By Conrad Smith, Managing Director

There remains a particular fascination, and challenge, in restoring a grand hotel. It is in such projects that, as an architect, I can hope to relish and reveal the values of the building while also celebrating the unique soul of the hotel life within that has been formed over many years.

All aspects of life are played out in luxury hotels and each hotel has a unique version of that life. The delightful challenge is to get inside the layers so that, at the end of a refurbishment, the spirit remains undimmed while the physical infrastructure is restored or re-created to meet contemporary standards.

The start of any major project involving a special, old building is the chance to go to the history books and learn about it and how it has grown. The clues as to what we should be doing for the future are usually buried in the designs of the original building but have probably become obscured through years of additions and facelifts, piling level upon level of finishing materials, distortions and neglected space. By going back to the original design, the architect gains an understanding both of what can be taken away and what can be added. Almost always, an architectural project of this nature starts with stripping back; only then can new additions be successfully introduced. The extent of stripping back depends on the significance and condition of the original building; however, you can be certain that if you are removing major original structure, you have it wrong.

Both the architectural merit of the building and the extent to which the hotel itself has become an icon should determine how different any new extension may be. The 1,000 room Cumberland Hotel, for example, with vast but unremarkable ground floor spaces and empty basements, lent itself to a strikingly modern treatment. At the other end of the scale, The Savoy is an international hotel legend and, therefore, all the efforts of the design team are focused on continuing this tradition by balancing the provenance of the building and spirit of the hotel with the needs of successful, modern hotel operations. And Grosvenor House occupies a space in between, making it appropriate for some modern architectural interventions but not a wholesale re-invention of the interior spaces.

Of course, the truth is that we never quite know what we are going to find once we take away the outer garments of these grandes dames. It is amazing what a Victorian architrave can be hiding, or holding up, let alone the numerous elements of infrastructure that simply do not meet modern health and safety standards. But often, delights are also revealed as the building is stripped back, from original wall coverings to hidden windows and exquisite stonework. Personally, I’m a fan of basements. It’s here that one can sense the heartbeat of an old hotel with the massive boilers and other plant and miles of untouched corridors.

The rebuilding of landmark properties requires a strong grasp of operational as well as design, engineering and planning issues to adapt spaces, release new revenue generating opportunities, increase asset value and modernise the infrastructure, all of this usually within the constraints of heritage requirements. The successful rebuilding of landmark hotels also demands a passion for the history of the building and the particular life that it has generated.

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