by Mark C. OFlaherty, The Telegraph, March 27, 2018
What do we talk about when we talk about Copenhagen? If you’re sitting with my friends, it’s usually food and furniture. Conversation will steer to sea buckthorn, Danish modern chairs and who has been to Noma (and who doesn’t ever want to go). I share in the notion that everyone in Denmark is living a fantasy life of foraging and artfully lit, linear lounge spaces – which is why I’ve always been fascinated by the Radisson Royal hotel.
“Radisson” might suggest something that’s just a few (OK, quite a few) rungs up the luxury ladder from a Premier Inn, but the Copenhagen mother ship is much more than business-traveller-basic. For design obsessives, it’s a place of pilgrimage. When architect Arne Jacobsen’s SAS Royal Hotel (as it was then) opened in 1960, it was a sensation. Jacobsen was already a couple of decades into a career that would see him become the most famous Danish designer of all time – his futuristic furniture has been seen everywhere from 2001: A Space Odyssey to the fancier branches of McDonald’s.
With the SAS Royal, he wanted to bring some of the heat of Fifties Manhattan – of Lever House and Mies van der Rohe’s and Philip Johnson’s Seagram Building in particular – to Europe. He was also going to create a hotel that was plugged into the electric glamour of transatlantic air travel, with a departure lounge in the lobby where guests would wait for a specially designed transit to take them straight to the steps of their SAS flight at the airport. The result was the most modern, and modernist, hotel that Denmark could imagine.
The Radisson Royal has just undergone the most significant and sensitive refurbishment in its history. It needed a lot of TLC. It had fallen on hard times, rather like those Sixties tower blocks that were supposed to be utopian cities in the sky, but had their Le Corbusier-influenced landscapes rearranged by toppled shopping trolleys and fragrant puddles. The hotel in Copenhagen hadn’t quite turned into a J G Ballard High-Rise mess, but it wasn’t exactly getting great feedback from guests. This was a tragedy, but also understandable – some visitors still won’t warm to the place. Modernism isn’t the same as “contemporary” and isn’t for everyone. It’s a little sharp and industrial, even with Jacobsen’s overtly curved furniture (his “Swan” and “Egg” chairs were developed for the original hotel, and proliferate today). If you’re into Karim Rashid techno colours or have an Alessi sense of humour, you’re in the wrong place.
Local designer Space Copenhagen was drafted in to oversee and engineer the refurb. Unlike the Gio Ponti-designed hotel in Sorrento –the Parco dei Principi, one of my favourite buildings in the world – the Radisson Royal isn’t a museum that happens to be a hotel. Room 606 is still preserved as Jacobsen first conceived it (tours of it were launched in mid-February), but the rest of the hotel presents his vision refracted through the lens of modern standards. The duck egg blue palette in 606 is beautiful, but the rest of the interior wouldn’t offer a comfortable stay. Space Copenhagen has installed the best beds possible, and in my corner Junior Suite (from £190), an otherwise unobtrusive curtain can be pulled across to separate the sofa and table from the sleeping area. It felt like a particularly swish city apartment, with a defiantly chilly aesthetic made up of greys and whites.
Running up one corner of the building, along the line of suites ending in 06, are the new signature spaces, created by Space Copenhagen in association with guest stars. There is the Jaime Hayon Suite, the Paul Kjaerholm-inspired Signature Suite, the Fritz Hansen Signature Suite and the Arne Jacobsen-inspired Signature Suite. Each features a distinctive and contemporary interpretation of the original style, using new materials, including Raf Simons textiles for Kvadrat, dark wood and custom-made tables. By arranging the suites along the same axis, the interiors as seen from the outside (with curtains pulled back) remain uniform apart from this short, deliberately disrupted, line of new designs. The thought that’s gone into it is impressive – approaching the bands of windows that wrap around the building as a grid, to be respected but also played with. Jacobsen prescribed grey curtains for all of his rooms, to preserve uniformity when viewed from the street, and that’s what Space Copenhagen has installed.
You either love this kind of architecture or you don’t. I do, unconditionally. I take great pleasure in the machined, linear nature of the building’s exterior. If you stay, you want a corner room – giving you an L-shaped band of window panes, kept at a slight distance by the new marble windowsills that Space Copenhagen has installed. In 2018, every architect would install floor-to-ceiling glass, but the balance here is much more interesting, as if the view across the city has been hung and inset into the exterior walls like a series of artworks.
I enjoyed exploring the common areas of the hotel more than I did staying in my room – but then I would: when I went to the Four Seasons in Manhattan for lunch before it was rebooted last year as The Grill, I enjoyed the Fifties typeface used for the cloakroom signage more than I did my steak and martini. Truly exciting design is all about the small details – like the pale green back-painted glass used in the hallways at the Radisson Royal that keep the mood glacial, and the collection of hundreds of tiny brass plaques in the lobby detailing all the dignitaries that have stayed: Stevie Wonder; Pavarotti; Kim Appleby.
There is a collection of meeting rooms at the hotel, all lit with Louis Poulsen “Artichoke” pendant lamps, which would make any third-quarter sales presentation a lot more interesting, and then there is the entirely reconfigured dining space on the ground floor, the Café Royal. As you’d expect in Copenhagen, the food is excellent if simple – steaks from the Josper grill; steak tartare with quail’s egg; and slow-cooked duck confit with mash and forest berry jus. There’s also an Arne Jacobsen-themed tea, with cakes inspired by the designer’s silhouettes and colour palette. Well, OK, if you must.
Sitting in the restaurant, I enjoyed a view of the two best elements of the hotel – a pair of spiral staircases: one going to the basement and lavatories, painted the same blue as 606, and the other going up to the first floor. The latter is the one everyone takes photos of – it appears to float, sweeping down into the marble lobby with a freshly leather-wrapped handrail on a base concertina of white. The former is the one I found more interesting: a collection of small, graphic, separate triangular platforms that create stepping stones down to the perfectly preserved original electrical control panel – a framed steel square inset with a grid of cubic lights and black knobs, like something from the command deck of a space ship designed a long time ago.
Like the oft-cited sentiment “we were promised jetpacks”, it’s a shame that the future always looked better in the imagination. Arne Jacobsen’s hotel is a fantastic flashback to that infinitely better looking future.
• Read the full review: Radisson Collection Royal Hotel