San Juan, Puerto Rico

The Condado Plaza in San Juan, Puerto Rico, designed in 1960 by Morris Lapidus as the Hotel Ponce de León, was built as the last of the major hotel projects on San Juan’s “golden strip.” While Lapidus is well known today as a pioneer of “experiential architecture,” the Ponce de León was one of his most sober endeavors. Ironically, it took a set of new ambassadors of “architecture-as-experience” to make it really shine.

Condado Plaza Resort and Casino Hotel

The building sits on a privileged site, a small headland at the northwesternmost part of the Condado district, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the north, the Condado Lagoon to the south, and views of the landmark Caribe Hilton Hotel and 17th-century Fort San Gerónimo to the west.

The original project, although elegant and modern, was no Eden Roc—a famous example of Lapidus’s midcentury hotels in Miami Beach, Florida. And formal sympathies aside, Ponce de León had architectural shortcomings from the beginning. The lobby, raised above grade and shadowed by a massive structural overhang, had an ineffectual relationship with the street, which required visitors and guests to traverse an impersonal, inclined carport to enter the hotel. Furthermore, Lapidus placed the main entrance off to one side, directly facing the reception desk, a location that did not capitalize on daylighting or ocean views.

Forty-six years later, after eight name changes, innumerable owners, various face-lifts, and the construction of two additional buildings, the now-tired complex was purchased by Blackstone/LXR Hotels. “By this time the whole thing, and particularly the lobby, looked very dark, generic,” states Raúl Bustamante, the hotel’s general manager who oversaw the project. “We wanted it to be more contemporary and more appealing to the senses,” adds Bustamante. So the new owners brought in the office of Leo A Daly to remodel the rooms, and then David Rockwell who, according to Bustamante, was hired to “reconceive the hotel’s public spaces and persona.”

Rockwell, of W Hotel and Kodak Theatre fame, already knew a thing or two about drama. “This is a case where we really felt like the spectacle was going to be provided by the people moving through it, so the architecture is really the setup for that,” he explains. And while his solutions were remarkably simple, the visual results are inversely elaborate. His 1-2-3 punch involved reopening ocean views, installing indoor gazebos, and artfully resurfacing all the floors, walls, and ceilings. Yet he held everything together with an elaborate illumination choreography, mostly composed of quartz halogen downlights, xenon indirect lighting, and ample use of RGB-LED’s for accent.

The automated lighting system divides the lobby into clustered areas that can be individually controlled from a master station, and synchronizes color and intensity to blend natural daylight with electric illumination. The scheme works because it was conceived from the start as part of the architecture. “There’s no way you can get this type of project by [just] assigning lighting to a lighting designer, because the architecture itself is about lighting,” asserts Rockwell, who teamed up with illumination specialist Focus Lighting. “I’ve been working with Focus on and off for 29 years. It’s a very special collaboration we have, and that’s what works so well about it.”

Although the regained ocean transparency isn’t an evident design feature, as it seems to come naturally to the space, visitors are immediately struck by the lobby’s welcoming layout with its rich tropical hues, cubelike indoor “gazebos,” glowing columns, and luminous registration area.

“After talking to people who operate hotels and clubs in San Juan, we developed a lobby where rooms nestle inside rooms, so there’s a big kind of public space with different scales of intimacy as you move through it,” states Rockwell about the role of the cubicles, which function as a series of semi-enclosed platforms that frame water views and serve as gathering places during the day and party booths at night. The designers underlit the structures to create an ethereal effect, and provided privacy inside with illuminated drapes that seem to glow when closed.

Likewise, the designers took their cues from one of the city’s familiar forms when it came to integrating the hotel’s existing square columns. “Focus and Rockwell shared an interest in striking a balance between traditional Puerto Rican colors and textures, and a more simplified Modern sleekness,” says Paul Gregory, principal at Focus Lighting. Moreover, adds Ken Ventry, a lighting designer with Focus, “We didn’t want to simply use candlelight or table lamps as light sources, but to let a column take the place of a table or floor lamp, [thereby] reinterpreting the design elements through the use of light.” Thus, the radiant columns, with their rectilinear patterns and mysterious glow, recall the candlelit lanterns typically used in local restaurants, but are transformed here to an architectural scale. The designers created this distinctive effect by mounting discreet vertical rows of low-voltage light strips (concealed from view by a reveal) that emit their seductive glow from within a cavity behind a geometric arrangement of slender gaps—the result of a clever decorative cladding created by projecting detachable, pregrooved, lacquered panels out from the original structural columns.

Color, material, and texture converse throughout the rest of the lobby, where wooden accents and blood-orange furniture contrast with pale terrazzo floors and white walls. This neutral backdrop helps to highlight the project’s most seductive juxtaposition: a curvaceous, illuminated glass front desk, with a glow that changes in color and intensity throughout the day, and a monumental, colored-glass mosaic right behind it. The massive desk, lined with LEDs around its base, lights up the whole reception area, while the mosaic features small glass nuggets attached to a translucent glass backdrop mounted in front of a reflective surface, and illuminated from above and behind.

Of the hotel’s architectural lineage, Rockwell says, “We didn’t think too much about the Lapidus pedigree and made no deliberate references to it.” That being said, he admits, “We did try to capture the ‘Tropical-Modern’ feeling of the space, and tap into the same tradition of playful fantasy that Lapidus was so interested in.”