As I round the corner to the Battersea Heliport for the second meeting with luxury hotel company Von Essen to discuss their new-build hotel in Battersea, the sight of a shiny sky-blue and grey Rolls Royce Phantom stops me dead in my tracks. There's also a fleet of other international playboy's vehicles to keep it company, probably worth more than a small African country's annual GDP. Von Essen's owner, Andrew Davies, is certainly cash-splash happy, even at a time when everyone else is battening down the hatches, waiting for the recessionary pain to subside - and he doesn't care who knows it.
This lavish attitude, however, is perfectly in keeping for a new-build five-star hotel positioning itself to rival the best the city has to offer. The hotel, to be called Verta (after the "vertical gateway" heliport next door), is in the building stage and we're going to look at design boards today - and listen to some impassioned and colourful descriptions from architect and creative designer Andrew Onraet. Von Essen Battersea was set to open in June this year, but because of wet weather during the excavation stage its opening has been pushed back to mid-autumn. Onraet is stoical on the matter and we quickly hop on to his favourite subject - the look of the place.
Architecturally speaking, the hotel is a fluid, floating kidney sort of shape. Its position on the front of the Thames means it is accessible and visible from all sides. This created a bit of dilemma when it came to the question of deliveries to the kitchen - with no obvious back to the building, how could this be done out of sight of the guests? Onraet decided to put the delivery entrance next to the staff and residential entrance (the building is mixed-use, with apartment blocks on the upper floors) and out of sight of the hotel and heliport entrance.
Meanwhile, the courtyard in front of the hotel will feature wetlands, next to the Southwark riverside path that is opening up this section of the river to the public for the first time. The water feature uses rain water from the building's roof, and rotting materials and oils will fuel the biomass district heating system. "We've been generous with space for the exterior," Onraet says. "A public-use river transport scheme is also being looked into by the mayor's office - it will allow people to travel from Chelsea Harbour to Imperial Wharf.
The spa initially posed problems for Onraet: operators generally prefer spas to have a view, and with Verta overlooking the Thames the top floors would have been ideal. But this space is earmarked for residential use. Onraet is reluctantly philosophical: "We decided to go subground instead, as have other top hotels in London." (The Dorchester, the Grosvenor House and the Mandarin Oriental all have subterranean spas.)
The design has embraced the underground space. Onraet and his interior designer, Mandy Sherliker, have chosen textured surfaces, interspersed with lit pools of water that Onraet describes as "gems within the space to create an almost embryonic feel". Higher up the building, a wall-of-glass window invites light into the space.
Away from moody spas, however, there are restaurants and bars to design. This hotel will have an all-day dining restaurant of 98 covers on the ground floor, a branded Champagne bar on the mezzanine floor with 70 covers and terrace facilities of up to 30 covers, plus conference facilities. There are three kitchens planned, but most of the food will be prepared on the ground floor with staff using a dumb waiter to transport food to the restaurant and conference venues.
According to executive chef James Parkinson: "The emphasis will be on seasonal ingredients with a focus on organic providence." Dishes will include rib-eye steak with café de Paris butter and skinny fries, with three courses for £40. Diners will be able to choose between the "express" service or "leisure" - a sensible innovation on the part of Von Essen. In the kitchen Onraet has designed a double-height storage area. "We're also making a feature of the wine cellar as a glass dividing wall between the restaurant and the kitchen. A servery area is open to viewing by the public through sandblasted glass fretwork," Parkinson explains.
Onraet admits the venture is also somewhat nerve-wracking. "It's a big leap for us we're going from country house hotels to the city. I think of this as a 'mini grand dame hotel'," he says, with a look that seems to seek reassurance or approval. Another designer, Sherliker, created many of the initial design images, based on the various themes linked to the history of the site - including old-world Battersea and the Festival of Britain, the riverside location, and, linking in the heliport, aviation. They called in creative agency Robson Brown, based in Newcastle, to finalise the branding details. "We needed more brand expertise to propel us forward," Onraet says.
The resulting design is reminiscent of art nouveau with dusty gold ornate lettering and dark fixtures. Onraet name-checks both the Wolseley and the CGI film Sky Captain of Tomorrow as important references for the overall look. Is this a way to avoid a dated look in a few years? "Yes, we wanted a look that said "timeless elegance" - we didn't want to go down the typical boutique route. Anyway, those words don't mean anything now that Hilton and Starwood have branded the term. We want to be beyond boutique," he says.
Throughout the meeting Onraet's face lights up at regular intervals and his speech races ahead like a train gathering speed - "I even got excited about using an outdated font called Battersea. I love all the little details like that," he says. And as the meeting comes to a close we can't help feeling excited, too - if all goes to plan, it really will be something special.
Layout of building, from the bottom up
Basement 2 level changing rooms, sauna, samarium gym, pool
Basement 1 level four treatment rooms, relaxation area
Ground floor hotel entrance next to heliport entrance (hotel lobby and heliport reception are separate), general lounge, airside lounge, VIP lounge, lobby and police, café/restaurant of 98 covers, bar (22 covers), kitchen with transparent area for cooking and glazed window wine rack display, residential entrances, staff entrance deliveries next to tailored lifts
Mezzanine level staff canteen, kitchen, meeting room, bar area with 70 covers, terrace with 30 covers
First floor ballroom, banqueting kitchen, preparation room, six meeting rooms
Second to fifth floors bedrooms
Fitting the technology
Being a new-build project, the hotel has some up-to-the minute technology - including bespoke Charvet induction cooking in the kitchens (to keep conditions cool for the staff) and eco-friendly fridges. Wireless network around the hotel will be free for guests, and both back- and front-of-house will have wireless telephone handsets so that conference staff can communicate directly to the kitchen downstairs.
As for the bedrooms, thermostat control will be based on an iPod control - a simple touch-sensitive wheel. The "Do not Disturb" button will be by the bed instead of by the door and the dynalite lighting controls will adjust the room's lighting levels. These lights will be preset to go off when the guest is not in the room. They are also set to use dual co-ax cabling, which will be hidden and seamless, with the control boxes operated from a single source instead of clogging up the bedroom. The group is also still developing its check-in process but wants its booking system to link front-of-house to back-of-house and the spa and restaurant side.
By Gemma Sharkey