Luxury is a word that used to unsettle me.
I used to think pursuing it was only about the showing off of power and wealth through excessive and wasteful life choices. I used to think that luxury only meant things like gold plated Hummers and recreational rhinoceros hunting and mansions with TVs on every wall and ceiling. It does still include all of that unfortunately. But in recent years I’ve had some unusual experiences and I’ve ended up in some unexpected places, and I’ve grown to understand that there is also a truly noble and worthwhile kind of luxury out there that follows a completely different agenda.
Luxury can be a crass display of greed and gluttony in the wrong hands. But a gentler and more thoughtful form of luxury can provide something far more important. When done well it can conjure up the kind of experience that a powerful work of art provides: a strong aesthetic encounter, a de-centering device to shake us up and show us a more heightened experience of the world and its beauty that is outside of our normal daily realms.
I got the chance to explore this more positive form of luxury in the field recently on an unusual work trip with Bekah to a stunning set of places with a rather unique agenda controlling the whole thing. I learned a lot about the delicate task of luxury on this trip and got tutored along the way by a series of phenomenal hotels. These hotel experiences taught me new lessons about the possibilities for graciousness, service, abundance, atmosphere and hospitality at every step of the journey.
My extraordinary wife Bekah travels to South America occasionally through her job with Ker and Downey. One of the purposes of these work trips is to tour and become familiar with as many luxury hotels as humanly possible in an incredibly short period of time. These trips are kind of an exhaustive Felliniesque (or sometimes Borgesian) procession through a neverending series of candle-lit lobbies, moody lounges, 16th century courtyards, alluring hallways, romantic dining rooms, well-pillowed bedrooms and oxygen-supplemented bathrooms at high altitudes. This all sounded like a lot of fun architecturally so I jumped at the chance to come along and document one of these adventures.
What you’re going to see in the coming posts is a wild explosion of opulence, ornament, rigor, restraint, atmosphere and soul culled from 18 different extraordinary South American hotels all jumbled together here into one massive dizzying luxury Latin American superhotel.
For design aficionados this will be an uncurated overabundance of contrasting ideas, a storehouse of possibilities. For fans of atmospheric rooms you’ve come to the right place. For hungry hotel connoisseurs prepare to be overstuffed. I will be grouping this onslaught of opulence not by individual hotel but by type of space. For instance you’re going to see a whole slew of reception lobbies presented together for rapid fire comparison rather than an exhaustive tour of one complete hotel after another. The forthcoming posts in this series will each focus on one of the following hotel features:
Lobbies and Lounges
Courtyards and Hallways
Pools and Spas
Luxury itself is sometimes viewed as a nonessential self-indulgence in a world full of trouble and suffering. I have certainly been known to take this kind of moralistic viewpoint in my more self righteous moments.
But what I have more recently been haunted by is how truly restorative and uplifting a heaping dose of luxury can be when taken in the right context. This was a hard realization for me to accept at first, still being an ascetic at heart.
But as I’ve gone about my own attempts to exist artfully in the world I have had to come to terms with the fact that technically speaking there is almost nothing more artful and more difficult to craft than a luxurious hospitality experience. Luxury in this mode is certainly an art form, like poetry or jewelry-making with some theater thrown in. It’s a way of celebrating the fact that we are alive in a world of extremely grand and glorious potential. Recognizing and being nourished by this aspect of the world may even be one of the primary reasons we were made to exist. We all need inspiration to sustain our efforts, and the world needs inspired souls in it doing extraordinary things. That’s when things like art and luxury gain an added importance.
Can you imagine a world where the best possible meal you could ever hope to eat was something you already had at the middle school cafeteria every other Monday when you were a teenager? Can you imagine a world where the most enticing and exotic place you could ever think of was a strip of mowed grass you saw in the median between the highway on your drive to work? This would be a world without luxury and in some ways a world without hope. These are the mundane things that make up our daily lives, and they can have their own humble beauty to them, no doubt about it. But these are not the kinds of things that haunt your thoughts and inspire greatness.
Luxury in the most positive sense is a reminder that there are better things shimmering on the horizon. Experiencing luxury is about taking stock of one extreme end of the world’s spectrum of possibilities so that we can become better stewards of its resources. Perhaps we will then dream bigger dreams of how things ought to be even at the extreme other end of this spectrum.
What Bekah and I found on our grand tour through the hotels of Peru and Ecuador were some of the most enticing and atmospheric rooms we’d ever seen nestled into some of the most intriguing places the earth has to offer and staffed by some of the most gracious and dedicated people we’ve ever met in the hospitality industry. A stay in a hotel can be a rare time for stepping outside of the normal rhythms of life and entering into a kind of heightened, mythic version of daily existence. For Bekah and me this was definitely a portrait of how we yearn for life to be.
It’s an invigorating challenge now to be back in messy daily reality with limited resources at hand but with far off images of a more intensified version of existence haunting our thoughts and telegraphing through to our daily decisions in subtle and unexpected ways.
In the coming posts I hope you find these images (and the hotels that they came from) to be a bit haunting as well. I hope they bring some form of inspiration. This is one of the more noble things luxury can do.