This is a city whose hotels are in general stifled by chintz and cheesiness. It has taken a long time for hoteliers who value modern design to shake up tradition. But now (inevitably) Sir Terence Conran is busy renovating the Great Eastern Hotel, near Liverpool Street Station, and retail empress Christina Ong will open the Metropolitan Hotel on Park Lane in January. Ian Schrager, who is behind the Royalton (and Paramount?) in New York, is also investigating London sites, allegedly in Fitzrovia north of Oxford Street.
But first off the mark is the former actress and couturier Lady Weinberg, better known as Anouska Hempel, whose Blake's Hotel in Kensington has long been patronised by the more discerning rock stars and members of the Eurotrash. Her new hotel in Bayswater, unashamedly named The Hempel, has just opened. And it's extraordinary.
This is like no other hotel in London. No amount of hype can really prepare you for its beauty and singularity. Hempel is right when she says:"You'll know whether you love it or hate it as soon as you walk in the door." But even at her exorbitant prices (pounds 230-plus for a double room), she doesn't expect empty rooms.
The 52-bedroom hotel has been neatly inserted behind the retained facades of five Victorian houses in a Bayswater square - re-stuccoed but revealing nothing of their surprising interior. Lady Weinberg's black-suited, sharply- cropped young doormen welcome you into a small anteroom, a white square dominated by a sea of orchids. Clearly a transitional space, this leads you into the lobby - and the shock of the new, for The Hempel has introduced minimalism to the British hotel.
A long, low hall in white stone, the lobby is a model of uncluttered serenity - featureless but for the reception desk, two seating areas sunk into the floor, and fireplaces at each end whose flames dance eerily over white shells. The ceiling appears to float as you approach the pale square of light hovering over the centre of the room, and are confronted by a narrow atrium soaring upwards through the heart of the building. This lightwell, as tall as the lobby is wide, is dotted by square holes which project images at night and convey a futuristic drama.
Any notion that minimalism is dry and humourless is totally undermined by this timeless, teasing space, which could be a plastic surgeon's waiting room, a Zen temple, or just a dream. And, architecturally, it works a treat. While Hempel claims inspiration from a lifetime's travelling - "the Far East, India, the pyramids, igloos, the inside of a ship's funnel" - the architects, Hugh Tuffley and Russell Jones (both, like her, Australian), have married her ideas to what Jones shrewdly describes as: "Fundamental modern architecture - line, shape, proportion, form." The result is a kind of bravura minimalism (she suggests Hempelism, but we'll let that pass): cool and consistent, yes, but with a warmth not readily associated with this style of architecture.
The humour is also in evidence in the basement, where the hotel bar literally projects into the restaurant as a serving station (a "diving board" over the "mercury sea" of the restaurant floor, says Hempel). Enigmatic, hunched figures can be glimpsed through frosted glass screens, and the waiters' feet can be seen scuffling to and fro beneath another.
Although Hempel has the clear aim of instilling in her guests "a new way of living where you don't have to have all the paraphernalia", she accepts that in the bedrooms - the crux of any hotel - the ambition has to be somewhat tempered: "You can't live in beige and white. You've got to give your guests choices." Thus each bedroom is different, while drawing on a common palette of black & white, beige, greys and browns, hardwood floors, Oriental murals, and numerous screens (sandblasted glass, corrugated card) and blinds. In true minimalist vein, the sinks and baths are always chunky and spectacular, formed from either solid stone or glass, with flowing water illuminated by concealed fibre optic lighting. One room has a delightful, vaulted ceiling and a smoothly swinging door to the loo; the most spectacular has its bed in a cage suspended from the ceiling.
Although the Hempel is the antithesis of Blake's eclectic hotch-potch, its owner is confident of attracting a familiar clientele. "I'm gearing towards a very young, rich crowd, and exciting, creative people - stars, artists," she declares. The net could be much wider, embracing many who would undoubtedly welcome a truly novel, not to say contemplative, space in central London, and would also appreciate the gallery, meeting room and study available.
Whether or not it is an ideal blueprint for future London hotels is another thing. The capital still needs establishments with the outgoing, meet-and-drink style of Ian Schrager's hotels in New York, which have become part of city life. Nevertheless, the Hempel has put style back on the agenda of London's hotels for the first time since, well, Blakes
The Hempel, 31-35 Craven Hill Gardens, W2 3EA (0171-298 9000)
Zen and the art: (previous page) `the lion's den', with its bed in a cage suspended from the ceiling.
The lobby (this page, above) is featureless but for the reception desk, two seating areas sunk into the floor, and fireplaces at each end. Each bedroom (right) is different: `You can't live in beige and white. You've got to give your guests choices,' says Hempel
Books etc (opposite):
The study/library behind the lobby fireplace; (this page) the restaurant combines minimalism and humour with its `diving board' over a `mercury sea' connecting through to the bar (far right)Reuse content