As one more sign of the decline of the West and its dominance in things ultra-chic, Milanese fashion designer Giorgio Armani chose the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai for the setting of his touted debut in the hotel business. New York and Milan just have to wait—albeit they are on the list for forthcoming Armani hotels. Armani could not have chosen a more dramatic venue than this desert city on the Persian Gulf for displaying his “minimalist opulence,” as the Armani literature puts it. For one thing, there is the deep contrast between his and other luxe-level Dubaian caravansaries. These hotels seriously strive for over-the-top-dom marked by panoply and panache. You can get an ocular migraine visiting the self-proclaimed “seven star” Burj Al-Arab Hotel (designed by Tom Wright of WS Atkins in 1999), where 22-karat-gold leaf is the default interior finish.
In relation to the gimme-gilt syndrome, the cerebrally elegant Armani Hotel Dubai, a joint project with Emaar Properties, the Burj’s developer, appears amazingly discreet.
Stepping into the hotel through one of the three glass pavilions nestled between the lobes of the tower, the visitor enters a cool, shadowy lobby dominated by a tubular arch construction, rather like an abstracted version of a spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. The hotel’s materials contrast textures—such as Eramosa limestone floors with the sheen of fabric wall coverings. Its color scheme is Full Armani Jacket, veering confidently from beige to tan to gray to charcoal. The public spaces and 160 guest rooms and suites are located mostly on the first eight floors of the tower, plus floors 38 and 39, with 144 Armani-designed short-stay apartments on floors 9 through 16. Elsewhere in the Burj, residences designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM)—for Armani—fill out floors 19 to 39, with more SOM-designed condos on 43 to 72, and luxury ones on floors 76 to 108— not to mention the offices on floors 112 to 154. In addition, Adam Tihany is designing a restaurant appropriately named Atmosphere on the 122nd floor, slated to open at the end of the year.
The halls of the Armani Hotel’s guest-room floors, paneled in zebrawood and trimmed with LED cove lighting at the base and fluorescent lighting at the ceiling, impart the sleek look of a sci-fi catwalk to a calmer world. They lead to somnolently lush guest rooms where Armani partitioned spaces with serpentine walls to echo the curves of the tower’s exterior. Since most of the furnishings and fabrics belong to the designer’s home furnishings line, Armani Casa, the gesamtkunstwerk idea never stops. The rooms’ plush look is calming and soothing. For a bit of oomph, many rooms overlook the Dubai Fountain’s Busby-Berkeley-goes-to-Arabia floor show designed by WET in the lake next to the Dubai Mall.
Restaurants, cafés, and lounges in the hotel religiously adhere to the Armani aesthetic, along with boutiques, a nightclub, and a spa. The Italian-oriented Ristorante most serenely imparts the soigné Armani imprimatur, where tan, curvilinear banquettes and floor lamps arcing over circular tables echo the tower’s formal thematic. The Japanese restaurant, Hashi, presents a coolly casual look (with disco music thumping in the background), but Peck, a gourmet deli with Milanese-Viennese early Modern overtones, might appeal more to architects: It looks as if Adolf Loos were hovering over the hand of the designer. An Indian restaurant, Amal, on the other hand, comes out looking anorexic, owing to the bleak lighting and attenuated scale of the fittings (more arches!). Oddly, this seems to be the only place where touches of color made it through the door, but that alone simply doesn’t provide the heat. Fortunately, these drawbacks can be fixed.
Although Giorgio Armani meticulously supervised the entire design of the hotel, down to the room controls and the soap, he was backed up by Wilson Associates, the interior design firm headquartered in Dallas. Because of its past experience in designing hotels and resorts, including the Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Kempinksi, Disney, and Emaar Properties, it stands to reason that Wilson’s advice would be useful. But make no mistake about the person at the controls: as Bernard Himel, managing director of Wilson Associates says, “Giorgio Armani had the vision and intense attention to detail—he was personally involved in almost every decision.” Not surprisingly, you sense that when you go there. It will be interesting to watch how the company, Armani Hotels & Resorts, formed in 2005 with Emaar Properties, retains this aesthetic for the series of hotels it is planning in the years to come.