In the minds of cutting-edge Modern Movement thinkers a century ago, notions of crystalline forms in glass were fused together with an interest in alpine architecture.
German poet Paul Scheerbart was an enthusiast for a new architecture crowning cities and natural landscapes with shining forms. His book Glass Architecture was deeply influential on Bruno Taut, notably in his glass pavilion design for the 1914 Deutscher Werkbund Cologne exhibition, where Scheerbart’s texts graced the walls of a building with prismatic facets for a roof. For his part, Taut had written a book on Alpine Architecture and then initiated a correspondence between key modernists on these topics, resulting in yet another collection of writings, The Crystal Chain Letters, one of the foundational documents for the new design sensibility. This proved to be an influential text as modernism progressed from manifesto to manifestation after World War I, notably in the 1919-22 hypothetical glass tower projects of an admirer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Mies’ sketches established the architectural bloodlines that lead directly to the glass towers of today.
This whole excursus into the early history of Modern architecture was my mental refuge as I tried to come to terms with a strange, tacky-yet-wonderful luxury hotel and spa complex just completed on a mountaintop in BC’s Okanagan Valley. There are many aspects of this ridge-topping complex near Vernon that are a little bit off, including its interior design embellishments and even its name, “Sparkling Hill Resort” (lakes can sparkle but can hills?). At the same time, its architecture is muscular, the most impressive new lodging building constructed in years in our mountainous hinterland.
The key to both its schmaltzy, crystalline embellishments as well as its investment in superior architecture is Sparkling Hill’s patron, Austrian Gernot Langes-Swarovski. Yes, that Swarovski family, of the crystal-peddling boutiques in every shopping mall on every continent. While the Canadian hotel is a personal, not a corporate undertaking, the only retail space facing the lobby is a Swarovski store, filled with the usual range of gorgeous prisms and less-than-gorgeous multi-colored confections in glass (see the “Elvis Out of the Blue” pendant in the Current Collection or the Classic Collection’s “Kris Bear Blowing Kisses”).
Via interior designers Seeton Shinkewski Design Group of Vancouver, the patron’s wishes are executed with crystals set into backlit boxes along banisters, festooning the backs of dining room chairs, and dangling by the beaded thousands in the light-filled lobby. The real strangeness, however, is reserved for the guest rooms, which feature a Swarovski “cold fireplace” in crystal shards lit by flickering mood lights, a trianguloid greeting box of white crystals at the entrance and crystal-prism primed spotlights over the picture-window-centered soaker tub. And just when you are trying to get to sleep after performing your evening bath ritual to an audience of falcons and eagles gliding outside, you notice oblique, nite-lite shapes projecting through crystals onto the ceiling above your bed. Talk about over-crystal!
This said – and this seen, as it can hardly be avoided – the architecture by project designer Chris Rowe of the BC office of Cannon Design has some surprising strengths. The most important of these are the siting and massing of the 152 room Sparkling Hill Resort, set along a line of bare rocks parallel to Okanagan Lake at the crown of the swanky Predator Ridge golf resort development. A site had to be created to exploit the almost-aerial quality valley views from the mountaintop’s steep slopes, so the most important design intervention was blasting a platform along the ridgeline to create a seat for the hotel, then cutting a cross-axis through the living stone so that rock frames the entrance car arrival turnaround. Passing through this gap into the lobby, a splendid panorama view appears on its other side. Looking back, the car turnaround and entrance windows are framed by the same rough-cut slit in the stone. By virtue of this artful site-making, this wall of living stone thus becomes the most important element in entrance and lobby elevations.
Each of the three-level, 50 room trio of guest blocks is set on slightly different alignments to exploit view potentials, preserve unique natural elements, reduce the perceived bulk of the hotel, and create spaces for unique suites at junction points. Every room has a window-wall with an all-glass Juliet balcony, and alpine air and views are at least as important a restorative to guests as the two dry saunas (Finnish and Panorama), five wet steam rooms (Rose, Salt, Herbal, Meditation and of course, Crystal) and two cold saunas (plus 45 degrees and minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit) in the German style spa below (the geothermal field underneath supplies over 100 percent of the hotel’s heating and cooling needs). Rowe’s disposition of the outdoor and indoor pools is splendid, and the tea-room and aerobic salons are invigorating.
In Rowe’s original design, the lobby was an all glazed gap between the mesa-like room blocks. The client demanded more according to Rowe: “He said it should look like a giant crystal from outer space had crashed through the hotel.” The teams at Cannon Design and RJC Engineers have delivered on this unambiguous demand, with a beguiling arrangement of glass panel facets (whose geometry was developed in consort with Swarovski’s Austrian imagineers) tied on the inside to metallic frames and cable turnbuckles. Around this over-sized gem are Rowe’s only facile architectural details—Libeskind style, randomized, slit-windows inside, counterpoints to the Gehry-esque borrowings around the entrance elevation.
I appreciated Cannon’s design more only a couple of days later, while staying at the similarly high-end Spirit Ridge Resort in Osoyoos. As Tom Kundig did for his Mission Hill Winery outside Kelowna, this hotel by Calgary’s S2 Architecture uses an updated New Mexico meets California Mission look, but with none of the Seattle architect’s finesse in details or artful space-making. What hit me is that few object when Taos-goes-to- Santa-Barbara becomes the public face for new architecture in BC’s semi-desert Okanagan Valley. You see, there is schmaltz that slides up the Interstate, and then there is schmaltz that slams in from outer space, evolves up from the early Modern Movement, or spills out of design magazine pages.