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W London Hotel, Soho by Jestico + Whiles

[Building study] Jestico + Whiles have come up with an appropriately vibrant response to Leicester Square, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Hufton + Crow

Nothing is quite as it appears at W London. If you stumbled upon its striking flush convex facade, curved around a corner of Leicester Square, you might take it for a sleek office development.

Actually it’s a boutique hotel, but because it stacks up 17,000m² on 10 storeys and is part of an international chain, W London doesn’t easily fit into this category. Also, Westminster City Council (WCC) wanted retail space on its lower floors, and there are penthouse maisonettes, so this is a mixed development.

Lead designer Jestico + Whiles has over 30 hotels in its portfolio, fit-outs as well as shells, but the interiors at W London, which welcomed its first guests in February, are by the Dutch practice Concrete Architectural Associates.

The context isn’t what one might expect either. Leicester Square is one of London’s oldest squares, laid out in 1670. Noticeably trapezoidal, it slopes downwards from north to south. Not your typical genteel London square unified by a homogeneous architectural perimeter, in the Victorian era it began to be populated by theatres, panoramas and hotels.

Then the cinemas barged in - bulky, capacious, with disparate heights and forms, jostling for attention. Fifty years ago it had charm. The Wandering Minstrels, a horde of buskers, entertained the queues. You could drop into the Pathé News cinema on your way to Piccadilly Circus or step inside David du R Aberdeen & Partners’ Swiss Centre to see the myriad inverted bottles which formed its ceiling.

Though still a venue for cinema premieres, Leicester Square has, in recent years, gone to seed. It’s a place where people narrowly avoid colliding into one another and are mugged in broad daylight. ‘It’s had a slightly jaded atmosphere for some time,’ admits Jestico + Whiles associate director James Dilley.

In response, its public realm space has been redesigned, again, this time by multidisciplinary practice Burns + Nice, an initiative by WCC and the Heart of London Business Alliance, and will reopen for London 2012 with new granite paving and ribbon seating.

The prospect of another hotel, which would replace the Swiss Centre, may not have seemed propitious, but WCC saw W London as a regeneration opportunity that brought public artwork to the party as part of a Section 106 agreement. Founding director John Whiles says Jestico + Whiles’ starting point was to overcome ‘the relentless monotony’ of hotel facades.

This was addressed with the device of a reflective and illuminated twin wall, which successfully uses its more opaque areas of fritted glass to suppress the repetitive rhythm of the windows of the guest rooms, of which 192 have similar plan forms. Large, more transparent ‘feature areas’ reveal prominent internal spaces, located outboard to create what Whiles calls ‘an animated perimeter’.

Whiles describes W London as ‘a modest building’ that reflects the architectural detail of the three conservation areas in its vicinity. On a technical level, twin walls are not modest undertakings. ‘They are typically used for thermal and solar control,’ says director Neil Murphy of facade consultant Billings Design Associates.

At W London, however, although it reduces solar gain and, to an extent, uses the stack effect as a thermal regulator, the twin wall’s raison d’être is visual. The outer skin was designed for maximum transparency, constructed from suspended stainless-steel rods and steel brackets which support the proprietary countersunk flush fixings for the glass panels and provide restraint.

Opacity is controlled by the glass specification. The white ceramic frit (known as the veil), chosen for its ability to hold light, is slightly textured and has a transparency of 60 per cent, with undulating dots of varying diameter following 30 templates, and low-iron glass was specified to avoid a green tint.

These parameters were set empirically to achieve the optimum balance of reflectivity, two-way transparency and inter-reflected coloured light from the 300 colour-change LEDs that are integrated into the proprietary-framed aluminium panels of the inner skin. The LEDs form a kinetic illuminated facade that can be programmed to sophisticated levels to create artworks.

The current installation, designed by Jason Bruges Studio, uses eight rooftop cameras to capture images of the skyline that are translated into coloured light patterns on the facade. The range of effects that this facade achieves is striking, for example when by day it reflects the rippled image of Frank Verity’s 1897 stepped gable in Lisle Street.

But there are less fortuitous moments when the geometry and construction of the inner skin grins through the smaller transparent sections of the glacial veil. A more horizontal emphasis in the frit pattern, as in Jean Nouvel’s Dentsu Tower in Tokyo, would have avoided this effect and looked tidier.

This is less noticeable at night, when effects are more easily controlled, but there is a flaw in the colour coordination of the interior lighting. Because the glowing red light from the Concrete-designed Wyld Bar is so strong, it limits the colours that can be used successfully on the facade. Also, the locations of the facade’s ‘feature areas’ limit internal planning flexibility, which is one of the advantages of twin-wall facades with homogeneous veils.

Jestico + Whiles’ internal layout grapples with the complex demands of hotel design, compounded by commercial pressures and WCC’s requirements. Apart from rationalising exacting requirements for servicing to guest rooms and other facilities including bars, restaurants and a spa, it had to provide for fire escapes and deliveries.

The ‘figure of eight’ layouts on the typical floors, with inboard service zones, are clever, but the ground-floor plan isn’t pretty and space was at such a premium that visitors, who are funnelled into a small entrance lobby, have to take a lift to the first-floor reception.

Concrete’s interior design narrative picks up on the duplicitous play of the exterior and its concern with ‘the here and now’. Founding director Rob Wagemans says ‘our aim was to make visitors feel part of London’. So the sequence of spaces on the first floor complements the daily routine of a typical Londoner - formal in the morning, casual after work and crazy in the evening.

This is reflected in the progression from the W Lounge, with an abstracted Union Jack bookshelf screen, to the red lights and glitterballs of the Wyld Bar, named after the designer of one of Leicester Square’s Victorian attractions, and intended as a backdrop to film premiere interviews.

W London’s apparent superficiality conceals extensive sustainable features, including solar panels, a ground-source heat pump, combined heat and power and air-source heat pumps. This sustainability sub-plot adds another layer of complexity.

W London is most successful as urban design. I was excited to see such a striking contemporary building in this location. It won’t appeal to the puritanical and it doesn’t set out to explain or celebrate its construction. On closer inspection some would question whether the glass coping really has to project beyond the facade, and the support structure for the veil appears lightweight, almost like a shop-fitting detail.

The more glitzy interior detail will be ‘beyond the pale’ for many. But W London is concerned with narratives other than construction integrity and as a response to the past and present of its genius loci, a world of fleeting images, it’s difficult to fault. It’s racy and even its flaws contribute to the drama of the unexpected.

Credits

Estimated annual CO2 emissions 61.04kg/m²
Client McAleer & Rushe Group
Architect Jestico + Whiles
Structural engineer Ian Black Consulting
Quantity surveyor McAleer & Rushe Group
Project manager McAleer & Rushe Group
Main contractor McAleer & Rushe Group
Interior designer Concrete Architectural Associates
Facade consultant Billings Design Associates
M&E consultant Caldwell Consulting
Fire engineer Michael Slattery
Facade artist Jason Bruges Studio
Start on site March 2009
Completion January 2011
Gross internal floor area 17,000m²
Form of contract Design and Build

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