Thierry Despont: inside the mind of the chameleon architect

The architect who restored the Statue of Liberty and the Ritz Paris is now rebuilding the Old War Office in Whitehall. Nick Foulkes finds him in fighting form...

Thierry Despont in the Penthouse Suite at 45 Park Lane
Thierry Despont in the Penthouse Suite at 45 Park Lane | Image: Harry Crowder

Thierry Despont may be a wildly successful architect and designer, but that is never going to get in the way of his being first and forever a professional Frenchman. At 70, silver-haired and suave, he has the red rosette of the Légion d’Honneur decorating his buttonhole. His honey and gravel voice sounds as French as Maurice Chevalier eating a baguette halfway up the Eiffel Tower… 40 years of living in New York notwithstanding. Shortly after arriving in Manhattan, he was named consultant architect on the US’s most important historical architectural project: the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. “Because I restored that, people say, ‘He can do my kitchen,’” he laughs self-deprecatingly.

The Woolworth Building, New York
The Woolworth Building, New York | Image: Travis Mark

Despont is the starchitect you may never have heard of… unless you have a world-class monument to restore (as well as the Statue of Liberty, he worked on Paris’s Vendôme Column); a globally famous hotel that requires renewing (Claridge’s, the Ritz Paris and The Carlyle); an international flagship store to open (Cartier’s New York Mansion and Ralph Lauren’s London temple); or you’re just a regular billionaire in need of a status-appropriate roof over your head (Bill Gates, Calvin Klein and Mickey Drexler, inter alios). If so, Thierry Despont is the man you call. Were F Scott Fitzgerald writing today, his characters would live in Despont-designed houses and apartments.

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He is busy on both sides of the Atlantic. “I’m just finishing 220 Central Park South, for developer Steve Roth, which is the most expensive, luxurious brand-new apartment building in New York, and I’m restoring the Woolworth Building, which is a great historical landmark where the upper 30 floors are being converted into apartments,” he says. Simultaneously, he is working on six London projects: two major hotels, a residential complex around the corner from 5 Hertford Street, and three private residences, including one of those Victorian stucco megamansions on Kensington Palace Gardens and another 19th-century behemoth in Belgravia known as Forbes House that was once owned by the Barclay Brothers.

220 Central Park South
220 Central Park South | Image: Ondel – CityRealty.com

In truth, he is more of a chameleon architect than a starchitect. At the risk of oversimplifying things, a starchitect is hired to create a branded building – the architectural equivalent of a Birkin bag or Chanel suit – that will do its best to dominate the area in which it is raised. Despont dislikes starchitecture. “I may be old-fashioned, but I do believe urban design is very important. When Haussmann did the Rue de Rivoli, he didn’t really care what was going to be behind the façade, but he decided to build this great street with an arcade. The sadness with speculators today is that each one hires a star architect because they think the façade is going to sell the building.” That is not what his clients come to him for, he says. “They come to me because they know I’m a very good listener. My best clients have always been people who had very strong ideas, and it was my role to hold the pencil.”

Thierry Despont in the Penthouse Suite at 45 Park Lane
Thierry Despont in the Penthouse Suite at 45 Park Lane | Image: Harry Crowder

When Despont does a house, he believes he is creating an architectural portrait of its owner, writing a biography in brick, glass and stucco. “I have to feel empathy and have a willingness to listen to what makes them tick. A great house comes from empathy. Many architects put themselves in a straitjacket, saying, ‘I only do white buildings’ or ‘I do glass buildings’ and so on,” he declares. “For me, it’s like a pianist who refuses to play anything but Bach. I love Bach’s Variations, but you could play the Impromptus of Schubert as well.” 

60 Curzon in Mayfair
60 Curzon in Mayfair

Whether it is designing a Cipriani hotel at a New York ferry terminal, where he envisages the rooftop bar as the deck of an ocean liner and each room as a cabin, or reopening an 18th-century quarry to get the right sand to remake the bricks that built the governor’s mansion in Williamsburg for the house of a modern tycoon, Despont is like an actor inhabiting a role. As such, he will tackle anything… except lofts. “They photograph well and look grand, but are not a practical way to live.”

60 Curzon’s courtyard
60 Curzon’s courtyard

Functionality is key in his work. “In any house I’ve done, be it very large or very small, you always have to organise the functions of living, eating, entertaining and sleeping.” There may also be larger bathrooms with steam rooms – “People love to spend time in their bathroom”; exercise rooms; massage rooms; movie theatres. Most recently, he has found himself recommending that his clients have a package room: “In a decent-sized house, I think you do need a parcel room. Why? Because people do a lot of internet shopping, with the option to ship it back,” he explains. “We used to have those big steamer trunks to travel on transatlantic liners and you had a luggage room. Thank God this room has become smaller because we now travel with carry-on luggage and buy what we need when we arrive.”

The pool at the Woolworth Building
The pool at the Woolworth Building | Image: Travis Mark

Only Despont would be able to draw an architectural parallel between internet shopping and the golden age of the ocean liner. But then, history is his thing. “I’ve always felt my passion for architecture is explained in great part by my taste for history, because you have to know about it when you look at any building.” And there are few more historic projects under construction at the moment than the Old War Office in Whitehall. Here, Despont has been engaged by the Hinduja family, the site’s majority owners, to turn this colossal early-20th-century swagger building, from which two world wars were run and where MIs 5 and 6 were founded, into a Raffles hotel with 85 apartments.

Thierry Despont in the Penthouse Suite at 45 Park Lane
Thierry Despont in the Penthouse Suite at 45 Park Lane | Image: Harry Crowder

“It is going to have some of the biggest suites of any hotel in Europe. I took it on because the building is spectacular, absolutely amazing – one of the grandes dames of the Edwardian era.” When Despont talks history, his eyes burn with enthusiasm and intensity. “It’s full of history, and I love that. I mean, if you are staying in the room once occupied by the chief of the imperial general staff… that’s really extraordinary.” He revels in the historical minutiae, savouring the fact that it once boasted 1,000 rooms arranged along two-and-a-half miles of corridors. “This building was so big that on every floor they had messenger rooms, and little boys who were sent running with a message from one office to another.”

London’s Old War Office, Whitehall
London’s Old War Office, Whitehall | Image: © Image by Grain London

This project is no less colossal. “We are excavating five storeys below ground and creating an all-new ballroom – a proper double-height ballroom. Plus there’s going to be a new rooftop bar, there’s going to be a secret club in the basement, there’s going to be a great swimming pool and a spa… I mean, this is a grand hotel with all the facilities you can envisage.” And modern grandeur means big rooms, really big rooms. “Room sizes have grown so much in recent years, and it is designed so you could, if you wanted, have the entire piano nobile as one gigantic suite, a glorious apartment.”

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Despont is quite intoxicated by the scale of the Old War Office, but he is similarly enthusiastic about the redesign of The Beaumont hotel, a much more intimate project. “The Beaumont is the notion of the boutique hotel being like a club. It may not have the sprawling suites, but the staff are fantastic: they know you, you don’t have to check in, they take you straight to your room. In my case, they treat me in a wonderful way. I mentioned once one of my favourite rosés and each time I go there I find a bottle of it in my room.”

His enthusiasm is boundless. He is the consummate showman and his client presentations have a splendid theatricality about them. He prepared models for Bill and Melinda Gates, for example, who unsurprisingly wanted a 3D computer rendering of his plans. “I said, ‘No, I’m going to do a model of each and every major room, big enough so you can put your head in it,’” he declares. “First, they said, ‘Oh, we think it’s a bit unnecessary.’” They compromised for the first room, a movie theatre – the architect supplied computer animation and a model, complete with a film shown on a screen, big enough for the Microsoft founder to put his head inside. “I took it to Seattle and after that we did these gigantic models, room after room, and I would put them on a big 18-wheel truck with my name on it and it would go cross-country, while I would fly for a presentation.”

More than an architect and designer, Despont is a cicerone for his clients and he is terrific company. “I would say, without being overly romantic, that almost all my clientele remain good friends, because I truly believe one of my great credits is that I want to give shape to their dreams.” Now, in London, he is giving shape to one of his own dreams. 60 Curzon in Mayfair is a development of 32 apartments above the old Mirabelle restaurant, arranged around a small courtyard garden. From the plans and renderings it seems to be part contemporary Albany, part Park Avenue apartment building of the sort that has a uniformed doorman.

Scheduled to open later this year, it has the inevitable palatial penthouses priced at many thousands of pounds per sq ft, but what really excites Despont are the 14 studios or, as he prefers to call them, suites. “I very much wanted to conceive those suites, studios or small apartments as something fantastic – the very, very best hotel suite you can imagine,” he says. “A century ago urban living for the very rich was huge houses with retinues of servants. This is gone. You don’t need a gigantic place where half the space is unused half the time.” So at 60 Curzon he has ensured that there is storage space, a spa, a pool, a private dining room and a cellar for residents to use when they need.

He enumerates the attributes of the perfect pied-à-terre. “You need a sitting room, a great bedroom, a very good bathroom, and closet space. There has to be a kitchen, but I want it to disappear behind panelled doors that resemble walls, or be concealed behind a bookcase that opens to reveal a fully functioning space.” So where does architecture end and decoration begin? “I have a very hard time answering that. I find it really nonsensical to say, ‘I want to sell you a small studio, but it’s unfurnished and that’s your problem. You’re going to have to worry about decorating and furnishing it.’”

So he took matters into his own hands and announced that he was going to do the whole thing, right down to the salt dishes and the letterhead. “The owners of 60 Curzon said, ‘Thierry, we agree, we’re going to deliver it fully furnished, where everything from the carpet to the wall covering to the lighting and furniture is done by you. These suites come from the experience I had working on five-star hotels, from Claridge’s, which was the first hotel I worked on back in the 1990s, to the Ritz, which I completed a couple of years ago in Paris.”

So what is the ultimate in luxury living? “If I had all the money in the world, I would obviously have a house on a secluded beach, a ski chalet and a country estate. But in the city, I would not bother having a big house, I would definitely live in one of the best suites of the best hotel. That’s what I see as the trend in the new high-end urban living,” he says, warming to his theme and just a little drunk on his own rhetoric. “Honestly, I don’t understand why billionaires still don’t live in hotels.” If anyone can convince them, it will be Thierry Despont.

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