Further room for improvement

Image of Tyler Brûlé

Winter put in an early appearance on Saturday afternoon on the curvy road from Milan to St Moritz. After a snappy pit-stop at A Gi Emme in Como (one of Fast Lane’s favourite men’s stores) to top-up my autumn wardrobe (Zanone jumpers, Aspesi blazer, MCR shirts and Engineered Garments) and a little lunch at Visini off the town’s central square, the light drizzle just above Chiavenna turned into driving wet snow just after the Maloja Pass. It was almost a year ago that I parked myself in St Moritz for knee surgery; this time I was back for surgery of a different kind.

Several months ago, the men and women in charge of managing my apartment building in the village decided it was time to replace the ageing pipes and set about ripping through all the apartments to install a completely new system. While the old plumbing would have still passed for futuristic in the UK, it wasn’t good enough for my Swiss Hausmeisters and out it went.

Unfortunately it also meant that a portion of wall covered in 1960s green tiles had to go, and a solemn letter informed me that I was going to have to take some tough decisions about how to replace them. For a few weeks we attempted to solve the problem via digital photos but the choices offered from the contractors fell a little bit short and the suggestion of a set of pink, pearlescent tiles as a potential solution prompted me to call an emergency summit.

With the bathrooms out of commission, I checked into the Hauser hotel (a good example of a hotel that’s left well enough alone, was built to last and is a fine example of 1970s Swiss modernism – more on this shortly) and walked down to the apartment. The contractors were lobbying for me to gut the lot and start again but a quick inspection revealed that a demolition job wasn’t necessary – nor was the purchase of SFr80,000 (£52,000) worth of new fixtures that they were suggesting – much to the contractors’ regret. While the vintage 1960s bathroom will sadly need new tiles (I’m thinking Lufthansa yellow), I can keep all the original fittings.

As I walked back up the hill to the hotel, it struck me how the Swiss and Japanese are annoyingly (though not always) similar when it comes to their obsession with constant renovation. Aside from sharing stark red-and-white flags, the Swiss and Japanese love to tear down, remodel, renovate and improve buildings, rail lines, houses, roads and office buildings. Anyone who spends any time on the roads in Switzerland knows that all that road work is an elaborate scheme to keep the cantons’ unemployment figures low and Switzerland’s engineering and construction base in the black.

Japan suffers from a similar disease that sees perfectly sound structures ripped down to be replaced by remarkably similar buildings. While it makes everything sparkly and efficient (and keeps people in work) it can also make things ever so bland. In both Switzerland and Japan a lot of perfectly nice modernist interiors have ended up in the skip because it was renovation time, instead of being delicately preserved.

Back up at the Hauser, I shifted into hotelier mode and started documenting every square centimetre of my hotel room – fearing that Mr Hauser might be planning to rip out his classic interiors. If you recall my column from a few weeks ago, where I railed against cheaply made hotel rooms and how they added up to both a design and environmental catastrophe, Mr Hauser’s choice of materials and amenity-engineering couldn’t be more of a contrast. My fifth-floor room was the perfect mix of mid-century Swiss design, solid materials and local craftsmanship.

The door was thick, solid and closed with that reassuring thud that the Germans/Swiss/Austrians have mastered. The bathroom, while small, was built for purpose with local stone floors and gleaming white ceiling and walls. Its most ingenious design feature was a chunky wood hanging rail that was fixed just below waist height along the back of the bed and had the side tables and lighting hanging off it. The bed itself had a bottom sheet of jersey (a clever invention that seems unique to the Swiss market) and a perfectly starched duvet cover in a thick cotton weave. This being Switzerland, of course, the windows opened every which way and on the terrace the flower boxes were still in bloom and there was a handsome chair and table set-up (all steel and wood) for taking the morning sun or grabbing a cheeky smoke.

After dinner in the hotel restaurant, I returned to my room to digest a stack of Italian magazines I’d lugged from Milan and ended up waking up to the beeping of my BlackBerry at 6am. Too early for the hotel breakfast, I walked to the station and boarded the little mountain train for my connection in Chur and then the long journey to Hamburg.

Unfortunately, I ended up checking into a wonderfully grand hotel that had just been molested by a team of decorators and their arsenal of silly cushions and cheap veneers.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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