings. Perhaps it’s a comment on the warped transparency of big government, but the choice to create intimate bar spaces formed of 2,450 Arad branded whisky bottles, with all their refraction and reflection, is a gesture that both tips its hat to the past as well as being contemporary and materially indulgent. Named ‘The Next Whisky Bar’ after Arad favourite The Doors’ 1967 ‘Alabama Song’ lyric, even the name recalls that bygone, permissive era.
Even the walls here are steeped in politics, passion and intrigue, beyond Nixon to Elizabeth Taylor and Monica Lewinsky; and Moretti himself was briefly imprisoned after the war for his fascist past. ‘It’s our first US commission and a refurbishment of a historic building by a great European architect,’ Bruno concludes, ‘And for Ron its scandalous air just makes it all the better.’