Andaz Amsterdam Prinsengracht

I do not usually write about hotel rooms where I stay—mainly because they are all the same. Checking into the Andaz Hotel in Amsterdam last weekend was a completely different experience. Designed by Marcel Wanders in the shell of the city’s old municipal library in the middle of the city’s historic canal zone, the Andaz greets you with forms, textures, images, and words. Most of the information displayed in these designs is about the city in which you are staying, making it clear not only where you are, but what makes up that city's identity. I have never stayed in a place anything like it.

What is remarkable is that almost none of the design has anything to do with space or structure. The hotel’s only bravura moment is the slot above the check-in area (no desk, please, you discuss your stay with a hip, tailored gentleman over a cup of coffee and an iPad), where a narrow atrium shoots up to a skylight past Wanders-designed lamps, over-scaled strings of lights, and blue decorative patterns. It is actually not a very effective "oh wow" moment, as it is too small and leads nowhere. None of the other spaces, from a little library to seating areas and a rambling restaurant on either side of an open kitchen, are unusual in their configuration or scale. Similarly, the one move Wanders made in the bathroom, and it is not an especially novel one, was to place the sink and mirror in the middle of the space. Unlike in some other self-consciously trendy hotels, the shower is still at the far end, behind smoky glass, and the toilet has its own room.

Wanders worked as an interior designer, filling the spaces with his furniture, but also decorating just about every wall. In my room, the surface behind my bed sported half of a fish stitched together with a goblet by the three x’s representing Amsterdam’s coat of arms. A pair of wooden shoes hung high up on the wall facing me. The sink, with its interior surface swirling with a Delft blue pattern evoking water, stood on a table with two ornate legs. A plate, its border equally as elaborately decorated, cantilevered off the headboard, offering a place to set your water.

My favorite room was the one with the toilet, whose walls were completely filled with stories from Amsterdam’s history, quotes from writers and the Dutch soccer star Johan Cruyff (“every disadvantage has its advantages”) and pictures of everything from flowers to fish, to a nearby church tower paired with a grandfather clock. Wanders surrounded me with everything that evoked the sense of place where I was staying.

The public rooms downstairs have more of his furniture, as well as a collection of deformed ceramics he produced for the Delft porcelain characteristic of the region, a chandelier containing both flat-screen televisions and lamps (part of a curated video art collection), and, spread throughout, over-scaled sculptures of a boy, dressed only in baggy pants and a crown, leaning over with his hands stretched out. I have no idea what he symbolizes or who he was, but he gave the hotel a personality.

You would think this riot of images would become an assault on the senses, but the pieces are so tuned to each, the colors sufficiently muted, and the sense of repetition and rhythm so subtle that it all makes for strange, yet restful repose. In fact, a friend pointed out that the bar and restaurant had not become the hot scene like the hotel might have hoped, because it didn't have the sense of pizzazz of flashier establishments.

Wanders, who started his career designing objects and furniture (and more about that in a future blog) now says he only wants to design interiors, including fictional, computer-based ones. The Andaz shows that he is able do with surface and ornament what few architects can do with space and structure: create a place that functions, and has a character all its own.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.