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01 January 2000
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he cigarette disposal in the lobby has "Arts" carefully stencilled into the sand; the five doormen are suited and suave. Reshaping Barcelona's skyline is Hotel Arts, the Ritz-Carlton hotel company's first foray into Europe that shouts style from its 33rd floor in a riot of designer detail.

Six-foot sculptures and abstract canvasses dominate the public areas. Outside, a giant fish looms above the pool and gardens, the hatching technique used by American architect Frank Gehry providing filtered shade from the summer heat. "It echoes the avenue of trees in the Ramblas, an historic area in the city centre," explains Rosemary Trigg, director of marketing.

Although the hotel officially opened at the end of January, Trigg has been on site for the past four years. She's ridden the false starts and eventual closure of the hotel, following a temporary opening of 300 of its 455 rooms for the 1992 Olympics.

"The hotel was operating under a different name," Trigg stresses. It closed for more than a year for "financial restructuring of ownership". The owner is Hoviso, made up of US operation The Travelstead Group and controlling shareholder Sogo, the Japanese retailing giant, whose store nestles at the foot of the hotel.

"In a high wind you can see the supports moving," says Trigg. American architect Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's distinctive exterior design turns the hotel inside out with the supporting metal girders lacing the outside of the blue glass tower. The bedroom views get more than a glimpse of the reassuring supports, with thick arms obscuring the city vista.

Things work: the bedside digital control panel orchestrates several moods of lighting; shades hum shut to blank out the harsh Mediterranean glare; Bang & Olufsen's latest sci-fi sound system throbs from concealed speakers in the bedrooms and bathrooms. The built-in wardrobes click open to reveal concealed lighting and full-length mirrors. The bathroom is sumptuous in marble. White fluffy Frette towels are stacked with the Arts' logo in full show and lotions and potions wait to be ripped open and applied liberally.

"We've had a lot of positive comments from ladies about the lighting in the bathrooms," says general manager Luis Marco, who believes that hotels do not pay enough attention to lighting. Each room has a kindly-lit corner equipped with table, chair and mirror. Cost for a de luxe room is 27,000 PTA (about £132).

Since opening, the feedback from guests has been very positive, says Marco. "It's a different hotel, not a traditional hotel with traditional paintings. It's a hotel that creates a tremendous amount of interest and stirs a lot of comment - most of it positive."

However, he does confess: "If I told you everybody loved it I would not be telling you the truth. Some people say it is too modern, some say they just like it. What everybody says is that somebody has had the idea of making a different kind of hotel."

The Hotel Arts and neighbouring office block, the Mapfre building, have reinvented the skyline of Barcelona, according to Marco. Instead of postcards and T-shirts bearing the Columbus statue at the foot of the Ramblas, the twin towers, with Gehry's fish, swamp souvenir stalls. "It took a while for the Barcelona people to get used to it, but now people love it." Hard to believe in a city awash with all manner of modernist sculptures started a century ago by the weird and wonderful Gaudç, whose surrealist Sagrada Familia rises up over the rooftops like something from Tolkein's The Hobbit.

The real surprise is that people from Barcelona itself frequently weekend at Hotel Arts. "They arrive on Saturday, have a look round Sogo, go out for dinner in the Newport room and stay over."

Catalan mixes with Californian in the Newport restaurant, designed by New Yorker Adam Tihany. The menu was created jointly by executive chef Angel Aso and America's award-winning Gary Danko, executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco. Coriander crust tuna with wilted salad, it reads, roasted squab stuffed with foie gras and leeks polenta. Finish with a warm chocolate cake with espresso zabaglione. A three-course meal costs 5,000 PTA (about £25).

Unlike other seaside cities, Barcelona's monied classes head for the hills. The Avenida Diagonal, the main drag that cuts the city in two, becomes a social divide. "People with money live in the mountains and areas above the Diagonal," explains Trigg. "Those who live below have never quite made it in their eyes, so the hotel is a novelty for them."

Paco de Lucia is playing on the CD in Goyescas, one of the other four dining options, where traditional tapas are served on Catalan pottery - an artist's palette serves as Goyescas menu. Guests mix with local office workers downing copitas and Coronas in a smoky fug on Oscar Tusquets' tables and chairs. Miguel Rasero's mural provides the stylish backdrop with more than a passing reference to Japanese art.

"The Sogo connection means we do expect more Japanese customers, but the biggest slice of the cake is Spanish at around 60%," explains Marco, "followed by the rest of Europe with 30% and America with 8%." One of the hotel's two presidential suites is designed on a Japanese theme. Sliding shutters and simple lines dominate in the leather-furnished sitting room. These suites cost from 125,000 PTA (about £613).

New York-based interior designer Total Concept has now gone into liquidation, but it drew much inspiration from Spain's culture-rich tradition and craftsmanship. Paintings and sculptures of well-known artists, including Rafols-Casamada, Vilaplana, Rasero and Bennassar, cover vast tracts of the hotel's public space. A tentative enquiry on overall spend for the hotel is met with Marco barking: "Wrong question! Ritz-Carlton has the management contract and that's it. You can say a lot of money." The London office confirms it is not policy to divulge spend on its hotels.

Marco is more forthcoming with his customer profile - "the top corporate level of travelling person: chief executives, presidents, general managers and so on". There's an 80% business, 20% leisure split.

He dismisses the hotel's attraction to the more design-conscious customer. "I'm not sure the design of the hotel is a determining factor on whether someone would stay or not. I think what really attracts people is the location. There is no other hotel in the city with ocean views. Also we are close to the airport and the city centre. I think, particularly for the American traveller, the Ritz-Carlton service is a determining factor."

You only have to read the mission statement to get the essence of the Ritz-Carlton service: "We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen" reads their motto. Point number 12 of the corporate credo, which all members of staff must be able to recite, is: "Smile - we are on stage. Always maintain positive eye contact. Use words like ‘Good morning', ‘Certainly', ‘I'll be happy to' and ‘My pleasure'."

The staff were indeed confident, smartly dressed and all good-looking. Slick-haired managers swept through the lobby on their way to the morning pow-wow with an unerving air of efficiency and elegance - you almost wished for the tiniest of hiccups.

I found one, a small design flaw: the glass bathroom shelf extends too far over the sink. If you bend to wash your face, your head smashes spectacularly on its return journey to the mirror. o

lHotel Arts Barcelona, Carrer de la Marina, 19-21, 08005 Barcelona, Spain. Tel: (34 3) 221 1000.

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