Two Luxury Retreats in Uruguay Put a New Spin on the Art Hotel Concept

Playa Vik
(Courtesy Vik Retreats / Photo © Cristobal Palma)

Uruguay’s contemporary art scene, like the country itself, isn’t exactly huge. This makes the often-overlooked Latin American nation, located between Argentina and Brazil like the hinge on a giant arm, the sort of place where a couple of motivated collectors can really make an impact.

Alex and Carrie Vik have done just that. An international power couple (he’s Swedish, she’s American) with houses in New York, Greenwich, and southern France, the Viks had been visiting and buying art in Uruguay for years. And when they opened two hotels there recently, Estancia Vik and Playa Vik, the goal wasn’t simply to provide a place to stay — it was to offer a glimpse of the very satisfying life they lead there.

Judging from the hotels, that life is a gorgeous one filled with art. Both properties have earned accolades in all the right travel publications. Estancia, which opened in 2009 and sits at the end of a long, winding driveway overlooking farmland populated with cows and ostrich, is the epitome of haute ranch living. A river literally runs through it, and it has its own polo field.

Playa, designed by noted Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott, has made waves for its innovative design since opening in 2010. It’s five miles away from Estancia, worlds away aesthetically, and occupies arguably the choicest beach spot in the exclusive little resort town of Jose Ignacio, just outside hard-partying Punta del Este.

Erected into a rolling and perfectly manicured lawn and opening onto the sea, the sculptural central building at Playa Vik is a true showstopper. The way in is through a one-ton bronze door, made by Uruguayan sculptor Pablo Atchugarry in oxidized blue and with his signature accordion pleats. Above the living room, three suites overlook the cantilevered pool through the building’s inclined glass façade. The pool floor is dotted with tiny lights, and one of the great joys during the two nights I spent there last spring was watching them play beautifully against the stars before bed.

Six casas, containing two or three bedrooms each, half-encircle the main building, forming a courtyard in between that boasts an Anselm Kiefer sculpture. The interior design of these rooms and those inside the main building is uncluttered and eclectic. There are Asian-influenced quarters with rice-paper sliding doors and gigantic tubs. There’s a room with cabin bunks, derived from traditional Norwegian farmhouses. And there’s the Fuerteventura suite, the room I stayed in, decorated with ocean photographs by Montserrat Soto and kitted out with riveted-aluminum bathroom elements inspired, Alex revealed during our tour, by Marc Newson’s Lockheed Lounge.

Alex and Carrie like to explain that Playa began as their own house, but that their plans for it kept expanding until the only way they could justify moving forward with the project was to share it. And, one assumes, try to turn a profit — they’re entrepreneurs, after all.

More than their other projects, though, this one is an extension of their personal lives. The idea of the art hotel isn’t all that new anymore, and the Viks are right to think the concept is ready to evolve a bit. Alex told me he’d found limited inspiration in the Colombe d’Or, the mid-century artist hangout in southern France where customers sometimes paid their bills with works that still decorate the walls today, and Madrid’s much newer Puerta America hotel, where he once stayed in a suite designed by Zaha Hadid. “We’d seen different hotels that had done art, but I don’t think we were wowed by them,” he says.

At Playa in particular, you get the feeling you’re in a collector’s dream house. “We buy because we love something, because it inspires us, not because we’re thinking about what our guests are going to like,” Carrie says. They have Uruguayan art in their other houses, too, and not all the pieces in the hotels were bought with the hotel mind.

Perhaps this fluid approach doesn’t always pay off: a mural in the Caras suite, populated with many faces of model Devon Aoki and one of Alex, seems to be more about patron-pleasing than enriching a room you’d want to sleep in. Much more often, however, the results are wonderful, the compromises invisible or even a value-add. Even if, for example, Carlos Musso now sometimes works in a hotel-friendly style – “Vikismo,” he calls it — the pieces that result are hardly anodyne. What’s more, some of the less hospitable art has found serious favor among guests. Take the Trujillo suite at Estancia Vik, which the owners are the first to admit isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Several years ago, a young Boston couple was so taken with the artist’s intimate nudes that they bought them all, set him up with a three-month studio stint in the States, and arranged a gallery show for him in New York. (Similarly, at least one artwork in fashion designer Jason Wu’s New York office is a direct result of his stay at Estancia.)

The hotels are made for art, Alex emphasizes, and not vice versa. “In our own houses, we had the house and put the art in it. Here, the difference is the art is part of the construction.” Without necessarily planning to, the Viks have become, if not the most influential collectors in Uruguay, at least the ones with the most tangible impact on the country’s contemporary-art practitioners. “Many of them, you see their prices have gone up significantly since our project,” Carrie points out. “It’s fun to see them being more confident and inspired, their careers moving to another level.”

What’s more, their pet project may end up as a model for others. “We’ve had visitors come down to stay, and we find out that they’re decorators or developers who’ve come to scout out what we’ve been doing,” Alex says. He and his wife seem as though they’ve got nothing to hide, and with a new art-themed program this winter are opening up their world like never before: the six-day itinerary includes an asado, or traditional barbecue, artist-led tours of both hotels, and a day trip to Atchugarry’s museum and rambling sculpture garden.

Next up is Chile, where the Viks have a winery and hotel in the works. They’re taking a more active role in the architecture this time, and learning the ins and outs of a completely different art scene. “Uruguay is more figurative, more textural — it’s more about the pure fine arts. Chile, I think, is closer to what international contemporary art is: more conceptual, which can slide over into decorative and crafty,” Alex says.

The Chile project is terra nova, the Viks point out. After all, they never really wintered or collected there. In Uruguay, Carrie noted, “we had a five or ten-year head start.”

Click on the slide show to see images of Estancia Vik and Playa Vik.