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Published in Intersection magazine 2006

Notes on the Jaguar XKR as against the Marques De Riscal hotel

While the new XKR, Jaguar’s XK model “plus 30 percent”, symbolises the pure containment of dynamic energy, Frank O. Gehry’s Marques De Riscal hotel, deep in the undulations of Rioja near Bilboa, is the opposite: a building spilling out of itself in an jumble of architectural explosions frozen in time. Almost in scornful defiance of the architectural dementia above, the cigar-tube car lies placidly on the driveway beneath the hotel’s immense jutting girders, obtruding rectangles and metalwork corrugations, like ribbons of titanium tagliatelle. To the untrained eye – the eye that matters most, that is - the hotel resembles the contents of Salvador Dali’s waste-paper bin. If only the Holiday Inns of this world had a scintilla of its eccentricity.

In this juxtaposition, the hotel and the car confirm to their archetypes: the Spanish hotel is lunacy for the sake of architectural lunacy, and the British car is outwardly reserved but inwardly piratical, a combination of cautious modernity and swashbuckling classicism whose personality only becomes fully realized above 100mph. In fact the XKR’s supercharged V8 can hardly wait to achieve its capped upper limit of 155mph. The car is as fast as the hotel is crazy.

But the hotel is still a hotel, purposed towards accommodating humans in transit, and the XKR remains a car, designed to express humans from A to B – or in this case from the Vittoria-Gastiez airport along 400km of roads in the rugged Riojan interior to the hotel – in maximum speed, style and comfort. Which performs best - the static hotel or the dynamic car?

My benchmark for a hotel’s usability is the extent to which it encourages me away from wanting to leave the room, or even the hotel itself, and how it salves the alienation and claustrophobia of being distant from home. It was extremely easy to laze around in the isometric room number 8, opening and closing the automated grape-red curtains, poking around the wetroom and reading a Geoff Dyer book on the banquettes beneath the canted windows. I looked out at the windows at the vineyards framed by the overhanging tagliatelle strips, and how their folds also provided privacy, meaning I could do any of the above without any clothes on. The weather was boiling. I watched a stage of the Vuelta à Espana on the flatscreen and dozed.

“Hotel time” usually drags; in the Marques De Riscal time passed at warp-speed. I shuffled in a dressing gown toward the spa, and became distracted by the internet café. I disrobed into the huge slate-lined pool, intending to float and lounge, and became distracted by the jacuzzi jets. I decided to swim a couple of lengths, got distracted, and swam 20. When I sloped back to number 8, I became meserized by the Caudalie grooming products on sale in the spa and talked to a beautician in Spanglish for ten minutes. Distraction is the ultimate form of bliss - distraction from yourself in particular.

The appeal of the XKR, conversely, lies in the driver’s total engagement in the act of driving. The innovations Jaguar have applied to transform the XKR into a truly great, refined and ferocious car – 420bhp, 0-60 in 4.9 seconds, and lighter, stiffer aluminium body construction - are secondary to the aesthetic experience it enables: of boating gently up mountainous hairpins, attacking long stretches of road beneath a phalanx of vast striding wind turbines and then thrusting away into the vanishing point down the other side.

A common gripe levelled at very fast production cars,  that driving becomes too soft and disembodied an experience, applies equally to the XKR. Beyond, say, 150 kmh on a straight road, driving becomes more of an considered, intellectual exercise than a raw physical one, which is appropriate because the speed becomes academic, especially given that the Spanish national <autovia> limit is 120kmh.

But if the succeeds anywhere, beyond being a monstrously sexy, full-blooded motor whose Donald Sinden exhaust note will turn heads from Bilbao to Sebastopol, the XKR does so because it achieves the featherweight balance between a dynamic, driver-feel ride and a static design-oriented experience with as many pleasing distractions as any futurist hotel.

The eye is immediately drawn to the louvred vents on the bonnet, which are captioned with ‘supercharger’, in case onlookers were in any doubt. I sank into the fawn leather seat with the feeling of submitting – thrillingly ambiguous, like getting into a dentist’s chair upholstered by Dunhill. The red ignition button is depressed, the car alertly pings into life and you smooth off down the road. The gear paddles behind the steering wheels felts disappointly plastic and the seat adjustments controls set in the door panels aren't a patch brushed-steel automated curtain buttons in room No. 8. The cosmetic rear seating just big enough for a towel and a pair of swimming trunks, but perhaps that’s the point. The XKR is meant to be driven, not dozed in.

Lance Armstrong was once asked what he thought about as he rode for 3,000km in the Tour De France. ‘I think about cycling,’ he said. Across a the corrugated kilometres between Vittoria-Gasteiz and Marques De Riscal I thought more about the driving then the car. Come lights-out in room No.8, all I could think about was the emptiness of my mind.

Do: inspect the signature Jaguar ‘shoulder’ in the wing mirror
Do: beg, borrow or steal £73,495 for the convertible
Do: pump the accelerator to the point of supercharge as often as possible
Don’t: consider any other colour than red
Don’t: bother if you are eco-inclined. The XKR can do as little as 12mpg
Don’t: forget to take a good book to read

© Kevin Braddock, 2006


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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