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Vegas on The Strand: ME London Hotel by Foster + Partners

The ME London Hotel has faux leather walls, cattle horns and obelisked roof gablets, but is it a true Foster project? asks Felix Mara

‘Has Foster lost it?’, I scratch my head as I look up at a Guimardesque glass entrance canopy bracketed from the elliptical corner tower of the ME London Hotel. It lies at the west tip of Aldwych, the late-Imperial lenticular focus of Westminster’s grandest urban set-piece. A glass cupola with 11-pointed star-shaped plan crowns the tower and the white stone facade has Italian Rationalist overtones. The dark setbacks on its upper floors look like a mansard. Since it opened in February, I’ve often ignored ME London as quasi-classical bombast as I commuted on the top deck of the No.11 bus.

When I realise Foster designed this 157-room hotel, which replaces Adams, Holden & Pearson’s 1960 English Electric offices, and retrofitted the Edwardian Marconi Building next door as an 87-unit apartment complex, I suspect bread and butter pastiche work, a reactionary design loss leader. Or worse still, could this, along with the Walbrook offices to the east, be Foster’s equivalent to Frank Lloyd Wright’s bizarre late creations? But some architects’ reputations are like clouds that obfuscate understanding of their work, so I avoid jumping to conclusions and try to take what I see on trust.

Westminster City Council’s planning conditions involved retaining Runtz & Ford’s Marconi building, restoring its Richard Norman Shaw-designed Portland stone facade and reinstating its roof-level gablets - obelisks and all. Westminster accepted demolition of English Electric, which displaced Runtz & Ford’s Shavian-facaded Gaiety Theatre, but wanted Portland stone replacement elevations. As partner Giles Robinson explains, Foster’s facades are a response to the surrounding tectonic rather than pastiche. ‘We felt that it was important the elevations read as a monolithic surface, as there needed to be a direct contextual relationship to the surroundings.’ Unusually for this day and age, these are self-supporting masonry rather than stone-clad.

Two types of Portland stone were specified: smooth Coombefield masonry for typical surfaces and, for ground-floor panels, travertine-like heavily shelled Roach bed stone, à la the Smithsons’ Economist Building. Series of deep, wide grooves, vertical on the tower, horizontal and sportif below the attic storey, emphasise the stone’s thickness.

Also unusual for this day and age, repetition in the room layout is not concealed by a mechanical ‘random’ fenestration exercise, the cribbed, cabined and confined hallmark of soulless commercial practices. Viewed obliquely, the regular pattern of double-height oriels reads as a glass veil and the masonry establishes a white framework that continues into the interior in dialogue with contrasting tones and hues.

After this deadpan facade, beyond the open vestibule at the tower’s foot, I am immersed in a world of floor-to-ceiling twisted ribbon screens of polished chrome and clusters of ringed tube chandeliers in the hotel lobby. Having kicked check-in up to first floor level in a late design change when they acquired the project after its instigator went into receivership, Spanish hotel operator Sol Meliá, partnered with American restauranteur the ONE Group, could maximise the potential of these ground floor spaces, intended for guests and visitors. Unusually, rather than working with a designer accustomed to rolling out its client’s usual ‘brand’, Meliá asked Foster to design every detail. Although in certain areas, such as the STK steak restaurant, this involved enhanced, potentially combustible, collaboration with ONE Group specialists, Foster’s remit ensured consistency and quality. The STK restaurant is particularly louche, with black ceilings, violet glows, a DJ booth, stingray canopy work and wall-mounted forests of cattle horns. You half expect to chance upon a quinquagenarian Elvis in this glitzy, Trimalchian milieu. Beyond this artifice are the timber and white riven stone finishes of the rustic Italian Cucina Asellina restaurant, designed by Foster in just two weeks. These are total environments: baroque, cinematic, operatic and camp, with differently nuanced soundtracks in every space, ranging from feelgood to sultry.

At the end of the lounge, lifts take you to your room or to a dark level 1 anteroom beyond which you suddenly find yourself on the polished black floor of a cosmic nine storey-high tetrahedral atrium, its unfenestrated walls clad with large triangles of white Carrara marble. Here you can check in, empty a champagne flute and contemplate projected coloured light effects by night or pencils of daylight reflected off the stainless steel surfaces of the overhead glazed lantern. Pretentious you might say, more suited for religious or commemorative uses, though conceptually pure apart from the impact of the client’s late decision to insert a floor at level 1 for check-in. Along with its spatial drama, this atrium has a structural purpose. Although the masonry facades transfer their self-weight to the foundations, they need a dense, stiff structure to resist the lateral loads they carry.

This triangulated structure is built into the thickness of the atrium walls. The atrium’s slope also reflects the development envelope, generated by the mansard-roofed English Electric building’s profile that drove the vertical setting-out of the hotel suites, whose depths increase with the floor level. Reflective black marble quarried near Carrara clads the atrium’s exterior, creating womb-like circulation spaces, with sound-deadening surfaces and Barcelona chairs. ME London’s inner tetrahedron is like an internalised response to The Shard.

After these dark, abstract triangles of circulation space, the various hotel rooms types have white surfaces, high illuminance and daylight. Ranging from smaller rooms to large suites with private terraces, some extendable via interconnecting doors, they are the outcome of meticulous research, optioneering and prototyping. Foster drilled down to the level of selecting throws and even bathroom products, working with generous budgets which only stopped short of real white leather walls. In contrast, black lacquered cabinets with back-lit onyx shelves house television and entertainment systems.

Foster designed sliding bathroom screens and bedside tables with fine polished metal channels. The rooms also have Foster light fittings and their oriel windows have frameless silicone-pointed hairline vertical joints, mitred to minimise their impact on views out. Opaque sliding glass panels in these oriels avoid the need for curtains. It’s opulent and rich without being tasteless.

Like the duplex cupola, the rooftop bar and restaurant has a 360º panorama. The atrium lantern rises at the centre of its geometry of acute and obtuse plan forms. White-clad bars have black counters and at its perimeter are light-framed patio doors, Chinese onyx panels and cantilevered canopies. On the surrounding terraces are the gablets separating the hotel from the Marconi Building. Meliá and ONE Group wanted to maximise the commercial potential of this level, which potentially has direct lift access from ground level.
Although views of the surrounding city are obstructed by cabanas installed on the terraces to generate more revenue, if you can avoid feeling you’re in a TV ad, it’s a chilled roosting spot.

You may not like everything you see at ME London, but you can’t deny its conviction. It shows Foster, ever the pioneer, experimenting in new territory, throwing down twin gauntlets of contextual facade design and work at the threshold of tasteful austerity. With its questioning of the brief, comprehensive vision, imaginative imagery, spatial expertise and choreographed circulation and tectonic, this is very much a Foster building, even if it doesn’t immediately strike you as one.

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