I exit a black lift into a low, black lobby, pass through an opening and, without warning, find myself inside a steepling pyramid – a near-tetrahedron in fact – also dark and shiny. It is lit from a single triangular opening at the top. An implausibly vast book lies open on a stand, with a quotation from Aristotle on its page. Images of jellyfish, projected on to the walls, shimmer, as do monochrome attendants.
This is Bond villain/weird cult scenography, and it vaguely recalls a shrine I once saw in Brasilia that was dedicated to the belief that that 1960s city was the fulfilment of some ancient Egyptian prophecy. This, however, is the middle of London and it is nothing more exotic than the lobby of a hotel, albeit one with high ambitions of design and £400-a-night rooms.
The ME hotel is the first hotel to be designed in its entirety by Foster & Partners, with an amount of influence over interiors that is rarely granted to architects. Usually these spaces are handed over to interior designers who delight in doing everything the architect would hate. Most common building types – airports, museums, shops, offices, malls, apartment blocks, parliaments – have been achieved several times over by the gigantic Foster machine, so it’s rare to come across one that was virgin territory for the practice.
The ME hotel (its name so strikingly shameless in its appeal to the egocentric) is also an emissary from a once and probably future age, having first been conceived in 2003, in the era of the boom without end. Its developers were initially the Silken group, who also made one of the most extravagant and bizarre monuments of that epoch, the Hotel Puerta América in Madrid, which tried to compensate for its location by the side of a motorway by getting signature architects – Hadid, Arad, Chipperfield, Nouvel, Foster – to design one floor each.
Silken bought Marconi House, a 1904 building in the Aldwych, which has been converted into flats, and a 1950s building next door which was demolished to make space for the hotel. In 2003 the phenomenon of the designer hotel was still fairly new in London, the field dominated by the Sanderson and St Martins Lane, whose designer, Philippe Starck, had previously developed his brand of interior in New York. By hiring the very big name of Foster, Silken would have wanted something comparable to Starck’s wacky Gallic machismo, but different.
Construction started, the British part of Silken went the way of the bubble and construction stopped again. Another group, Sol Meliá, bought the London site, asked Fosters to make some changes to the interior and the project proceeded. In particular, a large restaurant was installed on the ground floor of the central atrium, displacing the reception to the first floor, which requires arriving guests to be guided along an extended route to the mystic tetrahedron. It makes arrival all the more like an initiation ceremony, but is not necessarily the worse for that.
Its complicated history, plus the accumulated pressures of building on central London sites, makes the hotel an alliance of different intentions, unified by the themes of luxury and Foster-ness. It sits in an area where the dominant style is bulky Edwardian neo-baroque, and the multi-level mansard and ornate gablets of Marconi House have been dutifully restored, while the hotel’s new elevations are English Heritage-approved – solid, substantial, load-bearing Portland stone. There is plenty of roach bed variant of the material, which teams with fossils. It’s like a venerable cheese, cut with a sharp wire.
Here the style is updated baroque – that is, with putti, swags and bosoms omitted. There are still curves, and a slightly silo-like corner tower through which you enter, albeit also crystalline bay windows that suggest there is something different inside. So you go in, past an execrable abstract sculpture that presumably symbolises creativity, and the black marble begins. There are also wave-like screens of chrome rods to guide you on the way.
Things stay dark – black lifts, black reception, black foyers and corridors – until you get to bedrooms (a bit narrow, but nicely done) lined in pale leather and lit by the crystalline windows you see on the outside. The joins in the glass are minimal, so you have the vertiginous experience of standing on a small triangular projection over the street. Alternatively you can go to another bright space, the rooftop bar, from where you get an exceptional view of London and of its multibillion-pound car-boot sale of trophy towers – Walkie-Talkie, Cheesegrater, Philishave.
Within this journey from light to dark to light there are other elements, such as a two-level, cylindrical, rock-star penthouse on top of the silo, and the ground-floor restaurant is a big noisy place run by the One Group, which started off in New York. Here the theme is a blokey version of sexiness – “a steak house with lots of girls” is how Nigel Dancey and Giles Robinson of Foster & Partners describe it.
The overall effect is of something expensive, well-made, containing surprises, sometimes enjoyable, sometimes strange, not always cohering. The switch from fogey-friendly Portland stone to the magic pyramid is a drastic one and not entirely smooth. There is an obsessive, not quite explicable geometry of triangles similar to that in the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation in Astana, Kazakhstan, which came out of the Foster office at about the same time that the hotel was being designed. There is a tendency, common among architects, to use overly architectural means to make interiors: chrome rods, for example, are a bit of a clunky way to achieve what might be done with a curtain.
You get the feeling that Fosters is trying to be a bit Starck-y at times, and it doesn’t come naturally to this once-sober practice. What the ME hotel is not is a modern incarnation of the SAS Royal in Copenhagen, of 1960, where the architect and designer Arne Jacobsen governed everything from the exterior to door handles and developed chairs and cutlery that would become design classics. The ME hotel is the product of a time when there are many constituencies to be satisfied – the restaurant franchise, the image-makers, English Heritage – and even an outfit as powerful as Fosters has to tack and trim to please them all.
But it also has much of what is good about Foster, including a certain ruthlessness in the details. And, to London’s treasury of remarkable if bizarre spaces, the black tetrahedron is a notable addition.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010