Just the spot

Designing outstanding hotels for difficult to develop locations pays off, writes Ray Philpott­­

Two impressive, high-end hotels have been created in interesting but rather challenging sites in the heart of London.

On the South Bank and boasting breathtaking views over the River Thames, the 359-room, transatlantic travel-themed Mondrian London hotel is about to launch following a three-year redevelopment of a complicated 1970s office block – Sea Containers House.

In the West End, the Ham Yard Hotel development has seen a luxurious boutique hotel with a retro-warehouse exterior and a new public space breathe new life into to a long-neglected and disconnected part of the capital’s vibrant Soho area.

Both use creative architecture and design to realise the full potential of two very different places that, despite being situated in desirable areas, were not the easiest places to develop.

Hotel on the Thames
When Morgans Hotel Group officially opens the Mondrian London next month, guests will enjoy spectacular views over the Thames and comfortable interiors with a transatlantic liner designed by Design Research Studio under the creative direction of Tom Dixon.

The hotel’s premier rooms are on levels three, four and five of the river-facing ‘north block’ with other rooms in the ‘south block’ behind it. The remaining space in the north block is for Ogilvy offices, who appointed BDG Architecture + Design as interior architect for the space.

But the renovation and conversion inside was anything but straightforward for the team at EPR Architects that designed the interior architecture. Associate Director Tom Hupe explains why. “Ironically, it was originally designed as a hotel and at first everybody thought this would make the job easier – but that wasn’t the reality.

“Back in the ‘70s the developers progressed as far as constructing the hotel shell but a downturn in market confidence in the London hotel industry led to a re-evaluation of the scheme and the building was redesigned as an office. Warren trusses were installed on the roof, from which the concrete floor slabs were suspended, enabling the hotel internal walls to be cut back to free up office floor space. This still left significant remnants of the original hotel room shell in place.”

Working closely with the Design Research Studio interior designers and main contractor Byrne Group, EPR’s role was to redesign and modify existing internal architecture so that the complex interior designs would work and ensure services could get through.

Hupe says: “Essentially, we had to take their concept to a detailed design level to shape the walls and other structural elements so the design could be realised. Such a complex and convoluted structure is hard to work in, with hanging Macalloy bars and short walls and very many variations. As the building was stripped out more issues and challenges were revealed that had to be overcome.

“In a new hotel you might have up to 10 room types but here, every room is of a different width and every bulkhead in each room is a different size. Therefore our design has had to accommodate those variations.”

Even the relatively uniform bathrooms, with exterior timber panelling manufactured in Ireland, had to be custom-fitted on-site by skilled carpenters to accommodate individual variations in each room.

Major structural works had to be put in to enable structural fin walls to be taken out to create a large open space for the river-view balcony suites overlooking the river. Elsewhere, the columns at every party wall have been ‘lost’ within the design and wall systems.

However, huge original columns on the ground floor had to remain and have been covered by a bespoke cladding system or metal and copper finishes to designs drawn by EPR to suit each situation.

“Everyone recognised that good processes and communications were essential right from the start. So, we, Tom Dixon and Byrne worked closely together with regular progress meetings throughout – it’s been a good relationship,” says Hupe.

With the Thames Path running along the front of the hotel, its entrance at the rear of the north block. The lobby features a ‘ship’s hull’ design – an enormous, sweeping three-dimensional sculpture clad in copper that forms the reception desk in the double-height lobby before sweeping into the restaurant overlooking the Thames.

“Incorporating this important feature into the space was a particular challenge,” says Hupe. “We had to move existing columns, rework existing walls and marry the new floor levels with the Thames Path.”

The building has an attractive glass and steel roof-top bar, one of the few additions to the exterior, and features an agua bathhouse and spa and 56-seat screening room in the basement as well as 5,500 sq ft of meeting rooms and conference facilities.

Hupe says: “For us, the opportunity to take this building back to its original function – to realise the hotel that never was – has been interesting and rewarding.”

So very Soho
Back in central London, Ham Yard had been an abandoned, run-down three-quarter acre site close to Piccadilly Circus, with limited public access.

Sitting firmly in Westminster’s Soho conservation area, it was quite literally Soho’s last WW2 bombsight, although it remained home to a nightclub for many years and was partly covered by a car park. However, various plans to develop the site since the ‘70s had floundered due to complications around land ownership and occupancy, which hampered site consolidation and larger scale development in Soho generally.

Then, in 2009, forward-looking Firmdale Hotels, a business that operates a number of high-end boutique hotels in the West End, saw potential in the site and tasked architects Woods Bagot to transform the forlorn site with a unique, eye-catching building.

The ambitious design comprises a 91-room hotel, 24 luxury apartments, 13 retail units, a restaurant, bar, gym and spa, 190-seat theatre and private event spaces – and even a four-lane, 1950s-style bowling alley.

The building features an outdoor roof terrace and kitchen garden on level 4, creating an external events venue with sweeping views over Soho.

Running over five floors, the 4,247 sq m of hotel accommodation ranges from double rooms up to terrace suites of almost 150 sq m. On the southern side of the development attractive two- and three-bedroom apartments are reached by two private lobby entrances.

Woods Bagot set this U-shaped design around a central, landscaped courtyard with trees and a central bronze sculpture by Turner Prize-winning artist Tony Cragg. It’s a modern interpretation of an old Soho courtyard.

Innovative regeneration
Project Director Jonathan Leah says: “We see Ham Yard Hotel as an innovative regeneration project that makes a significant contribution to the public realm in this part of London.

“The hotel creates a new, landscaped, public space carved out of a previously derelict car park, adding new restaurants and niche retail at ground level into the mixed-use, fine-grain so typical of Soho.”

A number of the retail units form an arcade from Denman Street along the southern edge of the garden square to Great Windmill Street, continuing the area’s tradition of specialist independent retailers and boutiques. The development also effectively opens up a pedestrian route from Piccadilly Circus to Golden Square.

Leah adds: “By rebuilding the site’s former pedestrian links, we’re helping to restore the network of short narrow streets that are essential to Soho’s vibrant 24/7 economy.”

The building’s exteriors incorporate Firmdale’s signature floor-to-ceiling, steel-framed Crittall windows, giving the development the distinctive warehouse aesthetic traditionally found in the Soho area.

The main facades are pre-cast stone and yellow London-stock brick. Reconstituted stone panels wrap around the inside of the courtyard creating a variety of openings, setbacks and balconies.

An elegant band of natural Portland Stone and Staffordshire Blue brick forms a constant plinth detail around the development.

At Great Windmill Street the yellow stock brick turns the corner to form a series of shop units terminating in a four-storey, pre-cast stone facade. Honed and flamed black granite frames ground-level openings, while the Denman Street facade features Windsor multi-red bricks to match adjacent buildings.

Further up, the building’s cornice line has been designed to be in broad alignment with the surrounding buildings. The elements above the cornice line have structural doors and glazing and vertical zinc panels that are stepped back to keep the building in scale with its neighbours.

The hotel interiors have been designed by Firmdale’s Kit Kemp and incorporate her signature bright and tactile style seen in the company’s other hotels.

Naturally, such a tightly contained site did present some access challenges during construction – particularly for the larger items such as the 20-metre long, five-tonne structural trusses for the basement theatre.

In terms of sustainability, the building has earned a BREEAM Excellent rating achieved through features including three combined heat and power units (CHPs), air source heat pumps for heating and cooling, photovoltaic panels and a green roof and roof terrace.

But it’s the attention to exterior detail, continuity and the new public space that ensures the development neatly fits into the Soho scene and is surely one of the reasons it’s been getting rave reviews since its ‘soft opening’ this summer.