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Sir Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid are two of the most celebrated architects working today. They both partnered recently with Spain’s ME by Meliá hotel group to design landmark hotels in London and Dubai, including the interiors, which is unusual in hospitality.
It’s not unprecedented. Danish architect Arne Jacobsen conceptualized every square inch of SAS Royal Copenhagen in 1960, considered the world’s first “design hotel.” His iconic Egg and Swan chairs were introduced there, immortalized in room 606.
Foster has reworked London’s skyline twice with two instant icons: The Gherkin in 2004 and London City Hall in 2002. This summer, Foster also unveiled the 157-room ME London in Covent Garden following intense speculation about how the architecture firm would coalesce the interior/exterior design package.
The results are dramatic. The tetrahedron-shaped lobby extends upward at sloping angles, with digital impressions of luminous jellyfish swimming up the walls toward a skylight (see the 0:58 mark in this video). In the Marconi Lounge, black and bone leather seating is mixed with stainless steel rods and ebony walls. Very sleek, very sexy, very Bond-like.
“The design is something you will not find in London and possibly not many places in the world,” says GM Fabio Gallo.
Reviews are mixed depending who you listen to. The scenesters love it. The Radio Rooftop Bar, rare in central London, is one of the buzziest scenes in town with a heavy schedule of glitzy corporate, fashion and media industry parties.
“But it’s not just about having a slick design, exciting outlets and DJs,” explains Gallo. “The brand is very in tune with urban culture. It’s about being truly connected with local culture. London is going through an incredible revival as we speak, so we’re a very interesting proposition at this point.”
Detractors question Foster’s entrance into the world of hotel interior design.
“You get the feeling that Foster is trying to be a bit Starck-y at times, and it doesn’t come naturally to this once sober practice,” writes Rowan Moore for The Guardian. “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.”
Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid, meanwhile, was the first female and first Muslim recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. She was recently commissioned to update Tokyo National Stadium for the 2020 Olympics, and design Al Wakrah Stadium for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Presently, Hadid is undertaking her first hotel interior design project with the 100-room ME Dubai, opening in 2016. The hotel will reside inside Hadid’s Opus Building designed like a square ice cube with its interior core melted away, creating an undulating negative space and visual portal into the Burj Khalifa District.
Hadid has never met a 90-degree angle she liked. Many of her ultra feminine, biomorphic designs a decade ago were impossible to actually build until construction technology recently caught up. Unlike Frank Gehry, whose curves resemble controlled chaos, Hadid’s swooping shapes flow like nature in quiet equilibrium. Since her fluid designs are so specific to her, Hadid is a unique candidate to marry the interiors of a hotel with its exterior.
Skift interviewed Tony Cortizas, VP of global brand strategy for Melia Hotels International, to better understand the process behind ME’s partnership with Foster and Hadid.
Skift: What was the corporate philosophy for hooking up with the world’s two best architects?
Tony Cortizas: When you talk about architects of the caliber of Foster + Partners and Zaha Hadid, you are talking about the creme de la creme, if you like. Although their respective styles and philosophies are quite different, they are both remarkably progressive thinkers who seek to redefine function through design, which aligns perfectly with the ME philosophy.
The lifestyle hotel landscape is littered with name brand interior designer collaborations, but the idea of having the architectural partner design a hotel from the inside out is something different. ME is about pushing boundaries, including conventional wisdom when it comes to design. The same way that these two architects seek to redefine function through design, ME is looking to redefine the lodging experience.
Skift: What are the benefits of having the same architect design both the interior and exterior?
Tony Cortizas: Apart from being a unique point of difference, there are real practical benefits to working with one design partner. There are no clashes of egos, no competing sensibilities. The process becomes essentially seamless. However, the real benefit is the design result. The continuity that one partner brings delivers a phenomenal aesthetic result, from the sense of arrival on through.
Skift: How do the designs in London and Dubai communicate the character of the ME brand?
Tony Cortizas: ME describes itself as ‘personality based hotels,’ and through these inside-out design collaborations that notion is rendered with stunning aesthetic results…. We consider art and design to be a ME brand attribute. Both of these partnerships deliver that promise 100 percent. Both designs are imbued with daring contemporary flair but with a level of quality that will render them timeless. This is ME: modern, progressive and here to stay.
Skift: What has been the feedback so far about the overall ME London design?
Tony Cortizas: The feedback on ME London has been overwhelmingly positive. The hotel is hot, with a capital ‘H,’ and the design experience is second to none. And I say ‘experience’ because great design is not just about how it looks, it’s about how it feels.
As far as Dubai goes, it is a little early to truly gauge so far from completion, but the project will be remarkable even by Dubai standards, and that’s saying something.
Greg Oates covers hospitality trends and next generation hotels. He has participated in 1,000+ hotel site inspections in over 50 countries.