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Destinations

The Chiltern Firehouse reborn

André Balazs is the alchemist of the luxury hospitality world, and the Chiltern Firehouse, in London, is his latest – and possibly best – hotel yet. Maria Shollenbarger gets an exclusive walk-through

May 16 2014
Maria Shollenbarger

A great hotel is a performance in progress. More than merely a place to lay one’s head, it’s a stage on which endlessly intersecting narratives play out to a backdrop of meticulous set and sound design, expertly calibrated lighting and some careful casting in the form of beautifully turned out, genial staff. When whoever is overseeing the production gets it all ineffably, gloriously right, you perceive not the slightest hint of effort. Whether you’re a Hollywood auteur, an art-world iconoclast, a fashion creative or merely a sixtysomething Home Counties barrister who’s trundled into town for Sunday lunch at the restaurant, you just know it feels spot on. Comfortable. Chic.

The guests around you are aglow with the energy of knowing they’re at the centre of something special; the people who greet you, take your bags, serve you your glass of Saint-Aubin are all equally competent in the extreme, fluidly playing their part in the elegant improvisation. Does the design have to be the very height of fashion? Not necessarily, although no one can claim that it’s anything but profoundly stylish. Is the food top-notch? But of course – even if that's less than half the allure of a truly great hotel restaurant. Permeating this is, above all, a sense of place, though it need not be a sense of the city in which the property stands. Indeed, a good hotel can – should – be an eminently desirable world unto itself.

This, in very broad strokes, is what André Balazs thinks makes a good hotel. And when he lights on this subject, you are inclined to listen, because it’s fair to argue that no hotelier has mastered this complex alchemy to the brilliant extent that Balazs has. When he bought the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood in 1990, he reversed the fortunes of a faded property (albeit one with landmark status and compelling – if hardly authentic – Loire Valley gothic architectural aspirations) by imbuing it with his unquantifiable blend of studied unstudiedness, aesthetics that cultivate a building’s heritage and spirit and an energy that infuses it with something exotic and entirely modern. The Mercer, in Manhattan’s SoHo, followed in 1997, radiating the same appeal and attracting the same globetrotting clients as had taken to the Chateau (and it, like the Chateau for Hollywood, was seminal in galvanising the reinvigoration of the then-moribund section of Lower Manhattan). Sunset Beach, in the exclusive community of Shelter Island in Long Island’s East End, opened in 1997 as Balazs’ first resort-style property. His Standard Hotels, a more accessible translation of this ethos for a younger audience, have meanwhile proliferated across Los Angeles, Miami and New York.

Two weeks ago Balazs drew back the curtains on his latest production, the Chiltern Firehouse, a 26-room hotel in London’s Marylebone (the restaurant of which opened in February). Designed and built in 1888 by Metropolitan Board of Works lead architect Robert Pearsall, it was the first purpose-built fire station in the city; the brigades lived in quarters across the top three of the building’s four storeys. Replete with tracery and carving, chimneys and layered gothic arches, the extravagant exterior fronts a building with a profoundly utilitarian purpose. Financial Times architecture critic Edwin Heathcote described it as “[synthesising] a series of Victorian notions about the city, about safety, about urbanity and solidity… [a] rewarding mix of urban presence, municipal solidity, Victorian elegance and domestic detail”.  

Balazs, who had been looking to open a hotel in London for well over a decade and had set his sights on this building just as it was decommissioned in 2005, sees the Firehouse as an apotheosis of sorts – a culmination of many signal elements of his ethos, comprising beautiful and challenging architecture, heritage, storytelling and iterative and collaborative design. He describes it as “intensely bespoke. The Firehouse had in its DNA all the things we had at the Chateau and The Mercer. Like them, this was about really knowing the building – unearthing what was there, then assessing the sort of atmosphere that could go with it. Before we tore anything out, we cleaned it off and dusted it down to see what it was and what we could do with it.” Balazs enlisted a wide range of talents to work with his own in-house team, including the London-based architect David Archer (who had spent several years as a part of said team), and the Paris-based design firm Studio KO, whose work Balazs had clocked and admired previously at the L’Heure Bleue Palais, in Essaouira, Morocco.  

At Chiltern Firehouse, what they together have unearthed, examined and ultimately deployed ranges from the concrete to the purely conceptual. There are the straightforward design elements: the original rough terracotta floor tiles in the carriage house, complete with abrasions from the iron wheels of the horse-drawn engines, remain and are now the floor of the restaurant. The multiple layers of paint revealed along one wall of the Laddershed have been left conspicuously unrestored. “It’s actually quite gorgeous and sophisticated paint to us, but at the time it was just the utilitarian sort they used,” says Balazs. He calls these elements “the base of the vernacular” that then works its way throughout the hotel’s design. And there are more whimsical, storytelling moments: the plain, sliding white-linen window screens in the former brigade chief’s quarters, now a suite, are embellished with borders of ornate silk passementerie – the sort of detail, the team speculated, that the chief’s young bride might have added to enliven a stark barracks flat that she found herself living in. “Yes!” Balazs exclaims when I comment on it, with more or less the same thought. “She’d have wanted to jooj it up with something like this.”

The primary architectural challenge was retrofitting a modern luxury hotel into a space that had, essentially, been designed from the outside in (“the reverse of what good architecture should be,” notes Balazs). The final product comprises the original firehouse, which holds most of the rooms and the restaurant; a new-build that holds the lounge/reception and four suites; and the Laddershed – now a bar-lounge for those staying at the hotel and their guests. Archer took on the daunting task of designing the rooms – none of which is identical to another in size or layout – into the former barracks. “We had all the floor plans from the Portman Estate; we’d get them out and begin mapping things, and start getting somewhere we liked. And inevitably we’d run into something – a ledge we didn’t know was there, say – and have to backtrack and start over.” The nearly 30 fireplaces – all added – had to have their exhaust systems routed through the new architecture to connect to the old chimneys (the building’s Grade II listing meant the roofline couldn’t be altered). “The Mercer was a cakewalk compared to this,” Balazs says with a laugh. The efforts haven’t gone unappreciated, however; at the time of going to press, Chiltern Firehouse was short-listed for a 2014 RIBA London-region award.

The hotel that has resulted is charming, in the truest, spell-casting sense of that word. Luxury is undeniably present and accounted for: the bathrooms are clad in beautiful combinations of handmade glazed tile and light-grey veined marble and are impeccably lit; the beds are enormous, made up in the finest linens; and the functions and tech are all state-of-the-art (Balazs tells me this is probably the most technically sophisticated conversion in the city right now). But in the choice of materials, the palette, the design of the furniture, in the intention, for lack of a better word, behind the overall aesthetic mood, there is a thread of what can only be described as modesty. Modesty that is a nod to the late-Victorian/early Edwardian history of the building, and that utterly transcends fashion. There are mirrored oval tables and old-fashioned folding screens hung with embroidered white linen. There is deep-green carpet embossed with paisley on the floors and petal-pink paint on the walls. There are small working fireplaces and armchairs covered in deep orange and sage velvet, their bottoms thick with ropes of silk fringe; there are bevelled mirrors in mahogany frames and reassuringly bulky chests of drawers of solid tongue-and-groove timber, varnished to a gloriously old-school burnish, with thick slabs of pink-and-green marble atop them. (All of it has been custom-made for the hotel by the Balazs team.) There is much space, but nothing is outsized or overstated.

“It went through many, many iterations to find the right language,” says Balazs. “And as often happens, what we started with isn’t what we ended with. This building in particular was so complicated. It was physically very restrictive, and ambitions were high. And it had to have the right tone.” But there is an element of “a humble vocabulary” to the final result, Balazs acknowledges. “It had to be humble in some way – this is a building that was essentially a soldiers’ barracks. These men were fighters.”

That understated ambience is less prevalent downstairs in the public spaces, where a seat in the restaurant is the hardest one to get in town, and where the show plays out its most eminently watchable scenes. Here, something modest of bygone London merges with something more overtly glamorous of Hollywood, with a hint of Continental sex appeal thrown in. In the Laddershed lounge, on a wall behind a platform topped by two turntables and boxes of vintage vinyl records, hangs the specially commissioned large work by the Chicago artist Theaster Gates, fabricated from yards of yellow fire hose. “[Chicago mayor] Rahm Emanuel donated that for this project,” Balazs tells me. Raw and assertive, it contrasts dynamically with the potted palms and genteel rattan sofas, their cushions upholstered in faded florals. The restaurant itself, in the old carriage house, has been reduced to its raw historical signifiers – riveted iron beams, exposed brick, cracked tiles – and layered richly in precise lighting, Oriental rugs, midcentury dining chairs and a squadron of tall, lithe, smiling and impeccably turned-out waiting and kitchen staff. Nuno Mendes, who made his name with The Loft Project in east London and Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green, smiles widely from in front of the busy open kitchen. At 8pm on a recent weeknight, the place was fizzing with energy, the buzz almost audible.

The dynamism – the story that compels people to step in and play their part – is in the mix, then. Says Balazs, “For me, it’s like an old-school Hollywood movie: you define the role components and fill them. Who will act? Who will direct? They all come together. It’s personally very rewarding, this element of the production of a stage, the rehearsal. And of course, you have to deliver.” So the show goes on.