Norman Foster first visited Philadelphia when he was an architecture student at Yale. Now he has returned to the city to update the idea of the grand hotel for a new generation of upscale travellers. He shows John Arlidge around
It takes a leap of faith to conjure up Badrutt’s Palace in downtown Philadelphia, especially when you’re an archmodernist, but the giant castle in St Moritz is on Lord Norman Foster’s mind when we meet in the city.
The British architect behind the Gherkin in the City of London, the new face of the Reichstag in Berlin and Apple’s flying saucer headquarters in Cupertino has returned to the town he first visited as a Yale student to show Spear’s his latest creation: the Four Seasons Hotel atop the Comcast Tower.
‘The reference point is the traditional, grand hotel: the turn-of-the-century leisure export to the Alps,’ he says as we walk into the building. ‘They’re celebratory. They’re generous. They’re about views, sunshine. I’m after that same idea, a feeling that this is something special.’
The latest addition to the Four Seasons stable is special, all right. You race up the side of the 60-storey, 341m-tall glass and steel tower, the ninth tallest in the US, in a lift to the 60th floor and walk straight into the lobby. The floor is glossy black marble and the roof is made of glass. The late winter sunshine is reflected in the floor and lights up the purple flowers set, literally, in stone on either side by floral designer Jeff Leatham to create walls of colour.
A few paces to the left, the entire top floor rolls out, with 360° views to the horizon. The sense of height and light that Foster wanted to borrow from the glint of the snow in St Moritz is enhanced by the vast mirrors on the ceiling that are angled to reflect the view into the ceiling.
‘I’ve used mirrors consistently, but never like this before,’ he says. ‘In the early 1970s I did a project for Pavilions in a forest in Oslo to reflect north light directly into the building. The Hongkong Bank [HSBC HQ in Hong Kong] has a reflector which brings sunlight down into the atrium.’
The angled glass panes above my head look lethal, like guillotine blades that could fall at any moment, I joke. ‘No, no, not at all,’ he laughs. The pinnacle of the Comcast Tower, which is also designed by Foster and takes up an entire city block, borrows a trick from the Gherkin – it’s a summit for people.
‘In your typical tall building, the cooling tower is at the top with all the mechanical plant. It’s still quite radical to say that the pinnacle is for people,’ he explains. Where are all the air conditioning services and water tanks? ‘They’re distributed up the length of the building. And there are plant floors. Very discreet.’
Foster, founder and executive chairman of Foster + Partners, his London-based practice, has designed hotels before, in London and Asia, but nothing on the scale or with the budget of the Four Seasons Philadelphia. He’s making the most of it. The vast Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant is just off the top floor, down a flight of black steps flanked by two babbling water-walls.
The space may be big, but banquettes make it feel intimate. Flowers soften the stone finishes. ‘There are very few restaurants that celebrate flowers. It creates a great feeling of luxury and indulgence,’ says Foster. As his business has expanded to encompass 19 offices in 12 countries, Foster has stayed in as many hotels as the most indefatigable road warrior.
‘We all spend more time in hotel rooms than we’d like to,’ he laughs. So he has plenty of views on what makes a good room. His golden rules are originality, difference, size, privacy, and no gimmicks.
‘When you walk into a good hotel room,’ he tells me as we enter a standard room beneath the huge gym and spa, ‘it should not feel like another hotel room you’ve stayed in. It needs personality – to be different in ways that I’d like to think are more welcoming, more convenient, more generous.’
Not being a hotel designer helps, ‘because the ideas are coming out of a broader cultural background. Most people who do hotel interiors are specialist hotel interior designers, which is why every bloody hotel interior looks the same.’
The first sign of difference comes before you even get into the room. The walls of the corridor curve in to the doorway to each room, which ‘makes the corridor feel less like the conventional, anonymous corridor with endless faceless doors’. As we walk in, he says:
This is one of the standard rooms but it does not feel standard size. They are 352-407sq ft and have very generous ceiling height. It’s 10ft throughout.’ The large footprint enables Foster to create ‘a degree of privacy, which is also unusual’.
By using sliding doors, clad in hand-stained maple veneer from Pennsylvania, he divides the room into distinct zones – bed, bath, walk-in closet, dressing, living – linked but also separate enough to feel like different rooms. The shower is vast and walk-through. Curved corners give an impression of generosity of space.
The sense of comfort is enhanced by the warm palette of materials and bronze tones, as well as a total lack of gimmickry or tackiness. There’s mood lighting throughout but there are only three settings: bright, not too bright, and time for bed. The TV auto-defaults not to the usual hotel promo but a collection of Brian Eno digital artworks set to his music.
‘My wife, Elena, who is very vocal and wonderfully opinionated, came up with the Brian Eno idea. We have his work at home and enjoy what he does,’ Foster smiles. For a travel hound who has designed his own jet and luggage, good storage is a must. T
he closets are bright and big enough to walk into. The bespoke furniture used throughout the hotel has been designed by Foster’s practice. Does it all work? Foster’s beady eye has caught the odd rough edge.
‘Last time we were here we agreed that the little sensor in the middle of the mirror in the lobby would be removed. It’s still there, right in the middle of the mirror. Of all of the places to put it! In the lobby on the ground floor, there’s this huge mirror and there’s a power outlet at the bottom, which draws your eye to it. It should not be like that.’ But these will not trouble guests – if they clock them at all.
For most, Foster’s palace in the sky will succeed every bit as well as Four Seasons’ Gotham City-style midtown Manhattan property that 30 years ago updated the grande dame city hotel for a new generation
Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia at Comcast Center, from $580 (£440) per night
This article is from the March/April edition of Spear’s magazine, available now