High Desert Modern
"Travel is important in these times when most people live in cities," says del Sol, sitting in his sun-drenched Santiago office. "Remoteness and extremes are a way of connecting you with your home. It's like closing your eyes — removing all the distractions that normally stop you from seeing what matters.
"The idea is that people forget all their usual daily needs. If you create a place and take everything out of it, I believe it is able to bring the important things back to each person. A work of art is all about suggestion and provoking the senses. It's all about what is not there."
First Class in the Desert
The hotel is built of cypress wood, Bolivian slate, and plastered brick. One huge, light-filled reception area is on the first floor, its white walls festooned with vegetable-dyed Bolivian and Chilean hand-woven rugs. The space follows the curve of the building, with large panoramic windows looking out toward the nearby "Valley of the Moon," where the sun sets.
On the other side, narrow decks with ship-like railings look down on a starkly plain, half-moon courtyard, empty except for two dead trees. The bedrooms, with blank wooden doors, face into the courtyard giving a feeling of something between a cloister and stable yard. Not quite what you might expect in an ultra-modern luxury hotel.
What is striking about the interior of this building is that, despite an overall harmony, no lines are straight and nothing is fixed. All is designed to create a flow of light and air and changing shapes. Heavy ceiling-to-floor wooden doors can be wheeled around on runners to change the shape of the room and open parts of the reception to the outdoors in the hot summer months (December to February).
Stairways slant downward, and the slatted wood floors curve around the walls. From your en suite bathroom, you can look through a window into the bedroom and from there out, through a wall-to-wall, frieze-like window, to the barren outdoors and a volcanic horizon.
Beyond the Hotel
Surrounding the hotel lie three identical rectangular pools, their glassy green water collected from a well on the hotel's grounds.
The Explora Hotel achieved worldwide recognition — in both architectural and travel circles — shortly after it was built. But somewhat surprisingly, del Sol was awarded an Arup World Architecture Award in June,2001 for the best design in Latin America for his more recent work at the Puritama Springs, 22 miles (35 kilometers) from the hotel.
"Our advantage is that they see us as an exotic country, and we can present simple works, less conventional but more artistic because they are deeply part of their surroundings," said del Sol after he received the prize.
The hot springs, which Explora has bought the water rights to but which are run by the local Indian community, form a series of pools along the Puritama river. Four chunky concrete "cabins" are linked by a raised wooden footpath that follows the river, designed to leave the fauna untouched by those passing through.
The concrete cabins — for changing and showering and the essential sauna — are heavy and plain. They have small windows and thick, massive walls to keep out the punishing sun.
"It would have been more obvious to make wooden or stone huts here. But concrete is the new adobe," del Sol explains. It is the same, basic, poor man's construction material and it is the last thing most Westerners associate with luxury or elegance.
"I am trying to repeat the spirit of the traditional buildings in this area, not to repeat the material itself," he says. "Being modern is not to strive for novelty but to do things again. Tradition is not the table you sit at but the fact that you sit at a table every day."
None of the measurements of the hotel or at the springs are exact, they are all done by the eye of the local builders. As del Sol explains the spirit he is trying to recreate is one of "imprecision."
"I didn't want this place to be perfect. My thinking is: mistakes are beautiful. If you go somewhere with expectations, you won't find what you're looking for. To find what you do not expect is beautiful."
"If you are not surprised by this place, then I have failed," smiles del Sol with confidence.
Sophie Arie is a British journalist freelancing in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She has worked for international news agencies in London and Paris and edited a feature service for America Online.