Luc Richard and Karin Pühringer triumph at the five-star Palais Coburg's 19th-century building in Vienna
Otto Pohl -- Interior Design, 1/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
At the Palais Coburg in Vienna, contrast sets the tone. That was already true back in 1845, when Duke Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha built his pastry of a residence atop a much sterner foundation, part of the rough brick wall constructed around the city in response to Suleiman the Magnificent's siege of 1529. Now that the ducal palace has become a five-star hotel, its neoclassical columns and Renaissance bricks face a new invader: the modernist box of green-tinted glass and polished steel that houses the main entry.
The conversion was handled by architect Luc Richard, who has since joined Archipel Architekten as an associate, and his architect wife, Karin Pühringer, who also happens to be the property's manager and the daughter of its owner. When the couple embarked on the five-year project, age weighed heavily on the 178,000-square-foot interior behind the white stucco facade's Corinthian and Ionic columns. Russian soldiers were quartered there after World War II; then the building was divided into offices and leased to a series of public and private concerns, from the Austrian national railway to the Zentralsparkasse bank. (The Coburgs gave up ownership in 1978.) Richard and Pühringer worked hard to breathe new life into the old structure, showcasing the historic elements that remained while integrating up-to-the-minute luxury. "It felt more like acupuncture than architecture," Richard says.
The glass entry doors now glide apart to reveal smooth expanses of stone, steel, and glass. To keep the lobby from feeling cold, Richard selected furniture in wood and leather as well as training vines across the exposed brick. A large photographic reproduction of an Antonio Pollaiuolo portrait of a woman lends its soft blue tones to the entry of the wine bar. Across from the laminated-glass champagne bar stands a marble statue of a robed woman holding a harp—a full-size replica of a figure adorning the top of the palace. A framed remnant of 19th-century hand-painted wallpaper, salvaged from one of the public salons, hangs above the reception desk.
Circular glass insets in the lobby floor offer a peek into the vaulted cavern below. To transform it into a space for concerts and exhibitions, the team sandblasted the fortresslike remains of the brick city wall, laid a smooth ' marble floor, and removed decaying wood ramps once used by draft horses. It took a diamond saw to slice a shaft through the 6-foot-thick wall before installing a glass-and-steel elevator.
Another elevator rises to the hotel's seven upper floors. Because POK Pühringer Privatstiftung initially envisioned the project as an apartment conversion, the 35 guest rooms are all suites. (And the property's full name remains the Palais Coburg Hotel Residenz.) The suites range from 600 to 1,800 square feet, each with a full kitchen. In a city where luxury hotels tend to the regal if not the imperial, many suites are replete with heavy silk curtains and sumptuous wool and silk carpets on inlaid oak floors. But the "more-is-more approach" of those rooms, as Pühringer describes it, contrasts dramatically with the penthouse floor, once a raw attic. "That's where we let loose," she says. Or reined themselves in. The two penthouse suites are decidedly restrained, even Zen. In one, called the loft, the 900-square-foot open plan is divided primarily by movable shoji-style screens with oak frames and rattan panels. That angularity sets the tone for the rectilinear sofas and cocktail table and the grid-patterned rug, assembled under the living area's sloped ceiling, as well as the slender frame of the four-poster bed. Curves appear in the smooth bowls of the bathroom's sink and freestanding whirlpool tub.
As important as it was to feature contemporary elements in the guest suites and public spaces, the team worked to camouflage or hide the state-of-the-art technology that runs the hotel. Almost everything is hidden underground, beneath floors, and inside walls. In the suites, discreet digital wall panels control climate and communication. Duke Ferdinand would never suspect they were there.