Photography by Anthony Weller At last, The Savoy is back in all its resplendent glory. After closing back in December 2007 the hotel became a project of mystery. The Grande Dame was sorely missed and remained closed whilst a select team of architects, designers and experts in the field of restoration projects, worked away under the cover of the biggest hotel concept to hit London for a long time. Now, as we enter the festive season with the hotel restored to its former beauty, it has fit seamlessly back into its original landscape and retained the charm and elegance that it has become synonymous with over the years.
I was given the opportunity to talk to the head of the architectural team and the Managing Director of ReardonSmith, Conrad Smith, who very kindly agreed to talk me through the project; from the big scale down to the fine details. Here is what Conrad had to say.
‘The Savoy has received universal praise for what has been achieved, which is wonderful. The Savoy is once again doing exactly what she is supposed to do and has surpassed expectations in the process. We have retained the original elements and worked to stay true to the concept but The Savoy was a very tired hotel and needed a lot of care to ensure that it was brought back to life successfully. There were so many different parts to the project; it grew and developed in a very organic manner. The Savoy now hosts a different ‘experience’ in every public room. The Riverside restaurant, for example, is one of my favourite rooms and is so because of its beautiful understated and sophisticated feeling. Together, with the client and the interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon we have improved services, re-designed the structure and realised the design vision. It is still familiar but is much more elegant- The Grande Dame is back.’
The Big Budget: The Savoy project involved a very large budget to complete all the necessary and desired changes to the institution that is The Savoy. Were you set any limitations at all?
The Savoy is a very functional yet beautiful hotel. It is a hotel for living in. There was very close control taken on all aspects of spending for the project. The costing was set out at the very beginning so we knew exactly what we had and knew what to work to. Having said this, nothing was compromised- we were able to achieve the very best because it was set out and executed in a very well thought out and methodical manner.
Did you roll over budget in any areas that required particular attention?
Everything was planned with knowledge. No rash decisions were made so this kept any budget roll over to a minimum. When working within the building, we tried to anticipate what we might find according to what we knew about the structure. With a wonderful building like The Savoy you discover things as you are progressing. The fabric of the building was actually in very good shape, there was some structural work to be done but with our forward planning, we managed to keep it within the allocated budget.
Time scale: The entire project ran over time by quite a considerable period. Was this down to finances or was it necessary to take the extra time to get ‘The Savoy Effect’ just right?
Technically this was a unique project. 20 architects and technicians worked on site to ensure the smoothest possible process. Something on this scale will take time and effort to get it just right. From the beginning, we were very aware of the responsibility that we were taking on and, along with the interior designer, our commitment to the project was 100 per cent. We were given information at the beginning, which was from archives at The Savoy. These historical documents provided us with original drawings for the building, which were so valuable in moving forward with the plans for the hotel. To work on a historical building, we must know its history before we can begin to work on its future and this is exactly what we did.
For a project of this scale, it would usually take anywhere between 18 months to two years to complete. The vision for The Savoy evolved. What began as a relatively simple project, transformed into something much more, so we took the time necessary to get it just right. She is unique and must be treated that way. Preservation and respect for the building was key and it isn’t something you can rush.
Secrecy: The project itself was shrouded in mystery for such a long period of time and as a result has felt like a really long build up to the reveal. What do you think the new guests of the hotel will feel and think of the new Savoy when they walk in? What kind of reveal were you, as an architect hoping for?
It was not so much secrecy as organisation that kept the hotel under wraps. The final reveal to the media and the public is never down to us and, as the architect, we have to be sensitive to the client’s plans in this regard. As with all 5* hotels, the word discreet was key throughout the project as this approach creates impact when the hotel opens. What we wanted was that long-standing guests would look around and feel that nothing had changed. It was my greatest pleasure to sit anonymously in the Front Hall a few days after the official opening and hear guests say just this.
Historically speaking: The hotel is such a landmark in London and will continued to be recognised as the hotel of choice for many stars of the world for a long time. Was the brief you were given very specific to certain elements of the old Savoy style that you had to keep?
The initial brief was to bring the riverfront suites into the 21st Century by enlarging their bathrooms. This led onto further briefs and decisions to, for example, stabilise the riverfront façade and introduce a new lift. Other elements were worked on according to what we found when we stripped back the building. Throughout we worked closely with Westminster planning to gain everything that the client desired. The outcome is a beautiful building that has been protected whilst also meeting the client’s requirements. What we have created may differ in a few details from our original briefing but the important thing is that we worked with the building to best preserve its spirit and present it in its best light. Essentially the building guided us and told us what to do. The Riverside restaurant for example, has never looked so good in all its history. It has changed and evolved for the better and now features as a gloriously beautiful restaurant, looking out over the river.
A matter of restoration: As with all restorations, the word ‘restrictions’ must come up a lot and cause problems during a project. Did you have any major obstacles to overcome?
We were very lucky in that we did not really come across any ‘obstacles’. The detailed planning beforehand ensured that the work went as smoothly as possible but you do expect a certain amount of hold ups in this type of building because of her age. We have a huge amount of respect for projects involving buildings of this calibre and understanding them and their unique characteristics is key to being able to move forward.
Were there any elements of the architectural make-up that you wanted to keep but had been specified to change or did you work closely with the hotel from the very beginning to make sure any such problems were worked out before the start?
A mutual respect between the professional team members is extremely valuable in this type of project. At The Savoy, everyone respected each other and had the utmost respect for the building they were working within. Of course, we couldn’t include every element of design that was discussed but changes and alterations to plans were met with calm and understanding for the nature of the hotel. As architects and with the Pierre Yves Rochon, we all worked with a base of knowledge for the building and what we intended to create. Three words can be used to work through the process of the restoration, we adapt, we restore and we make new.
Savoy Style: With The Savoy’s reputation comes the synonymous style of the hotel that has made it what it is today. What materials did you favour to achieve the Art Deco/Edwardian feel?
Whilst trying to preserve elements of the original, there was some repair work needed on certain materials such as the flooring. We always looked to the original for inspiration so that we could evolve from a very solid style base. In the foyer, the plaster frieze has been restored and some of the wood panelling was damaged and so, had to be replaced. The famous black and white marble floors had to be replaced with new marble as well. In other rooms, for example the ballroom, new materials were brought in. The woven carpet in the ballroom was in fact one single piece of carpet- a momentous task for the carpet fitters but a truly wonderful piece of art and a very original way of doing it!
The craftsmanship involved was simply stunning. Very talented people worked to restore and re-create, and the effect is superlative.
It’s all about location: Was the location and setting difficult to work with? Set on the Strand, you had to work to the confines of the previous space, was this difficult?
Again, this came down to management. Being an island site always has its challenges but it was thought through and carried out very well. Clearly, we could not have materials coming in from the Strand – one of London’s busiest thoroughfares – so everything had to be managed through the narrow and steep side road from the embankment. Logistically it was a challenge but the team succeeded in creating little disruption to the Strand- impressive given the scale of the project!
Preservation: Did you implement any measures within the architectural restoration that will help preserve the hotel for years to come? Have you introduced any more sustainable features?
The Savoy- The Grand Dame, is so much more than merely fashionable. She is beautiful and timeless. She has elegance and grace and will continue on in her years with decorum and style. The idea of longevity was already instilled within the building. This was the first time in 100 years that it had undergone a total renovation and the fabric is now there for another 100 years. With regards to the actual style of the building and its interiors, she oozes the appeal of Edwardian elegance and charm, which is in itself, timeless. The enhanced Art Deco touches are simply wonderful and it will really last the test of time. ‘Understated’ is the key word here. The Savoy has quality through and through so she will not fizzle within the first season. She will be enjoyed just as she is for many years to come. On visiting The Savoy, it is like returning to an old friend, familiar and yet rejuvenated. Some of the changes won’t be necessarily visually noticed, but they are there in the very veins of the hotel, running right through to the heart of the institution that is The Savoy.