Eric Parry Architects' exclusive new spa complex on the edge of London's Hyde Park occupies a dark, awkward and frankly forgotten place in the bowels of a revamped Victorian hotel. Five years and £50 million worth of rebuilding, also by the practice, has brought what is now the Mandarin Oriental firmly out of obscurity.
Built as a gentlemen's club in 1888 by Archer and Green, the polychromatic building occupies a space between Hyde Park and the busy Knightsbridge Road. Parry calls the hotel a 'bit of a mongrelà a country house on steroids', but relishes its position between open space and the city's noise.
'Hotels are a strong city institution, ' says Parry. 'A hotel is an extraordinary vessel. They are mini-cities, with all the business that allows life to go on - like relaxing, dining and bodily things like the spa.'
Parry is keen to stress that the spa design (the practice's first) is not simply a wilful attempt to bring a modern touch to an elderly building. Intrigued by the work of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (who writes that 'Tranquillity is the bond which unites the dreamer and his world'), as well as the bathing rituals embedded within Christianity and eastern cultures, Parry has worked hard to bring narrative and materials together to create a place of 'reverie, retreat and contemplation'.
While taking a group of Cambridge students on a trip to Bombay in the 1980s, Parry came to admire the locals' cleansing regime, especially rituals of circumambulation and immersion in tanks hollowed from granite.
The design has also been influenced by Japanese inns where visitors negotiate a distinct threshold to the building and reside in isolation. 'There's an element of ritual that underpins all the thinking in the spa, ' says Parry. But what you actually get is neither Indian nor Japanese, although there is granite in abundance and an oriental touch through the Azumi-designed furniture. Parry has tried to keep eastern influences firmly in the background of the design process in an effort to generate something uniquely European, but not 'quintessentially English'.
The spa, which accommodates up to 16 visitors at a time, occupies space on the lower-ground and basement levels, previously occupied by billiard rooms and staff changing areas. The architect had to work hard to shoehorn the spa around a narrow space interrupted by four massive brick piers. The upper level is 'dry' and contains the reception and treatment rooms, while the 'wet' showers, pools and steam rooms are in the basement.
The lower level is divided into male and female areas, signposted by granite 'gender pieces' by sculptor Stephen Cox. Arriving at the reception, clients are guided down a staircase where they shower, use the steamroom, pools and sauna, and move through into a relaxation room. A second stair leads to one of eight treatment rooms. Parry has made use of odd niches to create 'dry gardens' in former extraction shafts on the outer edges of the treatment rooms, extending the line of sight and creating the illusion that the centre is larger than it is. Like the rest of the spa, the dry gardens are artificially lit, but in a way which mimics natural light.
Sumptuously clad in Indian granite, lacquer and American walnut, it is far removed from the white, Modernist spaces that characterise other spas. Parry describes it as 'cave-like' and 'cutting out of the soil'.
Lighting is kept to a minimum, and light sources are unobtrusive. Surface treatments are varied to lend a distinct character to the separate functions within the centre. The upper floor is glossier and more colourful, featuring cracked lacquer and 'light veils' of illuminated nylon thread; the lower level is darker, with a premium on the greys of granite, which has been either textured or polished smooth. And the few plaster walls are built in relief, deliberately breaking the monotony of the white surface (the same technique is used on ceilings to help disguise the service hatches).
Designed in consultation with treatment specialist E'Spa, the space contains flourishes - such as the chunk of amethyst bolted to the wall of 'the crystal steam-room' - which was probably not the architect's first choice.
E'Spa's products and techniques are employed in the centre (including Balinese, Amerindian and Ayurvedic practices), and Parry says the advice was invaluable: 'There's a lot of this that I empathise with, ' although he appears unconvinced about the amethyst.
Parry describes the budget as 'generous', and overall the materials and detailing are excellent. But, inevitably, there are hiccups.
Take the entrance: Parry has designed what is supposed to be read as a threshold, with a Japanese-style tatami mat placed between the door and reception desk. Eastern visitors would know instantly what to do (take off your shoes) but European clients either stop in confusion or walk straight over it. The mat already needs to be either cleaned or replaced.
Having followed the brass handrail down chunky stairs (all treads, no risers) to the pool, the visitor is lured by the prospect of a stone chaise longue submerged in the water.
Unfortunately, the water level is just too high for the device to work. I was fortunate enough to receive the full spa treatment.
Natural buoyancy prevented me from connecting properly with the chaise longue - and that was before the water jets began their work.
More irritating, but easily fixed, is the view from one of four beds in the relaxation room. One wall contains a pair of openings behind which the light constantly changes.
But from one of the beds the reclining visitor begins to get a view of the mechanics that make such light-effects possible. (And while I am at it, the workmanship around the skirting looks a bit rushed. ) More of a shame - but this is no fault of the architect - is the fact that the carefully contrived low-level lighting is trashed by the green glow of the emergency exit signs. By and large, these miscellaneous additions are worked into the fabric of the spa and therefore kept to a minimum.
Undeniably, the space works. And there is a hint of Peter Zumthor's award-winning thermal baths at Vals in Switzerland. But this is not so public a place - it can be yours for the day if you have £250 to spare.
CREDITS CLIENT Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park ARCHITECT Eric Parry Architects: Eric Parry, Nick Jackson, Lisa Ngan, Merit Claussen STRUCTURAL ENGINEER URS Thorburn Colquhoun M&E ENGINEER Cundall Johnson & Partners SPA CONSULTANT E'Spa LIGHTING DESIGNER Isometrix FURNITURE DESIGNERS Azumi, Luke Hughes & Company SCULPTOR Stephen Cox ACOUSTIC CONSULTANT Equus QUANTITY SURVEYOR, PLANNING SUPERVISOR, PROJECT MANAGER AND CONSTRUCTION MANAGER Gardiner & Theobald SUPPLIERS stone Grant Ameristone;
lacquer panels Page Lacquer; timber floor Finewood Floors;
sanitaryware Duravit, Hans Grohe; horsehair panels John Boyd Textiles, AT Cronin; glass Saper Glass; ironmongery Allgoods; signage Wood & Wood; bronze Bassett & Findlay