Shanghai’s position as one of the international hot spots of cool is no longer a matter of speculation; it’s a fact. Driven by the same kind of commercial and trade activities that made the city an international Mecca for pleasure seekers as well as fortune hunters in the 1930’s, the rapid blossoming of China’s free trade zone city has inevitably seen the need for new visitor accommodation over the last decade has seen the city open hotels on a scale never seen before.
One of the most recent additions to the city’s robust offer of interesting and luxurious hotels is The Waterhouse at South Bund, the brainchild of Singaporean lawyer-turned-hotelier Loh Lik Peng, designed by Chinese architectural practice NHDRO. What makes the design notable is that unlike many of the other hotel projects of recent years that have focussed on entirely new buildings, The Waterhouse is a project that makes use of a disused Japanese army headquarters in a docklands district of Shanghai on the Huangpu that has been earmarked for regeneration.
Given the history of the Japanese occupation of China, this building from the 1930’s is dripping with a not altogether comfortable history. At the heart of the NHDRO conversion of this historic building is the contrast of the old and the new. Cutting into the fabric of the utilitarian structure to create a 19-room boutique hotel has offered some interesting choices in terms of what goes and what remains. And one of the interesting choices has been to largely leave what remains intact of the exterior fabric of the original building as visible as possible. This has been achieved through the deceptively simple stripping back of layers of paint to the base concrete material of the original building. In contrast to the new materials used for the additions to the shell, this has the effect of rendering the older building’s form immediately visible within the new composite, perhaps most obvious when viewing The Waterhouse’s façade. Not dissimilar to the strategies deployed by Norman Foster in leaving the detritus of history on the surface of the Reichstag, the bare concrete showing the residues of history and pockmarked by time in NHDRO’s design offers the more reflective visitor a moment to dwell on the life already lived by the building that now offers upmarket and stylish accommodation.
One of the keys to the design concept for the hotel is to use the architecture itself and a few well-chosen objects to create a reflective and peaceful emptiness. Rather than opting for heavy decoration or conspicuous design interventions, The Waterhouse instead opts for a kind of purity of architecture: it is actually a lot easier to experience the interplay between the extant building and the redesign by leaving both elements open at the points of intersection rather than aiming for a seamless finish.
The deep muted colours and textures that dominate through many of the communal areas are continued in the spacious rooms –many with fabulous views across the river to Shanghai’s soaring skyline- where the starkness of the aged concrete is softened with warm wood, carefully selected furniture generally of impeccable modernist pedigree and luxurious but unostentatious textiles. In stark contrast to the muted tones of the exterior and many of the public areas, the central courtyard is a brilliant white; the internal space of a massive geometric cube into which the simple, almost rustic wooden shutters and small feature windows cast sculptural forms echoing the cubist lines of the empty space itself.
But, if The Waterhouse at South Bund offers a blue-chip architectural experience to the visitor, guests will also be pleased to know that Loh Lik Peng’s flair as a hotelier has ensured that all of the services and amenities are equally impressive. For example, the gym offers sate-of-the-art equipment and the lounge or library comfortable and salubrious surroundings in which to relax or get on with some work. Furthermore, the hotel’s restaurant Table No 1 by Jason Atherton has won lots of praise for its modern European cuisine.