Destinations

The ministry of splendour

In London, the lavish transformation of a former government building into an opulent hotel has turned the spotlight on its ambitious creator. Maria Shollenbarger reports.

May 08 2011
Maria Shollenbarger

The Corinthia London has, on paper, existed as a development project of International Hotel Investments plc since the early spring of 2008. But to hear the company’s chairman and chief executive, Alfred Pisani, tell it, his 294-room, five-star hotel, housed in a former Ministry of Defence headquarters on Whitehall Place, has been 22 years in the making. Pisani first endeavoured to make his mark in London in the late 1980s by acquiring the Commonwealth Club (as it happens, just opposite Northumberland Avenue from the current hotel) with an eye to turning it into a high-end boutique property – at the time, not at all a routine proposition. His offer of £3.6m was outbid the day before the sale was completed, by one for £4.2m – issued by the man who had been the acting intermediary on Pisani’s own bid. Pisani has remained irked – and driven – by this bit of one-upmanship for two decades, allowing it to fuel his dedication to stage a truly newsworthy London début for his smallish Maltese hotel company ever since.

Just over £300m later, it appears he has achieved his goal. The Corinthia London is now open for business (having missed at least one “soft” opening date), brandishing a CV dense with superlatives and starred with a constellation of marquee names from the luxury lifestyle world. The hotel’s full-service spa and fitness centre – called Espa Life, the flagship of a new satellite of Susan Harmsworth’s multiple-award-winning Espa – clocks in at 3,300sq m over four floors, making it the biggest spa in London, and one of the biggest city-hotel spas in the world. The Royal Suite, a two-storey, 470sq m two-bedroom suite in one of the building’s original roof turrets, with a wraparound terrace with 180-degree views from Parliament to Canary Wharf and its own spa, gym and wine cellar, will be London’s largest. Massimo Riccioli, proprietor of Rome’s venerated La Rosetta restaurant, has moved to London to man the kitchens at Massimo Restaurant & Oyster Bar, in a sprawling, elegant space configured by the Irish designer David Collins (as was Bassoon, the hotel’s destination bar). Another restaurant, The Northall, will serve elevated versions of classic English cuisine and fine wines. The hairstylist Daniel Galvin will have a boutique salon within the spa, and there will shortly be a full-service Harrods concession located off the lobby.

The total final cost of the enterprise is projected at just over £300m – almost £90m more than was reportedly spent to relaunch The Savoy, its neighbour on the Strand; and at the time of writing, it was the UK’s second largest building site after the 2012 Olympic stadium. As such, it might still have been the most lavish, ambitious five-star London hotel you’d never heard of, but for the unfolding of events in North Africa this spring, which has turned the spotlight onto the hotel, and Pisani himself, in rather different ways than had been anticipated.

For 70-plus years, the Metropole hotel (which is what the Whitehall Place site was originally constructed as in 1885 – in the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras, a glittering home for European royalty and visiting dignitaries) had housed administrative offices of the Ministry of Defence, which had taken on the lease in 1936. At the time of its decommissioning in November 2007, 29 bids were tendered to the Crown Estate; they were rapidly narrowed to 12, then two, and by January 2008 International Hotel Investments plc – the Malta-listed holding company for Corinthia’s ownership, development and operating divisions – owned the site. IHI secured a £150m loan from a syndicate of banks led by Barclays in a 50-50 loan investment agreement – a firm gesture of faith, at what was the height of the recession – and provided the other investment (in late 2007 it had sold a 33 per cent stake to Istithmar World, the Dubai-based leisure investment fund, for €178m). Since 1974, however, the principal shareholders of IHI have been the Pisani family and the Libyan-Arab Foreign Investment Company (one of IHI’s directors is Ibrahim Zletni, Lafico’s chair and chief executive). Lafico currently holds a 35 per cent stake in the company.

To contextualise this, Lafico also owns a three per cent share in Pearson, the Financial Times’ parent company, and two per cent of Fiat SpA in Italy, as well as similar stakes in everything from foreign oil companies and banks to football teams and agribusinesses. And its London property portfolio is far from limited to this hotel. But Pisani has in recent weeks had to spend a bit more time parsing his company structure and reassuring journalists of its adherence to UK and EU law, and less time expounding on the intricacy of the four-metre Baccarat chandelier commissioned for the hotel’s domed lobby, of which he is singularly proud (and about which, presumably, he would much rather be talking). In late March, he made television appearances to highlight the minority nature of his company’s Libyan shareholders. IHI and Pisani, for their part, stress that the company is acting entirely within the bounds of British law; all Libyan-owned assets are frozen, as dictated by sanctions; and the hotel has the full support of the government (which was, of course, the beneficiary of the Corinthia’s sale).

All this has temporarily obscured the fact that, as five-star hotels go, the Corinthia is a formidable achievement – indisputably a contender that the likes of The Connaught, The Dorchester and, indeed, The Savoy will find themselves reckoning with. Its longevity will in the event be a testament to Pisani himself, reportedly a committed, if sometimes daunting collaborator, possessed of both an obsessive micro-attention to detail and a broad-strokes, philosophical, almost paternalistic vision for his company, which, despite its fiscal structure, he continues to define as “a family-run business”. Pisani forewent a university education to go to work for his father in 1962, running a restaurant on what is now the site of his family’s first hotel in Malta. He secured a $3m advance from the government in the mid-1960s – at barely 20 years old – to turn it into the Corinthia Palace Hotel & Resort.

Fifty years later Corinthia’s portfolio includes more than 20 owned and managed properties in locations across Europe and North Africa, among them St Petersburg, Budapest, Tripoli, Khartoum, Lisbon and Prague; it is scheduled to début a golf and spa resort in Taormina, Sicily, next year. Although they are quality hotels recognised for their uniformly good service, Corinthia hotels are not spoken of in the same breath as their top-end counterparts in the same cities – the Rocco Forte Collection properties, the Mandarin-Orientals, the Four Seasons – with the possible exception of the Corinthia St Petersburg (which underwent its own $135m renovation two years ago) and the Corinthia Budapest.

These two hotels – both historic buildings, meticulously renovated under Pisani’s watchful eye – may have influenced his outcome in London. The Crown Estate purportedly favoured the IHI bid over other finalists (not because it was the highest – it wasn’t) for Corinthia’s track record of respecting the historical context of its properties, and its stated commitment to leave the building’s exterior unaltered. Inside, however, it is a different story. The decades of ministry use resulted in there being no heritage listing on the building’s interiors – something Terry McGinnity, managing director of GA Design International, the firm responsible for the Corinthia’s rooms, suites and spa, notes is “very rare; and a real gift”. GA collaborated with Corinthia in Budapest and

St Petersburg; here, faced with 70 years of the MoD’s aesthetics-free adjustments and insertions, “the biggest challenge was simply identifying the base structure, and then recognising its potential”.

The entire building was a warren of temporary partitions and lowered ceilings; an original interior courtyard, which had been enclosed, was completely unidentifiable (McGinnity and his team determined its actual dimensions only after consulting the plans for the building). The Metropole hotel’s original 600-plus rooms have been reduced to 287, configured along the original corridors but essentially combining two rooms into one for every standard double, which gives average floor-plan areas of almost 46.5sq m, among the largest in the city.

This was not achieved without some sweat and tears, it transpires. Pisani describes the process of arriving at an acceptable prototype: “Two standard rooms were presented, based on boards Terry and GA had made. When I saw them I got one of those stomach pains, the kind that tells you something is very wrong. I said, ‘Terry, this is not what we discussed.’ So they built four more complete versions of the prototype, each time with an alternate palette permutation, fully executed, until we finally had, I felt, got it right.” Total cost of this exercise: just over £1m. Pisani then invited almost 50 friends and family to stay the night and asked them to leave extensive notes on their respective experiences, from which an employee team ranked the most common complaints, which were then meticulously addressed.

The sort of guest who deems the squeaky taps at Claridge’s characterful and laments the day The Connaught was renovated will find much to critique in these resolutely modern rooms; there is not a square centimetre of chintz in the entire hotel. And while the Corinthia’s design makes systematic, at times self-conscious references to the building’s history and situation, it does not succeed in feeling particularly English. But one’s tastes aside, there is no disputing the quality of finishes and materials, a point belaboured in the hotel’s press materials – and, latterly, in conspicuous multipage ad spreads in the likes of Vanity Fair and Condé Nast Traveller (and How To Spend It), exalting the provenance of the Calacatta marble used in the bathrooms, cut and box-fitted on site at the Tuscan quarry so grains would match seamlessly (a labour-intensive and expensive process; and the bathrooms are beautifully finished).

Many rooms have a windowed, walk-in dressing room fitted in cowhide and French oak; there is a great deal of carefully worked polished plaster. If the overall effect is not overtly daring or imaginative, it is in its aggregate very tasteful, and deeply comfortable. (And gratifyingly user-friendly; apparently much of the aforementioned friends-and-family feedback pertained to lighting and fixtures, and ease of use thereof; one luxe-hotel conceit the Corinthia has not succumbed to is confounding screen-touch technology masquerading as ease-of-use wizardry.) It is the hotel’s seven signature suites that will, when they début this summer, have genuine wow factor, both for their unique configurations – most are two-storey spaces of a minimum of 279sq m, designed into the seventh-floor turrets of the building – and for the views they afford over the city.

Pisani was committed to the building’s public spaces having discrete, varied identities. “Continuity wouldn’t have worked,” he says. “I wanted them all – bar, restaurants, spa – to be punchy, totally standalone.” Years of observing the London hotel scene in anticipation of the realisation of this project had helped him formulate precise ideas about who he wanted involved. “I had heard anecdotally about this site,” says David Collins, “[Pisani] approached me about doing the restaurant, and the project piqued my interest, but at the time” – 2009 – “I was just too stretched. I at first categorically said, ‘No, I’m not doing any more London restaurants.’” What changed his mind? “They persevered. And it really was a Sleeping Beauty of a building,” he says. “The restaurant space was a demolished storeroom at the time, just a shell. We built the architectural details in, and everything else after. While I didn’t have carte blanche – I never do – it was clear that they were going to let me get on with what I do; they weren’t going to try to control me.”

Riccioli – something of an icon in Rome for his charm and outsized character, which make him as valuable a commodity on the dining-room floor as he is at the cooktop – was wooed in person by Pisani over three months and several dinners. (He was at the top of a shortlist of chefs that at one point also included Giorgio Locatelli, who reportedly declined to be involved when it became clear that he would have to make the Corinthia his sole venue – effectively, he would have to relocate Locanda Locatelli to the hotel, or close it.) Riccioli’s food, like him, is clever, ebullient and delicious; the emphasis here, as at La Rosetta, is on seafood. He will cook for private groups in a dining room, accessed via the oyster bar, that is a delight of heady design (massive filament lamps suspended from a white-lacquered metal grid, crimson ceilings), with its own open marble kitchen at one end. The Northall restaurant, meanwhile, will be a more traditional endeavour, with an exclusive focus on British products, from oysters to lamb to sparkling wine – and for good measure, an all-British cheese chambre – under the aegis of Garry Hollihead, whose previous stints at Sutherland’s and L’Escargot attached a Michelin star to his name.

Perhaps topping the Corinthia’s long list of contending pièces de résistance is Espa Life, which is scheduled to be fully open by June. It will combine complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) with cosmetic and fitness treatments; it has an integrated staff (all employees, no freelancers) of osteo- and naturopaths, acupuncturists, herbalists, physiotherapists, personal trainers, and massage and aesthetic therapists.

Uniquely, it will offer membership services, starting at £3,500 a year and going up to £15,000 a year for full health-maintenance programmes; the hope is that City commuters will make use of it, as will those guests who spend a couple of days a month here. The spa itself is clad entirely in oyster-coloured shagreen, black- and white-veined marble and iridescent, engineered-stone surfaces; it descends three floors below ground and comprises an indoor pool, wet rooms, sleeping and relaxation pods, 17 treatment rooms and a stunning glass-enclosed sunken sauna; a full 12 fireplaces are scattered throughout various lounge areas. The fitness facilities are, needless to say, the best. There is, perhaps needless to say, nothing else like it in London.

Such is the sum of the Corinthia’s parts: its laundry lists of biggests and bests, its sheer size and budget cannot but impress. Some may dispute the appeal of its location (for every potential guest pleased to have easy access to theatreland or the Eye, there’s one who would likely never dream of staying in Whitehall); some may be distrustful of its modernity, its sleekness, the fairly un-English way it has arrived on the scene flourishing gilded credentials and showing deep pockets. Others will partake piecemeal (the possibility of Bassoon and Massimo not being two of the city’s most sought-after venues for the foreseeable future seems very slim; and the spa promises to become a fixture for day users). And still others will find its balance of writ-large personality, attention to key comforts, and genuinely warm service a winning one. One imagines that Alfred Pisani – after 22 years of wanting, waiting and working – hopes so, too.

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