I'm here in Poznan, Poland – a town I'll admit I never knew existed until I bought my plane ticket. Which is a bit pathetic of me, since "Poznan" more or less translates as "the town everyone knows." Whoops, I guess I missed that memo. It's a typically charming European town with a gorgeous city square, a 1,000-year plus history full of horrific wars and destruction, a Catholic bent and a surprising number of sex shops per city block.
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I'm here to visit Blow Up Hall 5050, one of the most unique hotels in Europe, attached to one of the "best shopping malls in the world" and a pet project of Grażyna Kulczyk, the richest woman in Poland.
Until 2006, Kulczyk was also married to the richest man in Poland, but while her ex-husband's business ventures are quite dry – oil, gas, coal power, mining and beer brewing – Grażyna sees herself much more as a passionate patron of the arts.
She calls her signature approach to business the 5050 model: everything should be 50 percent art, 50 percent business, each side supporting the other. In this spirit, she bought up the crumbling carcass of a gigantic old brewery in 2003 and began development on a mammoth 120,000 square-metre complex that houses two high-class shopping malls, a free art gallery where Kulczyk shows her personal collection of modern art, and the Blow Up Hall hotel.
The amazing brickwork and architecture of the old brewery were painstakingly preserved and worked into the ultra-modern design of the Stary Browar center and Kulczyk has dotted hundreds of artworks, big and small, throughout the complex to give it her unique 50/50 twist. It also doubles as a giant exhibition and event space, with frequent fashion shows and workshops filling out a very full annual calendar.
And so to the hotel. Right next to the buzzing retail hive of the shopping malls, Blow Up Hall 5050 has been created as an oasis of calm and high-end luxury for Poland's elite: rock stars and tycoons, presidents, cultural icons and of course, Gizmag contributors.
Walking in the front door, you're immediately struck by the grand entrance hall, complete with its four levels of brickwork and artworks ranging from the giant "Red Dwarf" at the back of the hall, through a number of artworks including a Spencer Tunick, to the spinning light installation above you.
There's no check-in desk, just a concierge who confirms your booking and hands you your room key – an iPhone 5. It's yours for the duration of your stay, it comes pre-fitted with a Polish sim card and you can use it throughout the city.
From there you step into the lobby - and into the key Blow Up Hall artwork itself, designed by digital artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and inspired by Blowup, a British art film of the 1960s. Most of the room is in dark shadow, barring a starkly lit path up the center leading to a series of large screens in which your own image is digitized and split up into a dizzying pixellated array.
From there it's up the elevator into a dark and disorienting hallway, at which point you start up the "room finder" app on your iPhone. There are no room numbers, just video screens outside each room. With the room finder app running, each room screen stares blankly back at you with a grainy and distorted image of yourself, until you reach your own room, which displays a welcome message. Then it's time to click the "open door" app and let yourself in.
The idea behind this odd check-in process is to fully immerse the guest in the artwork, with your own image becoming part of the walls themselves from the minute you step into the lobby.
Once you're in your room, the experience is a lot more normal, although each room has been designed independently and they vary hugely. All follow a similarly monochromatic theme, with occasional violet accents, and every room we saw looked fantastic.
There's quite a few surprises to be had. Some rooms conceal bathrooms and toilets behind what appear to be wardrobe doors. In others, clothes racks and minibars slide out from hidden panels behind the bed head.
One room, often used by honeymooners, puts the bath directly behind the bed.
Several are stark white from floor to ceiling, and we're told need to be re-painted every month or so to maintain their crisp perfection.
Another is almost jet-black and very tough to photograph. Reservations Manager Dominik Piechaczyk tells us people sometimes stay in this room for days on end, blocking out all traces of daylight and living with no concept of time.
There's a very quiet gourmet restaurant by the front door serving exquisitely presented food with flavors as inventive as its visuals, and a jaw-dropping cocktail and cigar lounge at the top of the stairs, built into the giant kiln where the Huggers company used to dry its grain for beer production. The kitchen and cocktail staff are amazing.
Not everything about the Blow Up Hall 5050 works perfectly. The light switches can be a total gamble, the very funky looking square toilets can make you feel rather like a round peg, and the stark carpet-free floors and thinnish walls let you hear a disturbing amount of what's going on in the hallway and adjacent rooms – some things need no translation.
But apart from these small niggles, the entire experience is a walk in the haute couture world of its billionaire owner, who is very personally involved with the entire Stary Browar development and runs the Blow Up Hall in a very hands-on fashion, from deciding on which artworks to place where, right down to selecting the box of truffles each guest receives as a welcome gift.
Perhaps the most welcome news is that Poland's most high-tech luxury hotel is remarkably affordable to international travelers, if not to the average Polish working man; in an effort to make this art-hotel accessible to more people, "Petite Boutique" rooms can be booked for 500 Polish Zloty (US$164) per night, and the top end "Suite Boutique" runs to just 1250 Zloty (US$410). Even the restaurant and cocktail bar's prices are a pleasant surprise. My wife and I had an exquisite four course dinner and several glasses of fantastic wine for 335 Zloty, or around US$110. A similar dinner in my home town of Melbourne, Australia, would set you back double that.
All in all, it's a pretty unique experience, and along with the rest of the Stary Browar center, Blow Up Hall 5050 makes for a great excuse to come visit Poland.
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