Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Legendary Hotel


The Costa Smeralda of Sardinia was a desolate piece of coastline in the 1950s when Karim Aga Khan decided to create his playground for the rich and privileged, a glorious new alternative to the South of France. He owned it all, more than 10,000 acres including 50 kilometers of coastline, of bays and beaches and dramatic rock formations, a no man's land full of promise and endless possibility. In 1963 the Calle di Volpe Hotel, one of the first of the region's resorts, opened to international acclaim as a model of sensitive planning, respectful of it cultural context. With this, the Cosa Smeralda was launched as the world's new glamor rendezvous.

And so here we are nearly 50 years later. Gil and I had been invited to a party at a horse breeding farm in the interior to join more than 300 invited guests for a "barn party." The rain put a damper on the fun of it, I'm afraid, but that's another story, 300 of us dining outdoors on a double tennis court with napkins over our heads looking like Sardinian country ladies over their embroidery. For the next couple of days here we dodged the raindrops but stayed dry enough to stop by the Calle di Volpe and have a look.

You could compare the Aga Khan's development to a few other dream projects, Port Grimaud near St Tropez, for instance, Palm Beach, Florida, or even Poundbury, a town in the Duchy of Cornwall created by Prince Charles. But this development is far bigger in scale than any of those; by now it includes dozens of hotels and resorts, golf clubs, yacht clubs, several villages and countless developments of summer residences.

This is how the hotel sits on its bay as seen from a hillside above. The idea was to make it all look as if it had always been there. An inspiration for this sprawling complex might have been an interior convent where bits and additions had been added as needed over time, each one treated in a slightly different way as to color and scale and according to need.

We're getting towards sunset here. There's a little boat dock at the hotel, and in the background lies the massive swimming pool with its lunch and breakfast dining room covered by a pergola beside it.

You understand right away that this is not authentic—compare it, if you like, to my post on Portofino a week or so ago. An architect dreamed this up: Giancarlo Busiri Vici, to be precise. The idea was to be at once traditional and modern, a challenging order for a young designer just out of the university. In many ways, he got it right—couldn't you compare the volumes of this building to some of Frank Gehry's recent creations?

This rustic pier curving out into the bay was surely inspired by one the designers had seen in the region.

And as for the modernism element you can trace its origin in time. There's a dose of Miro here, of the same post war Mediterranean style that swept the South of France in the 1950s. Perhaps it's all simply "dated," but I think it would be wrong to dismiss it somehow failed. It's still a luxurious resort hotel with more than a small amount of charm. Be it your style or not you can't look anywhere without appreciating the designers' vision, which is so well preserved here—I hope forever!


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Of course, each one of us could make a comparison with somewhere else but, it does appear to us, both in period and style, to be not at all dissimilar to Portmeirion in North Wales, the 'village' created by Clough Williams-Ellis in the period 1925 - 1975. Whatever, the concept is very much the same.

Like you, we should hope that Giancarlo Busiri Vici's work will endure for it is representative of both a time and a way of life.

Laurent said...

I know you'll agree that what's prettiest about the Tyrrhenian coast is not what's built but what's grown, so what is striking to me is how innocent the native Vermentino is (familiar to you, no doubt, from Maremma as well), an almost perfect expression of maritime feeling. But now it sounds as if the trades do give more employment to Sardinians than viticulture, and one has to accept that transformation as it is.