Take 52 huge, heavy panes of glass, many of them honeycombed with aluminium, and 16 long carbon fibre fins. Add bespoke steel, curved teak and limpid grey limestone, plus the architect who designed the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Lloyd’s Building in the City, and you are in for something extraordinary, that you probably wouldn’t expect on the front of one of London’s most prestigious hotels.
But The Berkeley in Knightsbridge, celebrated haunt of smart people who aren’t flashy and really posh people who value style, has a 300-year-old history of moving with the times. It began, in the early 18th century, as a coffee house and coaching inn on the corner of Berkeley Street and Piccadilly, and in 1897 became The Berkeley hotel.
In 1972, it moved to its current corner site on Wilton Place and Knightsbridge, where its Bath stone-fronted design was done by Brian O’Rorke.
By the Noughties, its restrained look and small portico, where cabs drew up on a narrow slip road, appeared more like a Thirties mansion block than a top hotel, and the lobby’s several levels made disabled use tricky. Its two popular bars — the cult Blue Bar, by prominent design studio David Collins and including some Lutyens panelling, and the Caramel Room — felt cramped and needed updating.
Owner Paddy McKillen called in architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners in 2005, asking for a forward-looking design that would also work with the fine Georgian townhouses opposite.
The practice’s innovative, multimillion-pound solution took years to refine and finish. It pushes out the entire frontage, doubling the volume of each bar. At first glance it looks like a long glass box with a recessed opalescent section featuring a teak-encased revolving door. The new canopy, supported by those 16 elegant charcoal-grey fins, spans the full 98ft width of the frontage.
The glass front of each bar is transparent, with sides and top of triple-laminated glass with an aluminium honeycomb sandwiched inside. This revolutionary structural glass was developed by engineers Arup. Light glistens through it, reflecting off the silver-white honeycombs.
Carbon steel cantilevers, handmade in Spain, support the glass bar roofs and continue seamlessly to create the wide canopy. Project architect Paul Thompson says that, stacked in the factory, “they looked like minke whales”. The 3,230sq ft roof of this deceptively simple-looking structure can flex without shattering to take a heavy snow load.
The slip road has gone and there’s now a wide sweep of pale granite setts. From outside, the glass frontage makes the hotel even more inviting, while the teak revolving door and beautiful new sandstone steps are much more welcoming. The enlarged bars inside this new glass volume are bright, fresh and sexy.
By Robert Angell, former creative director at David Collins Studio, the Blue Bar still has blue walls, but where it was small, dark and intimate, it’s sharp and seductive, enhanced by natural light pouring in at the front. The floors are white marble and imitation crocodile. White ostrich-effect leather low-backed stools mix with blue crushed velvet chairs.
Opposite, the Caramel Room is now the Collins Room. Also by Angell, it’s like a modern Art Deco-style glade of silver birches, where Carrara marble and mirrors create luxe and light.
Huge bowl-shaped chandeliers appear to be made of translucent white leaves, while chic oval tables are mirror topped. It’s all wrapped in walls of grey silk brocade hand-painted with Japanese flowers.
Outside, seeing the beautiful Regency terrace opposite reflected in the bold glass façade, there’s a real sense of old shaking hands with new — over two or three cocktails.