The newest venue at Davos—the Swiss ski resort where hundreds of heads of state and CEOs are spending the week to discuss business and the state of the global economy—is an architectural bauble with an unusually loud symbolism for the high-level conference: it's a giant fortress chalet in the shape of a golden egg.
Enveloped by 790 gold-colored undulating bands of steel and overlooking Lake Davos, the new Intercontinental Davos is an architectural stunner. "It's like a luxury space ship has landed in this tony town," John Newton of Conde Nast Traveler raved in November, a month ahead of its opening. Designed by the Munich-based firm Oikios and engineer Seele to reflect the feel of a chalet, the 216-room hotel features all the amenities found at Davos's other luxury hotels, but will be the first hotel in town with its own helipad.
It also comes surrounded by barbed wire, security cameras, and motion sensors: during the World Economic Forum, a spokesman told Bloomberg that the hotel will play host to 7 world leaders and dozens of CEOs. Rooms, which are fully booked and normally go for around $720 per night, are likely to command prices multiples higher during the WEF. In a video, a Bloomberg reporter asks the general manager how much the rooms are likely to be. He snaps back, "I can't tell you."
Davos hosts its elite guests in dozens of upscale hotels, places like the Flüela and the Steigenberger Belvedere. But the Intercontinental—built at a cost of $170 million over five years and now owned by the Swiss bank Crédit Suisse—is by far the most showy of the bunch. Its hundreds of panels create a "gleaming golden façade [that] changes according to the weather or point of view and creates a particularly organic vibrancy," one press release says. "Thanks to the brilliant, color-fast wet paint finish, the look will remain unchangingly distinguished, despite the extreme climatic conditions at the Alpine location." (The stark symbolism of the golden egg aside, the hotel has more worldly qualities too: its developer notes that it's "heated by 90% renewable energy, with a focus on environmental sustainability throughout.")
Trappings of wealth are of course to be expected at the World Economic Forum, where private jets and helicopters (and bodyguards and snipers) are de rigueur. The average price of a ticket, CNN estimated, is $40,000—and that's for non-VIP treatment (there's also the 5-person $500,000 side forums). The conference itself may be the biggest in the industry: in 2011, it had $185 million in annual revenue and spent nearly all of it, with its costs split between events and personnel.
But the opulence and security at this year's Davos meeting looks especially conspicuous in light of the world's economic woes, highlighted specifically in a new report by Oxfam that details just how unequally distributed is the world's wealth. The richest 1% across the globe share a combined wealth of $110 trillion, while the 85 richest people have as much combined wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion of the world's population, according to the new report.
The effects of economic inequality can also exacerbate other social problems, Oxfam has argued. Among them is gender inequality, an issue that the conference itself is also struggling with: despite a quota, the number of female delegates dropped from 17% in 2013 to 15% this year. (Quartz reports that this year's Davos will also host 196 academics, 288 government officials, 48 representatives from international organizations, and 2,101 people from the private sector; investment banks, manufacturing multinationals and management consultancies dominate. Also see the Economist's helpful breakdown of the attendees.)
The World Economic Forum's own recent Global Risks report identifies widening income disparities as one of the biggest threats to global economic and social stability. "Income inequality" is even one of the conference's themes this year, along with climate change, health, IT and youth employment. Meanwhile, the conference's major theme, "The Reshaping of the World: The Consequences for Society, Politics and Business," writes Forum chairman Klaus Fuchs, "speaks to the need for leaders to fundamentally reassess how the tectonic plates of the world are shifting against each other, so they can predict and respond more effectively to the earthquakes that we know are coming."
Writing in the FT last week, Martin Wolf harkened back to World War I—"it was as if a will to collective suicide seized the leaders of great nations"—to warn that the world's stability was increasingly threatened by a failing elite. "If the mass of the people view their economic elite as richly rewarded for mediocre performance and interested only in themselves, yet expecting rescue when things go badly, the bonds snap. We may be just at the beginning of this long-term decay."
Only includes countries with data in 1980 and later than 2008. Source: F. Alvaredo, A. B. Atkinson, T. Piketty and E. Saez, (2013) ‘The World Top Incomes Database’ / Oxfam
Oxfam has called on attendees to take a personal pledge to tackle inequality by refraining from using their wealth to seek political favors or dodging taxes and hiding assets, a cause that's lately been supported by officials in the UK, and by a new report on China this week from ICIJ, which continues to document the global use of offshore tax havens. Oxfam has also asked leaders to challenge their governments to use tax revenue to provide universal healthcare, education and social protection; to demand a living wage in all companies they control; and to challenge other members of the economic elite to join them in these pledges.
In the Guardian, Larry Elliot wrote that such pledges were unlikely, but had a suggestion for the WEF. "Schwab could make life more uncomfortable for his guests by naming and shaming the aggressive tax avoiders, declining to invite them to his annual talkfest. This, though, would leave many empty rooms in Davos."
During the WEF, Davos becomes a fortress town, protected by thousands of Swiss soldiers, rooftop snipers, and miles of barbed wire. The conference has long been a lightning rod for protest, highlighted in 2011 by a small explosion at the Posthotel Morosani. No one was hurt.
Security is tight this week at the Intercontinental, which also boasts a set of thirty-eight residences, linked to the main building by an underground passageway. The hotel's press materials say that a top floor bar and restaurant provide panoramic views, while a 1,200 square meter spa area embraces a "cocooning" theme. "Following the philosophy 'let life pulsate outside and be absolutely calm,' guests will not only be able to wind down but also enjoy the fantastic view over the mountains of Davos."
Like it or despise it, the egg shape isn't new to modern architecture; in fact, some of the world's leading architects have designed with eggs in mind. Consider Renzo Piano's department store in Cologne, Norman Foster's "Gherkin" in London, and the spaceship-like National Theater by Paul Andreu in Beijing. Santiago Calatrava recently broke ground on an egg-shaped building at the Flordia Polytechnica University. Zaha even designed a Fabergé egg. Other egg shaped buildings I've noticed: London's city hall, an unbuilt skyscraper called the "Cybertecture Egg" in Mumbai, and the National Archive in Astana, Kazakhstan's Vegas-like capital city. The Davos hotel is the first egg I've seen that's gold-colored.
Architecture has always been an expression of human order over chaos. In certain cases—in the Swiss Alps, in the midst of the world's most elite forum, in a luminous gilded design—it can also look like a bombastic expression of ego. The ironic combination of hubris and cosmopolitanism made me think of the critic Deyan Sudjic, the author of The Edifice Complex, and his simple formulation about what architecture is, in Davos and anywhere. "To design a building," he wrote in 2005, "or to have a building designed is to suggest: 'This is the world as I want it. This is the perfect room to run a state, a business empire, a city, a family.' It is the way to create a physical version of an idea, or an emotion. It is the way to construct reality as we wish it to be, rather than as it is."