"Don't touch that," i thought to myself as I watched a toddler stumble across the park of the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich, Switzerland. His father called his name; the boy laughed and kept going, wobbling at an ever-faster pace. He was headed for a shiny, two-meter, red-and-green No. 6. The $550,000 sculpture, on display in the hotel's front garden, was created by pop artist Robert Indiana. His 1 Through 0 series of brightly colored aluminum numerals represent each stage in a man's life. Six is wisdom. The toddler tagged it as if it were home base.
Baur au Lac is one of a handful of hotels around the world that has successfully transformed its grounds into a hands-on outdoor gallery space. "When someone wants to touch, we don't say no," says Gigi Kracht, the wife of the sixth-generation hotel owner. "We welcome it." They stage a biannual art-in-the-park exhibition. For this year's show—co-hosted with the nearby Galerie Gmurzynska—Kracht handpicked 12 sculptures by some of the world's most arresting contemporary artists, including the gas-fueled columns of Yves Klein's Fire Wall, which hasn't been lit since 1961.
On display for the next two months, the garden panorama—timed to coincide with the opening of Art Basel—features clever juxtapositions of art with nature. Joseph Csaky's Adam et Eve hide scared behind a giant sequoia tree. Fernando Botero's Woman on a Horse walks along the path to Lake Zurich. And in the center of the park stands Alexander Calder's The Tall One, a towering four-meter monument made of sheet metal and bolts whose power is enhanced by the open space around it. Kracht borrowed the sculpture from Calder's grandson. "I met with him in New York City and was only supposed to stay 20 minutes," she recalls. "I left after two hours." The property draws artists and art lovers intrigued by the displays, but Baur au Lac's casually elegant interior is distinguished too; it's the site where in 1892 Alfred Nobel thought up the idea of awarding a prize for peace activists (bauraulac.ch).
The husband-and-wife owners of Broomhill Art Hotel in Devon, England, have designed a 10-acre sculpture forest with tongue-in-cheek humor that evokes Alice in Wonderland: nothing is quite as it first appears. A flat green lawn surrounded by sculptures turns out to be a pond with a solid cover of duckweed, surrounded by tall ceramic trees. Hooded blue druids circle a secluded bench where two lovers huddle. There are more than 300 sculptures by about 60 artists, with new works erected every year. My favorite was Greta Berlin's seven-meter red, patent-leather stiletto, which welcomes guests into the driveway of the intimate six-room bed-and-breakfast (broomhillart.co.uk).
The owner of the Hotel of Modern Art in China claims a grander purpose: to raise consciousness. In 1996 real-estate tycoon Ryah Chang Tsao decided that only art was truly eternal, and set out to find a place to showcase it. He purchased 600 hectares of forest in Guilin province and designated the first 60 for a spa resort surrounded by 200 commissioned sculptures (guilinhoma.com). All the works are made of natural materials—marble, bronze, wood—to last at least 500 years. And they are designed to provoke and inspire; Strange Loops, by Eberhard Eckerle, symbolizes thoughts jumping from one subject to the next. In Flying on the Water, the sail of a granite boat dreams of becoming a butterfly. But Tsao has a sense of humor too; tired of explaining why he was spending $80 million on a collection of contemporary art in the middle of nowhere, he decided to name the hotel park Yuzi Paradise, which he translates as "Call me stupid."