Renovating historic icons: Retain the past or introduce the new?

Renovating historic icons: Retain the past or introduce the new?

As of yet, no one has asked me to renovate a modern icon — for example, my personal “design landmark,” the Paramount in New York City by Philippe Starck.
Paramount lobby

However, I still wonder how we as designers should handle such a legend if asked to refurbish it. Of course the same question also arises when a famous, but traditional, hotel needs to be restored.

I’m going to write about “aged” modern design icons in my next blog. But this time, let’s discuss those great “old” hotels.

So how should designers handle traditional noble icons like the Waldorf Astoria in New York, the Ritz in Paris, the Carlton in Cannes or the Dolder in Zurich? We have renovated illustrious historic luxury hotels for which the designer is often unspecified, although the hotel’s special ambiance has been attracting guests for ages.

But rather than promote my projects, an interesting example is the famous London landmark, The Savoy (operated by Fairmont), which was completely refurbished just a year ago by ReardonSmith Architects and PYR (Pierre Yves Rochon). The investment was clearly more than would normally be spent on a new-build luxury hotel. In reality, I think that pretty much everything in the structure was changed or restored, including the façade facing the Thames. And inside, of course, no wall, floor, ceiling or piece of furniture went untouched in some respect.

Thames Lounge at The Savoy

But when I stayed at the hotel just after the reopening, I spoke with an elderly woman who had been taking her tea there for decades — and she was so happy that “nothing had changed.” She appreciated that somehow the atmosphere stayed the same although nearly all the elements that went into creating this specific version of The Savoy were new. And I, as a designer from the 20th century, agreed — it is exactly what I hope for in a luxury, traditional English hotel. It is lovely!

But then of course other possibilities exist when handling historic monuments. Not far away from The Savoy is One Aldwych, where Mary Fox Linton created a classically modern hotel within a traditional shell. This also is a great solution for hotel design, as it has now become a new, absolutely perfect style icon.

One Aldwych
But the difference is that this historic structure was renovated to create a new hotel that needed to attract a fresh clientele, whereas The Savoy’s loyal guests were predisposed to expect an image of traditional heritage. 

I strongly believe that there is no “correct” answer when renovating a traditional hotel — it is actually a question of marketing intent. Everything is possible — a cool design in a charming old building can be fantastic, but quite often a classic renovation or even restoration is the right solution for retaining a distinguished atmosphere and long-time guests.