• Maybe it’s because it’s The Londoner

    There are more than 1,500 hotels in the British capital, and given a recent consultants’ conclusion that “London hotels remain at the top of their game” despite concerns affecting the sector it is no surprise that The Standard, London on Euston Road is currently receiving its first reviews in the media and NoMad London will welcome guests next year. Both are firsts in London for their American owners and both are conversions – of Camden council’s Brutalist town hall annexe and the world-famous Bow Street magistrates’ court, respectively. Joining the latter in 2020 will be The Londoner on Leicester Square, a new build by Britain’s own Edwardian Group that is also at the luxury end of the market. I was one of a handful of balloted enthusiasts to have a very early preview, now that the building – as deep as it is tall – has both topped and ‘bottomed’ out.

    The site is that of the Leicester Square Theatre, built as such in 1930 but operated as a cinema for most of its life by the Odeon chain alongside its much more famous black-clad brother across the Square. After ‘twinning’ in the 1990s and becoming the home of the London Film Festival, the building was closed in 2015 and the plot sold. Demolition followed, the first step in an epic build that has been mostly underground but is now more visible. Woods Bagot are the architects with interiors by American designers Yabu Pushelberg; the engineering is by Arup and the main contractor is Blue Sky Building.

    Their goal is a hotel with 350 guest rooms and 15 suites, five restaurants and lounges, a rooftop bar, a ballroom or event space for around a thousand people, and a spa and wellness centre. Odeon will return to the site with a two-screen cinema operating under the firm’s Luxe sub-brand. The catch is that most of these amenities will be underground – a long way underground, in a six-floor, 30-metre basement that is the deepest in habitable commercial use in the city and which took two years to complete. Understanding the three-dimensional challenge that this presented was the theme of the tour. We began at bottom.

    Four levels down sits the spa, with a pool surrounded by private ‘cabanas’ and a sauna. Currently merely a heavily-waterproofed concrete box, the beginnings of its final form were just about discernible with a bit of thought and a useful virtual reality program that allowed us to move a tablet around the space and see what it will look like on screen. Visuals of the final fit-out are intriguing but embargoed, though it is not I think giving too much away to say that a cool palette, coffered ceiling and clever tricks with light evoked an ancient Roman feel, appropriate for London. One of the cinema screens is on the same level but acoustically separated from this area; below are two further floors of technical equipment with another 30 metres of piles below that.

    The entire basement is surrounded by a sophisticated drainage and water management system to handle the constant seepage that is inescapable at these depths. More than 65,000 cubic metres of clay was excavated to form it, and careful monitoring of neighbouring buildings, a complex propping operation and the discovery of a previously unknown utility tunnel were also involved. Height restrictions above ground and the space required by the overall programme required plant to be placed at depth for the most part rather than on the roof – Building Information Modelling was used to fit everything it but there have still been some challenges to both the construction and the architecture.

    On the next floor up but still three storeys below ground, the double-height, multi-functional event space is one of the highlights of this process. It was created by the craning in of six steel trusses, each weighing around 50 tonnes and the length of two double decker busses (bespoke platforms and vehicles were necessary). These transfer the weight of the above-ground structure to the perimeter walls and thus allow for a column-free space here. They also house building services and are stressed for suspended loads to assist with product launches and the like – servicing of the building will from a ground level loading bay via a vehicle lift and goods lifts. The building’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing will be state of the art and we saw one of the risers that will house them – a vertiginous concrete shaft big enough to house at least two lifts that was actually awaiting bundles of cables, pipes and ducts.

    This floor will be connected to those above by a feature stair of steel and painted bronze that will twist its way up a large stairwell, touching the edges only at the concrete slabs. This is the core of the circulation route through the public parts of the building, and it ends at the second floor beneath a glazed atrium roof. A ‘veil’ of rigid rods of three differing sections will act as its visual and physical balustrade. Further circulation will be by 13 lifts and two escalators. Half of the space within The Londoner will be devoted to what the trade calls F&B, or food and beverage, areas. These and other spaces will be opened to the public, in response to Westminster Council’s planning desires – the architects state that the hotel’s role is to offer “an escape from the sometimes hectic atmosphere found in an urban environment,” though there is perhaps some irony in this being undeniably necessary in the hectic tourist trap of Leicester Square.

    The hotel lobby is hard to visualise currently, although some beautifully finished polished pre-cast concrete columns are notable. The warren of partition walls on the upper floors are being completed as guest rooms – conventionally planned, they have semi-open bathrooms in coloured ceramic, one-way mirrors and a reflective panel above the floor-to-ceiling windows to bring more light in.

    On floor eight, which will be the highest level of the building in general use, a ‘floating’ outdoor platform projects into the void at the top of the atrium. A sliding fabric roof will provide protection from but also direct sight of the sky. This will become part of a sequence of lounge-type spaces on this level that will also include a glass-fronted lookout bar. The lack of a genuine roof terrace is a surprise but the resulting compromise results from the limitations mentioned earlier. On the very top-most floor, which we reached by a quick jaunt in the builders’ hoist, is the penthouse suite. Spanning two floors and articulated here as a projecting tower at the corner of the building, it is on the same level as similar features on other buildings in the area such as the dome of Renton Howard Wood Levin’s reconstructed Criterion block at Piccadilly Circus. The massing of the rest of the block, as seen in renderings, is muscular in order to achieve those vital programmatic criteria.

    The exterior is still shrouded but glimpses could be had of the Portland stone and – in the window reveals – thousands of blue faience tiles that, stitched together, will make up what is being considered as the building’s artwork, another planning requirement. By artist Ian Monroe, the tiles were designed using origami before progressing to foam mock ups and then the digital realm. Treated as a rainscreen, the pieces are fixed with open joints on the upper floors.

    The work put in to The Londoner is obvious, even with a year to go until opening. Much will depend on its interiors. Judgement of these and its architectural success will have to await the first check-in.

    With thanks to Woods Bagot architects, Blue Sky Building and the London Festival of Architecture. Images by Woods Bagot, McGee, Chris Rogers

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443

£14.99

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