Even Austin's airport food—local famed BBQ and Tex-Mex rather than soggy tuna sandwiches—touts the city's pro-small business attitude. So when the chain known for hipping up the mid-range hotel experience came to town, they had to step up their game to make it in a place known as much for its nocturnal winged residents (there's even a bat hotline) as for its indie music scene.
The new W Hotel Austin's design features cater to the cultural phenomenon that put the city on the map with a collection of over 8,000 vinyl records and an extensive four-room bar. Eschewing an ordinary hotel lobby, guests enter in the Living Room, which doles out the hits over a vintage McIntosh sound system. Separate spaces (the Tequila Bar, Records Room, Secret Bar and Screen Porch) reflect the vibrant surrounding streets.
Beyond the mark it makes for urban nightlife, the W Austin has also become a new landmark in city's skyline. Rising above the generally even horizon line, the primarily glass tower stands just above the heavy, low-lying City Hall building in contrast to nearby architecture.
"The last thing Austin needs is another beige building," says Heather Plimmer, half of the local team behind the hotel's design. Plimmer, along with architect Arthur Andersson, are responsible for the design of five components of the block—on the aptly named Willie Nelson Boulevard—a development which in addition to the hotel includes office and retail space, condos and some of the best acoustics the city has to offer at Austin City Limits.
The color doesn't just define the W visually but elegantly takes the effects of harsh Texas weather into consideration, particularly evident in the way the designers dealt with the intensity of the sun. Anything bright or white can be blinding and the average brown building blends in with the surrounding landscape. "I think that came from a tradition of the Spanish adobe, and all that kind of stuff," says Andersson. "It's really bizarre to try and translate that into 500-ft tall structures." Opting instead for a dark gray palette that takes on the color of the sky, the LEED-certified structure also reflects the clouds at night.
Andersson also used a Swiss Pearl material to serve as a ventilated façade over the exterior of the building. An air space runs through the entire outer exterior, creating shadows to help cool the building while large windows catch the breezes coming over from Lady Bird Lake.
Unlike some other conspicuous glass buildings downtown, the W appears both graceful and understated. "I think it has its own kind of presence," says Andersson. "It's like this sort of little, calm poem." The Zen balance shows up in the hotel's wabi-sabi style interiors too, with exposed concrete support beams.
Overall the feeling of staying at the hotel is not unlike a sense of being at home, as the designers took cues from typical residential decor. But the cozy feeling most clearly comes through in the breaking up of space in the hotel's rooms, which creates an entry moment. Creating the illusion of a larger space, a burlap-covered tower separates the sleeping chamber from the rest of the hotel room. "What happens when you walk into a typical hotel room," says Andersson, "you look at some crappy piece of furniture, and a side of a TV. We flipped it." The burlap-covered tower is reminiscent of a Barnett Newman canvas; the minimalist painter's work was a major source of inspiration for the designers.
Austin's strong musical story plays a role too, making a literal nod with original signed Scott Newton photos in each room, as well as vanity mirrors encircled with guitar strap patterns. "We grabbed onto kind of the Bohemian lifestyle, of the laid back rock and roll feel," says Plimmer. "We really wanted it to be an oasis. The colors in there are really calm, with the exception of the red pop of the chaise."
This summer one more obvious addition to the lyrical architecture—a statue of the man himself, Willie Nelson, at the entrance to the neighboring Austin City Limits, will make its debut, keeping Austin weird in more ways than one. Make reservations online with prices varying depending on rooms and availability but rack rates starting around $300 per night.