Shanghai’s skyline is becoming the envy of many world cities. A building boom over the past decade has restructured the Chinese commercial capital’s relationship with architecture. Put simply, big and bold is believed to be beautiful, and the city has expanded skyward at an astonishing pace. Across both sides of the Huangpu River that runs through the city, large clusters of skytowers offer a visual metaphor for the economic ambition of both Shanghai and China.
Along the way, Shanghai’s diverse spread of heritage architecture has been overshadowed as development, particularly in the hospitality industry, has focused on new-build properties. Indeed, Shanghai now counts the world’s highest hotel among its impressive portfolio of luxury lodgings. But attention is beginning to turn towards restorations of landmark properties as part of the overall regeneration of Shanghai in the lead up to hosting the 2010 World Expo.
At the forefront of Shanghai’s renewed engagement with historical architecture is The Bund, a strip of riverside mansions built during Shanghai’s rapid economic development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Shanghainese call the Bund a “museum of world architecture”, as the buildings incorporate several design styles, including Greek, Japanese and French. Now, two of The Bund’s signature properties, the English renaissance style Shanghai Club, and the American deco Peace Hotel have become Shanghai’s highest-profile restoration projects.
The challenge for our designers is clear. Both the Waldorf-Astoria on the Bund, which will open in the former Shanghai Club, and the Fairmont Peace Hotel are tasked with taking their place among the world’s finest hotels. But, as opposed to cities like Paris, London or New York where hotels in landmark properties are an intrinsic part of the city’s hospitality map, Shanghai has little experience of managing restoration projects.
Back in the 1930s, the Peace Hotel was one of he most luxurious hotels in the world, and Shanghai also claimed a handful of other distinguished hotels that hosted global and local high society. But over time, these hotels stagnated or, in some cases, closed altogether. When the Peace Hotel closed in 2007 for a three-year renovation programme one of the city’s most prized architectural assets had become a time-warped and uninspiring hotel.
The Fairmont Peace Hotel and the Waldorf-Astoria on the Bund represent different design challenges. The former is a conversion of a former hotel, while the latter is a restoration of a building not previously used as a hotel and which has been closed to the public for many years.
Adding to the challenge is the fact that expectations of travelers to China have heightened over the last five years. The opening of international-standard hotels in major Chinese cities has elevated demands for comfort, hospitality and service. Shanghai’s own breakneck development has become associated with modernity and futurism, so updating these landmark buildings without compromising their architectural traditions means navigating uncharted waters.
The objective, however, is to create interior spaces that update each building’s unique personality. For while there is a consensus worldwide that luxury travelers like to stay in hotels located in older buildings blending local traditions and history, these two properties will operate in a very competitive marketplace. Over the next two years, Shanghai will welcome at least ten other luxury hotel openings.
The guest rooms and restaurants are vital components for landmark hotel properties. As part of the design process, we engaged as many references as possible and followed every lead we could find. Our designers watched black-and-white movie reels shot inside the buildings, and even ran a campaign for people to share their memories of these magnificent buildings. We also assessed how dining expectations are evolving in Shanghai, and looked at the best restaurants worldwide, both freestanding and in hotels, to determine the right elements for attracting not only hotel guests but also a cross-section of Shanghai society.
Local design elements will be incorporated sparingly, including artworks hanging in public spaces and design motifs in the bedrooms. It is important not to create a generic interior that references only the building’s heritage or location. However, both projects share the same objective: to become world-class hotels that balance historic appeal with contemporary luxury – and which contribute to the regeneration of The Bund.
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