If you want to convince travelers a hotel is worth a look in, don’t use the l-word. Local inspiration is as expected as a bed. So, what is new(s)? Hotels like W Panama. Instead of just mirroring the cities around them, they’re using the sights, smells, sounds and signature elements that shape urban life in their environs and mixing in fresh influences to create interior neighborhoods with their own culture and vibe. Forget local; think locale.
Okay, so W’s first hotel in Central America may be offering the city’s unofficial new borough on prime vertical real estate on the 12th to 23rd of the Evolution Towers’ 56 floors instead of a ground-level plot. But, its real-deal mix of old and new, business district chic and shipping industry grit, signature dining and authentic street fare (served from a stylized version of a food truck) gives it a lived-in and livable sense of community.
New York-based interior design firm Studio Gaia started building the foundation for a municipal microcosm by considering how people explore and experience the postcard moments and much beloved hole-in-the-wall backstreet eateries in the places they want to be part of. That changed up the entire flow of the public areas in this 203-room luxury lifestyle hotel. While its contemporary competitors (and there are plenty of them; the hotel inventory has grown more than tenfold in recent years) roll out lots of open-plan spaces, W Panama narrows the focus with a walk pattern much closer to a sidewalk with focal points on either side and corners where guests and locals can kick back and relax.
Although the hotel has an enviable CBD location and an address on Calle 50 just off Panama City’s ultra-luxe Zona Rosa, Studio Gaia founder and principal Ilan Waisbrod and his team deliberately chose to craft an environment that puts guests face-to-face with all the crosscurrents of this 519-year-old destination—not just a carefully edited, ivory tower retreat for the super-rich.
In terms of delivering an authentic feeling of la vida loca-l, the need to reference the Panama Canal was clearly the elephant in the creative room. The design team turned this have-to-have into a want-to-have slice of the city by using five custom-made versions of standard shipping containers found along the canal as anchor points for the public area narrative. Long and narrow, with corrugated sides, these industrial elements take over the role of sidewalk cafes as places to meet and mingle in the Living Room (W’s lobby concept), pool deck WET bar and Cargo, a bar sheltering within one of the boxes. Like most urban gathering spots, they not only give people a place to talk; they also give them something to talk about—in this case original graffiti painted on the containers by Diablos Rojos-inspired artist, Oscar Melgar, who worked onsite “for months,” according to Waisbrod, to express his vision of the building of the canal. In Waisbrod’s view, these come-together elements also help eliminate “the dark, empty, lonely spaces” that make business travelers feel even more isolated when they’re on unfamiliar turf.
“For us, the design is always about connection to the local culture and people,” says Waisbrod. “That’s essential to the narrative. What makes it trite is being too literal. Designers can’t just recreate aesthetic or cultural references verbatim. They have to apply a strong twist in order to encourage guests’ imagination and curiosity. For example, at first glance, people may not see that the mural on each of the shipping containers tells part of the story of how the canal was built. That’s good. We aim to create that look-and-look-again feeling that invites guests to linger and get invested in their surroundings.”
Taking a cue from the street-level neighborhoods below, W Panama layers in influences that provide a window to the city’s past and a glimpse of its future. A gleaming, reflective W sculpture greets guests as they enter—much like the marked entrance to any community. Rows of Panama hats mounted on a cool green wall signal the transition into the reception area—a compelling reminder that it was hard-working people, not crowned heads, who built this city. An oversized, white Rococo-inspired reception desk brings the canal’s French connection front and center, while bold panels (made from wallpaper and fabric) that seem to float on the wall above it celebrate handmade mola fabrics and patterns from the Guna and Embera indigenous communities.
But Panama City isn’t just about its past. Waisbrod and his team made modern aspects of urban life the inspiration for the hotel’s guestrooms and suites. Their crisp white palette is punctuated strategically with small injections of eye-catching patterns (not only on the rugs, pillows and upholstery fabric but also on an op art-meets-geometric black-and-white slashed design for the shower door). As expected, the views from this soaring structure are the stars. The Instagrammable yellow entry door, an interpretation of similarly-toned doors used on shipping containers, serves as an insider’s wink at continuity.
“The design goal isn’t to be fashionable or trend-setting,” says Waisbrod. “By really studying the building blocks of local culture as expressed in color, pattern and materials, designers can create concepts that defy the test of time.”
Evolution Tower Corp.
Studio Gaia: Ilan Waisbrod, founder and principal designer; Junho Choi, senior designer; Gada Noueihed, project manager; Minkyung Kang, designer; Maral Sarisozen, FF&E specification
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