Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Sizing up the New Kid on the Block: Foster’s Silken Hotel Aldwych

Somerset House will soon have a new neighbor across the street: the Silken Hotel Aldwych designed by Norman Foster + Partners. The structure is quickly taking shape on the western end of the Aldwych and should open within a year or so.

The building replaces the former bulky and banal English Electric Company Building (1957 - see left) but unfortunately appears to be only moderately more inspiring. Foster’s design preserves the historic façade of the Marconi House (1903) on the eastern side of the site just as the EECB did and grafts onto it a lifeless western extension terminated by a meager circular entrance tower at the corner. While the new hotel is undeniably sleeker than the monstrosity it replaces—the brutally chamfered corner entrance of the old EECB was particularly crude—it fails just as spectacularly to participate in the urban and architectural drama unfolding around it.

Let’s begin with the tower. The intersection of the Aldwych and the Strand is an urban condition straight out of an architectural fantasy world. The gentle curve of the Aldwych creates a perfectly tapered corner that practically pleads for a dramatic vertical element to celebrate the sudden expansion of public space that occurs along the otherwise regular and tunnel-like streetscape of the Strand. The building that originally accompanied the Marconi House, the Gaiety Theatre (1903-1955 - see right), did take advantage of this singular site and punctuated the corner with a Victorian neoclassical tower whose height and articulation made it stand apart from the massing of the rest of the building. Such a tower not only enriched its immediate urban context but also introduced a new beat to the rhythm of silhouetted spires articulated eastward along the Strand by the towers of St-Mary-le-Strand, St Clement Danes, the Royal Courts of Justice, and St-Dunstan-in-the-West. Thus, the tower of the Gaiety Theatre contributed to one of the most enjoyable urban sequences in London, one that recalls Wren’s evocative ideal of a glorious city dotted with towers and spires receding into the distance.

The Silken Hotel tower, on the other hand, is much too understated to play such a role. The only hint that any thought was paid to its status is the feeble glass attic story whose polygonal geometry mimics the crinkled fenestration that ever so hesitantly pokes its way out from the tower drum. Ironically, the only element of the tower that suggests any kind of sweeping movement—although lateral and not vertical—is the functional, saucer-like canopy placed above the ground floor entrance. This disconcerting lack of attention comes as a bit of a shock from an architect whose office has built a good bit of its reputation by designing dynamic and innovative towers like the Commerzbank building in Frankfurt or the Swiss Re building here in London. Although the Silken Hotel is obviously a project much different in scope and modest in size, one would have liked to see Foster adapt his talent for creating striking towers and apply it to this project as well.

The remaining façades of the Silken Hotel are just as disappointing as the tower. Blocky punched openings filled with more crinkled fenestration are grouped into vertical strips that march dutifully along the elevations running parallel to the Strand and the Aldwych. Clearly the aesthetic is a minimalist take on the typical limestone-veneered London mid-rise exemplified by the neighboring Bush and Australia Houses on the Aldwych block. Indeed, the firm’s website states that the initial building concept was “to create a seamless relationship between the existing [Marconi] building and the contemporary additions” by following the old building’s proportions and using the same exterior Portland stone revetment.

This is all well and good, but the new hotel fails to pick up on the architectural nuances that defined the old Marconi House and Gaiety Theatre: contrasting fields of solid and void, variations in articulation, and explicit expressions of functional hierarchy (see left). In the end it is impossible to tell just how successful the intended harmonization of old and new at the Silken Hotel will be since Foster's firm has not publicly released any renderings of the critical juncture points in the work. Similarly, no illustration is available of the planned “dramatic eleven-storey atrium” inside the core of the building. This is disappointing since the atrium may or may not go a long way towards redeeming the insipid exterior. If the interior is truly where Foster plans to pull out all the stops, one wishes he had been as clever as William Chambers at Somerset House just down the way and produced an austere yet enticing façade that manages to draw viewers inside so they can discover the shocking explosion of space concealed behind it. Only time will tell if Foster’s new building will contribute anything more to the city of London than a spike in its hotel tax roll.


Will C. said...

Fascinating review, thanks. It's a great help to see what was on the site before and to what Foster is responding in a way that's a bit difficult now with the sheer scale of the project. One can't but agree that Foster's effort doesn't rise to the same standard of the Gaiety Theater, where the tower stands proudly like a coastal lighthouse surveying the twin waterways of Strand and Aldwych.

P.S. I'm pleased to hear that at least one Courtauld architecture student doesn't think that Somerset House is a complete failure- all the Christine Stevenson students seem to have been convinced of her point of view on the matter.

Zach S. said...

I certainly don't know all the ins and outs of Somerset House, but it seems to me that the Strand/"Arches"/Courtyard sequence is extremely successful. Not revolutionary but successful all the same.