Act of Alchemy

­For a hotel in Mexico City, Yabu Pushelberg spins the familiar into gold.

Las Alcobas, a 35-room boutique hotel opening this fall in Mexi­co City’s chic Polanco district, represents an aesthetic balancing act. “I wanted it to have a Mexican feeling without being typically Mexican,” says Sam Leizorek, the hotel’s managing partner, citing such overly familiar style cues as bright pastels, pre-Columbian iconography, and large geometric spaces rendered in terra-cotta and stucco. Instead, he sought interiors that would reinterpret the nation’s building materials, visual motifs, and craft-based production methods into something “less rough and obvious”—and more suited to the expectations of high-end international travelers.

For this act of alchemy, he turned to the firm of Yabu Pushelberg, which has worked for global brands such as W and Four Seasons in a style Leizorek describes as “modern and luxurious but never generic or ostentations.” George Yabu and his partner, Glenn Pushel­berg, resisted getting too thematic. “It’s easy, when you think of vernacular design, to fall into the trap of clichés—bad reproductions of Aztec gods,” Yabu explains. Instead, the pair found inspiration in Mexico City itself, discovering it to be more cosmopolitan than its reputation for street crime and kidnappings would suggest.

The architects filtered Mexico’s aesthetic traditions through a refined, contemporary lens, notably in the intimately scaled lobby. “There’s an extensive use of handcrafted leather throughout the culture,” Yabu says. In response, the lobby walls are elegantly upholstered in glazed cowhide panels with border stitching and beveled edges. Other public areas feature iron gates (a staple of the city’s streets) that eschew Spanish colonial style in favor of abstraction and were laser-cut rather than forged. The geometric design that appears on the desks in the reception area and in the guest rooms was distilled from the heavy moldings found on doors throughout the city, including those of the Metropolitan Cathedral, constructed between 1573 and 1813. And a pre-Hispanic motif found its way into rooms via what Yabu calls “a naïve sketch of Aztec derivation,” which he and Pushelberg drew and a local artisan scraped into the plaster walls.

Yet Yabu Pushelberg also took the liberty of departing entirely from historic influences, in particular with a freestanding, seven-story, spiral rosewood staircase, the hotel’s architectural highlight. “It’s a sculptural piece meant to draw people in,” Yabu says. To promote its use, he and Pushelberg reduced the risers to just shy of four inches. “Because of the gentleness of your ascent, you don’t realize how effortless it is to drift up seven stories and be enveloped by the hotel,” he says. It’s an aptly intimate, inviting gesture for a residential-style retreat whose name, in English, means “the alcoves.”

Read more about this story on the June 2009 Reference page.

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