Breaking one’s own rules

Breaking one?s own rules

I loved my time living and working in the States with responsibility for architecture first for Holiday Inn and then for Hyatt. Always visiting new destinations, making new contacts ? many of whom have become lifelong friends ? working hard and playing harder. But after some 15 years of this lifestyle it began to pall and home in the UK started to beckon, so I looked about for someone who might employ me. Since all my career I had designed hotels, it seemed a reasonable idea to find an architectural practice that specialised in the sector. To my surprise, there weren?t any in the UK so I decided to return and set one up.

On the face of it, a great idea. Filling a market gap with all that international experience to offer! I am happy to say that it worked out pretty well in the end but it has definitely not been all plain sailing and in the process I?ve had to break a rule or two of my own.

Our first problem was that of timing. The ink was barely dry on our new letterhead when the 1990 recession hit Britain. For those too young to remember or in another part of the globe, that was the recession when UK interest rates were at 15% and before technology linked the world making international working truly viable. We survived largely by refurbishing bingo halls in the north of England ? cavernous spaces full of cigarette smoke in which the mainly poor and elderly whiled away their time and cash. But, of course, the hotel industry did come back from the brink and slowly we built up a portfolio of projects in London and the surrounding regions.

Hotel projects in the 1990s were quite different from today, however. For a start, the overwhelming proportion of mid to top end projects in the UK were refurbishments; secondly, the attitude amongst hoteliers towards design was ? and this was actually said to me by a client ? ?Ooh, we can?t do that. We?ve never done it before.?  Thank goodness so much has changed, epitomised for me in the approval for planning we have just gained to build a new hotel in a grade ll listed building in London?s Mayfair. This will include a inhabitable sculpture by artist Anthony Gormley that will be one of the guestrooms.

For ReardonSmith, the new century brought more overseas projects and the opportunity to break into resorts. This was when two of my early rules were quickly broken. One was to substantially reduce the percentage of my life spent sitting in airports and on airplanes. Not do-able once we were working in the Seychelles, Jamaica, Italy, Croatia, Russia, Morocco and Montenegro to name but a few. The other was to never grow the business to more than about 15 people. Well, recently, we have topped 75, but not, as I have to my relief found, at the expense of either I or my fellow eponymous director, Conrad Smith, losing touch with the act of designing itself.

Today, the business has, of course, been through its second recession. Fortunately, we were in a much stronger position this time; iconic hotel restoration and new marina destinations have replaced gaming centres for the unemployed. However, we have had to get on even more of those airplanes and work in places we barely knew of just five years ago such as Baku, Minsk and Cape Verde. Happily, I now have a team of very experienced but younger colleagues for whom the charm of travel to places that don?t yet have decent hotels in order that we can build one remains an alluring prospect.

My next blog will probably be from France where I shall be taking my annual retreat in my favorite hotel which I look forward to sharing with you. But don?t expect a ?design? hotel! After more than 40 years in hotel architecture, I have absolutely no wish to spend my valuable spare time staying in a hotel that feels designed – beyond the thought given to providing reasonably comfortable beds, clean linen and an apparently effortless service. Gimmicks, gadgets and the latest shade of blue are of absolutely no interest to me unless they add to my sense of well-being, and usually they do the opposite.

This brings me, finally, onto what will be a thread in my blogs. We live in a world it seems to me where no one is prepared to tell the emperor that he?s naked. As a result, architects get away with aggrandising their unworkable designs with meaningless vocabulary, designers are led by their egos rather than the best interest of the client, people spend an inordinate amount of money to be badly served and being different now runs the risk of simply not being as good for the human condition as what we had before. In between these musings, I hope to also have some cameo moments to share from my travels ? such as the time when, a long way from home and travelling to an ?emerging? country on business, we had to knock on a door to get the lights switched on in the airport. Or, the sheer exhilaration of the vertigo moment when, having battled my way through dense vegetation accompanied by a new client, I was suddenly standing on a cliff edge of dizzying heights looking over the most magnificent ocean view ? for once literally breathtaking and a glimpse into the vision of the person who stood beside me.