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Hotel Bel Air: The Swans Stay in the Picture

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If Robert Evans, the infamous Hollywood producer, were to have opined on the Sultan of Brunei's plans for a two year, $100 million renovation of the Hotel Bel Air, I imagine that his first demand would be that "the swans stay in the picture." He also would have likely made a pitch for keeping the hotel's signature pink exterior and preserving the glamorous oval pool ensconced by towering royal palms made famous by many-a-starlet. And while I'm not certain Mr. Evans is a romantic, I'm guessing that he would have blanched at the thought of anyone fiddling with the covered footbridge that serves as the main entrance to the hotel.

November 2011. While Evans' hypothetical demands were most certainly met, swans once again gliding about, I'm not entirely sure that he would be pleased with the final cut. And I'm not sure that I am either.

The money shows and so does the effort. But from the inside out, certain elements of the renovation feel more like the result of groupthink than of an integrated point of view on what the final result should be.

Perhaps part of the reason for this result is that two critically acclaimed New York based design studios, Champalimaud and the Rockwell Group, were involved. Alexandra Champalimaud was tapped for guest rooms, reception, lobby, and the newly added La Prairie spa, while the Rockwell Group reconceived the restaurant and bar.

To be sure, Champalimaud's sophisticated design evokes a glamorous lifestyle. Inspired by eclectic themes of past Los Angeles eras of the 1930's, 40's, and 50's, she was on the right track. In certain cases however, the self-described "juxtapositions between past and present" feel woefully slick and oddly contemporary for such a classic icon. Further, while the guest quarters are ultra luxurious, certain Asian inspired design choices, explained on Champalimaud's website as "international flair," fail to authenticate the location, leaving guests feeling a little like Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation.

Beyond the 103 guest rooms and decadent suites, the Wolfgang Puck operated restaurant, designed by the Rockwell Group, is cause for considerable pause. Gone is that intimate, old-world alfresco dining experience in the name of a more contemporary approach, ostensibly to appeal to a younger clientele. Conspicuously more eye popping, the sum of its parts is noticeably more commercial than the beloved dining terrace it replaced. While Rockwell is incontrovertibly a star design talent, the aesthetic prominence of the restaurant versus the rest of the property reads a trifle overbearing.

Curiously, the bar, also re-designed by Rockwell, succeeds as a contemporary juxtaposition as this section of the hotel manages to feel appropriately fresh and sexy without challenging the classic integrity of the overall property. Adjacent to the bar however, the various seating areas that make up the bar lounge draw you in but fail to entice for longer than a stiff drink as the room's orientation leaves guests entirely too exposed. While perhaps appropriate for a Phillipe Starck designed hotel from the nineties, the "lounge as stage" strategy comes off like a gorgeous middle-aged woman in her daughter's clothing. For a hotel that prides itself as a safe haven for Hollywood and other public figures, the bar lounge, while striking to witness, misses an opportunity to coddle its guests with cozy seating options and dark nooks to steal away and go unnoticed, a true luxury.

The creative direction of the interior design choices, while unquestionably luxurious, ironically has the net effect of commoditizing the hotel -- making it indistinguishable from other newer five star hotels from around the globe, rather than embracing the opportunity to evolve the unique narrative of the Bel Air. During a time when society is obsessed with the notion of all things "local" and forever striving for the feeling of "authenticity" as a benchmark for perfection, the renovated hotel feels considerably more stylish yet less aligned with this greater ideal than its former self.

Hotel Bel Air still manages to stand out, its legacy secure, but more perhaps because we have missed her so than because of her makeover. The Sultan of Brunei may rest assured that his very special property will continue to attract both Hollywood power players and the international cognoscenti who once before and will happily again be romanticized by the good life accessed by footbridge beyond the walls of pink. Even if a swan has a few black feathers, it's still majestic, graceful, and an awe-inspiring thing of beauty.