Thursday 24 April 2008

Clarence and Connaught: a tale of two cities

Two hotels, both being refurbished: but why can't the plans for Dublin's Clarence Hotel be more like those for London's Connaught? asks Frank McDonald Environment Editor.

LUXURY HOTELS will always be with us. Even in the midst of the "credit crunch", people with money were checking in last week at the Connaught Hotel in London's Mayfair, where the cheapest room is £409 (€511) a night and lavish suites can be had for up to £1,260 (€1,573). It oozes opulence, in the way luxury hotels must and even should.

Also last week, An Bord Pleanála held an oral hearing on plans to demolish all but the front façade of the Clarence Hotel and adjoining buildings on Dublin's Wellington Quay and replace it with a much larger hotel arranged around a dramatic 'skycatcher' atrium and with the entire edifice oversailed by an elliptical flying saucer-style roof.

The connection between these two five-star hotels is the Belfast-born property developer Paddy McKillen. Along with deal-maker Derek Quinlan, he holds a major stake in the Maybourne Hotel Group, which owns the Connaught, and the pair are also partnering U2's Bono and The Edge in the proposed redevelopment of the Clarence Hotel.

Both hotels are also listed buildings, but the approach being taken to their renovation is quite different.

The Connaught is being splendidly restored and embellished, with a respectful extension to be built at the rear, whereas the Clarence would be demolished and replaced under the scheme proposed by 'starchitects' Foster + Partners.

David Evans (aka The Edge) has said that getting Norman Foster, architect of the 'Gherkin' in London, to re-do the Clarence was "an incredible coup for Dublin [that] outweighed the sacrifice of parts of ordinary period buildings". The scheme would also "soften the impact" of the Central Bank and Civic Offices, according to the architects.

But that's not how the Department of the Environment sees it. In a potentially influential submission, it concurred with the developers' environmental impact statement that the scheme "will have a significant and irreversible negative impact on the six protected structures ... because most of the existing fabric will be demolished".

The proposed interventions would not mitigate this impact, "given the considerable variation in scale, both vertically and horizontally, between the old and the new, and the location of the development in the quays conservation area". Neither did the department consider that "exceptional circumstances" had been shown to justify them.

Its submission took issue with a report by Howley Hayes Architects, commissioned by the developers: "The assertion in this report that the proposed new building fabric is of outstanding architectural merit does not of itself, in our view, constitute exceptional circumstances for demolition."

The department had been requested by An Bord Pleanála to give its view on the fundamental question of whether the mere retention of façades would be contrary to guidelines for the protection of architectural heritage. Its view was that it would, given that protected structures cover "buildings ... in their entirety", including interiors.

The same stance would be taken by English Heritage, which is why the Grade 2 listed Claridge's and Connaught hotels are being renovated sympathetically, working with rather than against their fabric. Richard Rogers, another 'starchitect', is only being let loose on Maybourne's third London hotel, the Berkeley, which dates from 1972.

Michael Blair, the architect overseeing works on the Connaught and Claridge's, calls what he's doing "urban repair" on the two hotels, both built in the 1890s. "Westminster City Council sees Mayfair as something of a museum piece so if you want to build big shiny buildings, you do it somewhere else - where it's appropriate."

He managed to persuade the council that Claridge's could take an additional two floors of bedrooms and suites on top if all of its ugly air-conditioning units and other excretions were removed and put in the basement instead. The extra floors have also been designed sympathetically, stepping back sequentially from the parapet.

"The beauty of these London hotels is that they have so much character in their own right. Claridge's maintains that Claridge's feel, even though it has gone through a constant process of refurbishment, with art deco-style en suite bathrooms added in the late 1940s, for example. At no stage would everything have been ripped out."

The chief glory of the Connaught's restoration is its chunky late empire-style grand staircase, which rises through the building from its lobby to the top floor, six storeys above. Once enclosed with a fire screen, it has not only been opened up but all of its decorative details have also been re-gilded by gold-leaf craftsmen, so that it really sparkles.

Blair says there was "a lot of debate" with English Heritage, Westminster City Council and the Grosvenor Estate (which owns the freehold) about elements of the refurbishment - such as the apparently radical move of adding a conservatory on the front, where it sweeps around the corner from Carlos Place into Mount Street.

Maybourne was fortunate that the Connaught had a large basement area between the front of the hotel and a balustrade at the back of the footpath. The new conservatory was built on top of this, with pairs of Ionic columns to match those flanking the entrance, and the glazed timber structure makes it look as if it was always there.

"We worked with the materials and architecture of the building to achieve it," says Blair. And though the new five-storey extension on Adam's Row will be contemporary in style, it will enhance rather than detract from the hotel, providing an extra 35 bedrooms (there are 93 in the old building) as well as a basement swimming pool.

Measures are also being taken to minimise the hotel's carbon footprint, including the use of heat-pumps and the provision of a sedum roof on the extension to help counteract London's "heat sink".

The extension, due for completion in July 2009, will have a layered façade and rooms of similar standard to the main hotel.

All of the older rooms are being lavishly refurbished and equipped with the latest technology. The newly decorated suites are superb and probably worth the money - if you have it. The main diningroom has yet to be done, but the staff already have a new canteen in the basement serving up the same food that paying guests get.

Michael Blair understands the desire among developers to hire star architects.

"It gives real value in the way rock stardom does. But it's also appropriate to consider the delicacy of an area, which a lot of star architects would work against. And there's a very strong residents' association in this area with definite ideas about Mayfair."

Shepherding Maybourne's £80m (€100m) refurbishment of the Connaught through the planning process was a delicate task, best suited to an architect with Blair's philosophy. Paddy McKillen deserves great credit for what Maybourne is achieving in London. It's a pity that neither he nor the U2 lads took a similar approach to the Clarence.

The Irish Times

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