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La Palestra

Frank Gehry designs a holistic health and fitness center tucked below NYC's Plaza Hotel

by Kelly O'Reilly in Travel on 20 July 2012

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If one thinks of the body as a temple, the maintenance of a healthy lifestyle and strong physique becomes a matter of good design. With integrative health at the core of its mission, La Palestra wellness centers have pioneered a special hybrid of proper medical care and fitness in upscale gyms built to reflect the indigenous elements of their respective locations. The latest outpost lands in the subterranean base floor of the NYC's Plaza Hotel, tucked away behind the Todd English Food Hall and pink-splashed shrine to Eloise.

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Designed by Frank Gehry, La Palestra at the Plaza serves as a holistic haven of wellness, encompassing a main floor with a set of medical exam rooms and a small area with treadmills and activity mats open to hotel guests, and a members-only gym below, accessed by a signature—and stunning—Gehry staircase of bright white steel. What's perhaps most striking about the facility is that despite a definite opulent feel to the space, at the core it's still a functional, classic gym. Ropes hang from the ceiling at the center of the room, while the circle-shaped La Palestra logo on dark activity mats seem vaguely reminiscent of wrestling rings.

This is far from your high school gymnasium, however. La Palestra founder Pat Manocchia created his concept of fitness and health with the safety and security of the human body as his main priority. "Design-wise, we wanted to represent what we believe," he says. As a result, the same sense of respect is applied to each space they design. Below the Plaza, the medical suites reveal exposed subway tile, while the downstairs members' gym—once the storage room for the hotel's coal in the old days—is dotted with weathered tiled columns. "Culturally, from an exercise perspective, people are made to believe that the idea of beauty is that it's flawless," says Manocchia in pointing out an interesting parallel, "but it's the exact opposite. The flaws are what makes something beautiful."

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For the Plaza space, Gehry, Manocchia and the team were faced with certain architectural challenges. Variations in ceiling height were exploited to create alcoves of light that aid in one of Manocchia's central ideas, which is privacy. The placement of cardio equipment and room-dividing medicine ball and dumbbell racks is carefully considered to create what he believes is the right environment for optimal performance. "If you feel like you're being observed or judged, or if you feel like you're on top of someone else, you're just going to feel self-conscious," he says. "We keep the focus off aesthetic completely, so you're focused on what you're doing and not how you look." Particularly shy gym-goers would be pleased with the absence of a locker room, the junior-high vibe of which Manocchia feels is "one of the biggest barriers to exercise." Each individual bathroom (complete with shower) and dressing room has a wardrobe built into the door to serve double-duty as a space-saving solution and augment the same sense of privacy from the outset.

That said, La Palestra skips any dramatic, theatrical faux-flattering lighting and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Mirrors are intentionally situated away from the wall to prevent the feeling of being boxed in, while lights are designed to shine with very specific variants to reflect times of day and year. "Since we're underground, it was important you didn't feel like you're in a casino in Vegas," says Manocchia.

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Manocchia's thoughtful balance of practicality—his number one priority in the lighting scheme, he says, was installing bulbs that could be easily changed—and intuition seems well suited for exercise. In stocking the space with the highest-quality equipment, from top-of-the-line Woodway and Cybex treadmills to artisan-made vaulting boxes Manocchia seeks to support the most important design element in fitness—the human body. "When it comes to innovation in the field, it's not about reinventing the wheel or inventing something new, it's about how good design is re-engineered to support the human body," he says. "You have to understand how the body works so you can utilize equipment that fits into movement patterns and provides a broad toolbox. Dumbbells can be used for all sorts of things, and are you going to make something better? No. We're interested in the best-made version."

The breadth and depth of La Palestra's medical and training attention—which comes at corresponding prices around $8,800 annually—makes it the logical choice for those with health concerns or injuries, or anyone looking for a superior level of care integrated into their fitness routine. A training session comes accompanied with the message that techniques and routines should be learned, and are designed for members to take away and practice on their own.

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La Palestra is located in the Plaza Hotel, with gym access and a la carte training services (extra charge) available to hotel guests, and a full-service health and fitness center available for members only. For La Palestra's other NYC locations, and to learn more about the company, visit the website.

Images by Amy Barkow courtesy of La Palestra

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