Back on track
The Manser Practice and Conran & Partners have transformed the Great Eastern at Liverpool Street station into a modern hotel which retains its Victorian splendour
Grounded at the foot of Broadgate rests the recently reopened Great Eastern Hotel. Its revival promises a new and vigorous lease of life for a building which has suffered from initial design problems and consequent neglect. A hundred years ago the hotel, adjoining Liverpool Street station, had pretensions (never achieved) towards some of the grandeur of its great cousins at St Pancras, Paddington and Euston.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the station, and more particularly the hotel, would certainly have had a momentous effect on the streetscape. The rich, deep red of the facades, though familiar in the Midlands and north west, is rather exotic in the Broadgate context and lends the building a strong, characterful presence which enables it to hold its own amongst its neighbours.
The hotel is made up of an original building completed in 1884 and an extension from 1899-1901. The two buildings were divided by a carriageway which served Liverpool Street station. This unhealthy configuration remained unresolved following the redevelopment which took place in 1990. A further predicament inherent in the original scheme survived: railway platforms below the 1884 building had forced kitchens to the fourth floor, causing the hotel to operate top-down rather than bottom-up. Other architectural challenges remained. Notably, the obligatory grand hotel entrance was significant by its absence. There would also be the inevitable close scrutiny by the Corporation of London Planning Department - when all around it would appear that development presses on unchecked. Finally, there had been years of neglect, making extensive works the only means to arrest the long, slow slide towards dereliction which has been the curse of St Pancras station hotel. So the Great Eastern, prior to the recent metamorphosis, was like a formerly grand travelling vessel consigned to serve out its twilight years plying a humble trade as a rather shabby channel ferry. Thirty or forty years ago its future would have been clear: had it been profitable to do so, the building and its history would have been swept away.
So the architects of the recent transformation were faced with a desperate need for extensive surgery; all the principal elements of the building were seriously flawed. There had to be a grand entrance gesture, at least half of the bedrooms suffered from inadequate aspect, public rooms needed conservation (with adequate service provision) and the guests, including disabled guests, needed to be able to circulate in an egalitarian manner. And in order to fund the rescue operation itself, more revenue-earning space had to be found.
In designing its 1992 Heathrow Hotel, Manser very successfully arranged the accommodation around a major space. Here at the Great Eastern, it has hacked down through the 1901 building, removing landlocked bedrooms, service rooms and lightwells to create a major interior volume. From here, arteries have been drawn out to all of the other principal spaces and functions of the buildings. At Heathrow the connection from outside to inside is through a soaring glass wall. This is not possible at Great Eastern. However, by burrowing into the 1901 building, Manser has introduced a new, double-height entrance hall. Located at the corner junction between the two buildings, this also coincides with the chicane in Liverpool Street. This entrance then required a connection to the new atrium in the 1901 building and thence to the bedroom floors. The fact that the atrium could only be opened up from first floor level, above the kitchen accommodation, has been exploited to good advantage. At the fulcrum between the ground floor entrance lobby and the corner of the atrium, Manser has positioned the main vertical circulation core, with lifts rising up out of the lobby and through the corner of the atrium. The really clever part is that, in front of the lifts, it has introduced a borehole of light: a circular lightwell penetrates the ceiling of the entrance lobby, and rises through the full height of the building.
The entrance hall itself is well proportioned, elegant and relaxed - with none of the designer mysticism of a Schrager hotel or the glitz of a recent Four Seasons hotel (not to be confused with the magnificent Seagram Four Seasons restaurant). Side rooms provide all of the expected facilities without detracting from the tranquillity of the hall itself. Passing below the circular lightwell and into the lift conveys you to the base of the atrium. The semi-enclosed lift shaft which regrettably has an unnecessary polished, metal flue attached to its side) then rises towards the most elegantly detailed flat(ish) glass roof. The main roof supports are very slender beams that simply span the atrium with neatly articulated end supports. The framing for the glass is almost imperceptible. The glass itself is etched with varying designs to provide the obviously needed sunshading, but also causing shadows to play across the atrium walls in a pleasing way. The walls on the upper levels of the atrium are perhaps too restrained and their success will depend on how the atrium is used and lit. The base of the atrium actually forms the foyer to the banqueting suite, with a mezzanine bar-lounge which will bring the space to life.
The bedroom floors are arranged in a figure of eight, around the atrium to one side, and around the lightwell to the restored 1884 restaurant to the other. The arrangement is conventional but efficient, with rooms on either side of a corridor. In the 1884 building, these corridors retain much of their over-ornate grandeur though small vestibules relieve any overlong stretches. In the 1901 building the rather plain arrangement is more than compensated for by its relation to the circular ramp at the corner of the atrium: which coincides with the point of entry to each of the upper floors.
Additional bedrooms have been provided by removing the existing roof and replacing it with a multi-level space. The new curved copper-clad roof is reminiscent of Broad Street station which used to sit on what is now Broadgate. At present this extension appears rather neutral, but when it patinates - to that acid green colour - it will become very prominent. Such treatment in extending old buildings has now become acceptable, and indeed, necessary and these are not really love/hate issues and Manser’s response is certainly not timid. The curved roof has created some quite unusual bedroom spaces with a lot of nicely framed views out across the City and London through the dormer windows. The treatment of the bedroom interiors must have been the normal hotel dilemma of old versus new. Jestico and Whiles’ No 1 Aldwych (aj 8.4.99) is unambivalent in its commitment to the totally seamless beauty of modernism; Schrager’s hotels explore a witty, inventive cacophony, whilst Conran is best known for that classic, contemporary design aesthetic which he has made so familiar. This is the approach employed by Conran and Partners to the bedrooms, a pleasing mix of attractive modern lines and fabrics, elegant yet generous fittings and details, and bathrooms that just hint of the late Victorian ancestry of the hotel.
Circulation problems have been successfully managed on the upper levels; the use of shallow ramps rotating around the circular lightwell resolves the problem of varying floor levels.
The linking of the two buildings at upper floor levels successfully resolves many of the circulation problems created by the split at ground floor level, allowing guests to move between buildings and access all the lower level public rooms from the upper levels.
The public rooms are a good balance of a cool modern style and restored splendour. All the restaurants and public spaces can be reached either from within the hotel or directly from the street. Many people do not relish the prospect of running the gauntlet of porters and hotel lobbies to get a drink or a meal, and one thing that Conran is rightly famous for is making restaurants accessible. The option of the hotel foyer - perhaps incidental to constraints of the existing building - is a welcome relief.
The 1884 building houses the main, formal restaurant which Manser Associates has carefully conserved while re-introducing daylight through the lightwell over the restaurant’s ornate, vaulted glass ceiling. Adjacent and fronting onto Liverpool Street is the bar and grill that, at lunchtime, has something of the (not unattractive) atmosphere of an upmarket railway buffet. Above, the club bar - reached by a marble stair from the original hotel entrance - is a long, narrow room with a central, polished timber ‘catwalk’ flanked on both sides by shallow alcoves inhabited by smart 30s-style furniture and equally smart ‘naughties-style’ people. At the far end of the room from the entrance is the bar - simple lines, sumptuous materials, cosy lighting and everything a gorgeous red. It makes the whole place sexy: it’s what the bonnet was to the E-type Jaguar.
Fronting onto Bishopsgate are the main period rooms. Access from the street is through a suitably extravagant vestibule leading to an entrance hall in which is the seafood bar. An outrageous marble staircase dominates this space, leading up to a series of splendid function rooms above, while the spaces off the entrance hall also flaunt a high Edwardian glamour. To the left and the right of the lobby respectively are the Oyster Bar and the English Bar. The former is a dark, cavernous room now organised around a sleek, cool island bar (Conran at its best) with tables sitting in the perimeter darkness, oh so discreetly. The English Bar is badly named; it should be called the American Room, because what it captures is the atmosphere of the legendary Oak Room Bar at New York’s Plaza Hotel. Hopefully, the martinis will be as generous as the wall panelling. Below is a wonderfully chaotic warren of rooms, corridors, and cubby holes that is the highly tuned and efficient powerhouse of the building.
The refurbishment of the Great Eastern Hotel may satisfy what most people want of architects. The familiar buildings have been retained and skilfully conserved (with the emphasis on conservation not preservation) while the designers’ interventions have undeniably improved the buildings. The project team’s extra-ordinary efforts to incorporate the building’s services and structure should be recognised. As should the constraints imposed by the commercial need for a broad design appeal and durability. However, the hotel still manages to deliver that special experience - a blend of old and new. The new ideas as bold and as well executed at the old. It is right and proper that visitors to the City of London have an alternative to West End hotels. Enjoy!
Historic buildings are always more complex than they first appear. Like the station which it was designed to serve, the Great Eastern Hotel was built in two parts. Since the completion of the second part in 1901 it has undergone many alterations, especially at the time of Liverpool Street station’s redevelopment in the 1980s.
Our first task was to understand the building’s structural history. By combining archival research with an investigation of the fabric we developed an engineering feel for every aspect of the building; some of it unexceptional, but some surprising, especially the use of wrought iron and steel riveted plate girders.
Armed with that historical understanding, we helped find the right solution for upgrading the building. Equally important, the conservation strategy that we prepared as part of the listed building application successfully demonstrated how that solution was arrived at.
To turn an awkward and confusing building into a workable hotel while respecting the best interiors has involved complex structural works: extensive demolition at the heart of the building, new build construction in both steel and reinforced concrete, and the insertion of openings in the delicate historic fabric to fulfill modern servicing requirements.
The brief to increase the number of bedrooms by around 100 to a total of 267 has been achieved by removing the heavy mansards at roof level and replacing them with two or three levels of lightweight construction.
The structural works had to be carried out partly above a working station and a much-frequented pub. In the area above the pub two load-bearing walls were removed to form 12m wide openings - without a single pint being spilt.
Except in the new atrium, the engineering aspects of the project are not obvious to visitors. This is as it should be in a project where the main aim was to extend the life of the historic structure as unobtrusively as possible.
Ian Stephenson, Alan Baxter & Associates
START ON SITE DATE
30 June 1997
GROSS INTERNAL FLOOR AREA
FORM OF CONTRACT/ PROCUREMENT
£65 million overall development cost including FF&E, operator’s equipment and fees
Great Eastern Hotel Company, a consortium of Arcadian Wyndams and Conran Holdings
The Manser Practice: Jonathan Manser, Barry Mullin, Ramon Hone, Graham West, John Davies, Joshua Berry, Steve Dench, Stala Antoniades, Jane Hinton, Matthew Woodthorpe, Phillip Waind, Susan Martin, Neil Baker
Conran & Partners: James Soane, Richard Doone, Jane Lawrence, Robert Malcolm, Ruth Treacher, Nicki Pipe, Jane Houghton, Glenys Lipscombe, Bridget Salter, Steven Separovich, Tessa Cox, Simeon Wake, Heimo Matt
Alan Baxter Associates
E C Harris
Davis Langdon & Everest
John Laing Construction
INDEPENDENT FIRE OFFICER
Warrington Fire Research
Moir Hands & Associates
SUB-CONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS
kitchen equipment Ali Contract UK, drylining Baris, spray plaster Construction Coatings, electrical Contractor T Clarke, builders’ work contractor Corniche and Bentley, decoration Cousins, sub-superstructure Dove Brothers, atrium roofs English Architectural Glazing, lift installation Fujitec UK, architectural metalwork Glazzard (Dudley), glazed dome restoration Goddard & Gibbs Studios, demolition John F Hunt (Demolition), fit-out joinery Jarvis Newman, windows Joinery Plus, plastering Lightweight Plastering Co, ceramic tiles Moderna Contracts, roofing works Prater Roofing, primary steelwork Rowen Structures, secondary steelwork John Rawlinson, facade repairs Stonewest, mechanical contractors Sulzer Infra, structural carpentry and general joinery Swift (Southern), decorative plaster Stevensons of Norwich, scissor lifts Saxon Lifts, scaffolding Trad Scaffolding, soft flooring Tyndale Carpets, temporary electrics Wingate, chandeliers Dernier & Hamlyn