Friday, May 28, 2010

Moscow on the Potomac

National Harbor is a grotesque abomination. It is Las Vegas without the tittilation. Disney World without the rides and amusing costumed characters. The local mall, without the bargains. Its buildings are boxes assembled from catalogs of available pre-fabricated pieces ("arch section, $35,000 or 2 for $66,000"), most notably the largest, the Gaylord National Hotel, which resembles nothing if not a late-Stalinist-era train station surrounded by squalid Moscow apartments. But with bling. It's envisioned as a mixed-use, self-contained neighbourhood, with luxury hotels, condominiums, shops, restaurants, and vast parking garages รก la Vegas. Condos, if you're interested, start at $199,000 for a studio.

Instead of empty butcher shops and one-style-fits-all clothing stores, this Soviet outpost boasts the big names in consumption. You know the names; open a copy of Vogue to any page. It's here.

The Gaylord is, unfortunately, where I'm holed up. Someone else is paying (and by that, I mean you; all of you). The room isn't bad, unless you consider the price. It's on the twelfth floor, so there's a view, looking east to a six-storey parking garage, a construction site, and three houses in a middle-class subdivision of Oxon Hill, Maryland. To the left is the vacant parcel of land bought for a Disney resort, which might get built if the economy returns to the frothy state it had before the Bush Recession. Inside the room, in addition to most of the usual amenities -- safe, fridge, iron (but no hair dryer) --  is a flat-screen HD TV: I got to watch my first high-definition soccer game, US v. Czech Republic -- or part of it, anyway: the signal went out in the 64th minute and didn't come back on until the next evening. Very impressive.

Consider the size of this place: the hotel is two blocks long, a block deep, and 18 storeys high (with at least two more floors below street level). There are only three banks of elevators. To get to the elevator from my room requires a walk approximately equal to a city block. To get to an elevator that goes to the lobby is two city blocks. That's irritating enough when I'm just going out for coffee or dinner, but imagine what I thought of it when hauling my luggage in from the parking garage (which is a block in the opposite direction).

The architects of this place gave, apparently, no serious thought to the comfort and convenience of its guests. Beyond the disposition of elevators, there is the scale of the building to consider. The spaces inside this building are vast, meant no doubt to impress. But rather than uplifting, they oppress. Ceilings are too high, hallways are too wide, too long, and too monotonously uniform. If they varied some in wall colours, that would at least give one a sense of where in the building one was; instead there is only a stretch of red carpet and tan wall disappearing in the distance, no matter which direction one looks.

The atrium provides the one limited exception to the oppression. With its high arched glass roof -- the one that makes it look like a train station -- the atrium is light and open. Still ugly, in a sort of techno style, but light, and open. The western wall is glass as well, giving a view of the Potomac, the Woodrow Wilson bridge, and Alexandria. At most times of day that view is unexceptional, but at sunset, if the sky cooperates, the view is beautiful, as it was last evening. Sorry, didn't have my camera handy. Maybe there'll be another tonight and I'll be ready. (Nope, there was rain instead.)

But it's the prices of things here that creep me out the most. It's one thing to pay an exorbitant discounted rate for a nice room high up in a luxury hotel, especially since, again, y'all are picking up the tab for that; it's another to be asked to pay $7 for "just toast and coffee" at one of the more casual dining areas in the atrium. (I avoided eating there so far, but absolutely nothing else in this entire development is open at this hour, and I will either have to bite the bullet and eat in the hotel, or get the car out of the $19/day garage (thanks for that, too, y'all) and go somewhere away from National Harbor.

Consider the room-service menu: Say I wanted a bowl of oatmeal. That's $9, an exorbitant price. But, Hey, you say, they're delivering it to your room; you're paying for the convenience. No, you're paying $9 for the oatmeal. The convenience is extra: a 21% service charge ($1.62) plus a $3 delivery charge. That's the cost of convenience. (Plus tax, but that's not the hotel's fault, it's the fault of voters with weak morals.) Staying here is like living at the airport. In the red-carpet lounge, but still at the airport.

Oh, I know: bitch, bitch, bitch. But it's just sooooo over-the-top, the size and the cost of this place. It makes me uncomfortable, and unhappy. If I am to throw money away of frippery, I want it to be on my own terms and of my own choosing, like when I elect to go to a more expensive restaurant.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your comments are welcome, even the mean ones.