Our image of London’s top hotels is probably a kind of discreetly classical institution; a weighty, stone-clad landmark embedded in the city’s streets and become familiar. It might be surprisingly subtle but seemingly permanent, an architecture of solidity and dependability. Whether the style is restrained art deco, like Claridge’s or The Savoy, beaux-arts-Parisian like The Ritz, imperial striped pomp like The Connaught, or gothic fairytale like the St Pancras Renaissance, they create an impression of reliable permanence. The new wave of mega-conversions such as the Old War Office (Raffles), the Rosewood or the Corinthia look even more established in their imperial shells. What you probably don’t think of when you think of a grand London hotel, however, is a sleek steel and glass block by Richard Rogers, the architect of the Pompidou Centre and the Lloyd’s Building.

A suite at The Emory in Knightsbridge designed by André Fu
A suite at The Emory in Knightsbridge designed by André Fu © Kensington Leverne

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Inside the Emory hotel

© The Emory / Jean-Baptiste Strub

Yet that is exactly what The Emory is. Landing in a neighbourhood that is hardly short of top-end beds (The Peninsula, the Mandarin Oriental and The Lanesborough are all only steps away), The Emory aims to be a little different. For one thing, if you walk along Knightsbridge you won’t find the entrance, which might seem a little odd given that street’s status as one of London’s prime addresses. Instead you enter via a back alley (in a car that’s included with the room price) – a newly spruced-up Old Barrack Yard at the rear of the site. From here, it’s a quick nip into a small lobby, which is nothing at all like you might expect, to be whisked up to your suite by your “Emory Assistant”. 

It’s a surprising sequence, to arrive at the back door of a hotel that appears to turn its back on its biggest asset, Hyde Park. But this curious aspect is a legacy of its conception as an extension of the Berkeley next door – like The Emory, part of the Maybourne Group. It was originally to share its neighbour’s entrance; but it soon became clear that The Emory would be better as a standalone hotel. 

A suite by Champalimaud Design
A suite by Champalimaud Design © Kensington Leverne
Works from Damien Hirst’s The Secret Gardens Paintings series in the Rémi Tessier-designed abc kitchens restaurant
Works from Damien Hirst’s The Secret Gardens Paintings series in the Rémi Tessier-designed abc kitchens restaurant © Kensington Leverne. Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2024

Maybourne might claim some of London’s grand old hotels, but for their new ventures they go determinedly modern. When they expanded Claridge’s, they stuck a glass penthouse box on top of the roof. When they built a new hotel on the Côte d’Azur, the result was the astonishing Maybourne Riviera, a modernist fantasy on the rocks overlooking Monaco. Here, in the staid and conservative streets behind Knightsbridge, is another super-modern structure. 

“It’s all about discretion,” the hotel’s general manager, Knut Wylde, tells me over an espresso in The Berkeley (which he also oversees). “There is no Instagrammable moment in this lobby; we don’t expect people to be hanging out there to be seen.”  

Instead, the Emory has an enigmatic glass cube, which sets up the high-tech, hyper-transparent tone. Everything is glass, from the ground-floor restaurant with its views over the park to the twin aquaria on the roof, one holding a bar, the other a cigar lounge. It’s here you notice the Richard Rogers legacy, that particular cocktail of urbanity, transparency and engineering so characteristic of the architect’s work. As a local resident and a friend of former Maybourne Group owner Paddy McKillen, Rogers and RSHP were brought in to work first on The Berkeley (the huge glass canopy over its entrance, added in 2016, is theirs), then The Emory. It became one of Rogers’ last London buildings. He died in 2021, and the architect who drove the initial ideas forward was Ivan Harbour (the “H” in RSHP). Harbour walked around the hotel with me, cheerily picking out details and explaining the history. “It was a 20-year project,” he says. “And an incredibly tight site, so the construction had to be super-precise. It’s on top of the Piccadilly Line, so the whole thing sits on anti-vibration bearings because the one thing hotels should be really fussy about is making sure people get a good night’s sleep.” 

The steel “sails” on the hotel’s roof
The steel “sails” on the hotel’s roof © Kensington Leverne
Another suite designed by André Fu in the hotel
Another suite designed by André Fu in the hotel © Kensington Leverne

That also partly explains the steel structure you see popping up occasionally, with the very distinctive Rogers engineering details. “We had to keep it as far away as possible from the Tube lines. You do not want to be responsible for shutting down the whole Underground,” Harbour says with a grin. He also points out the hotel’s internal stairs, painted vivid pink in homage to Rogers’ famously colourful shirts.

The flat glass façade is sleek and a little invisible. It is the surrounding structure – the cables and masts, and the nautical-looking outriggers – that give it expression (the hotel’s sawtooth logo is based on Rogers’ initial sketch). “Most modern buildings are flat,” says Harbour, “so we tried to get a little depth, some layering through the structure to create complexity and a play of light.” Referring to its theatrical roofscape, he says: “We were looking at the chimney pots on Victorian buildings, the corner turrets and towers. They’re a celebration of the moment a building reaches the sky, and that’s what we were trying to do.” 

The structural acrobatics have left a series of unencumbered interiors of cool clarity, crisp canvases for other designers to work on. And it is quite a list of other designers. Each floor was given to one studio to create a coherent interior language. The Emory is London’s first all-suite hotel, and accommodations can be reconfigured to adapt to guests’ space requirements.

The interiors establish their own landscape of contemporary London, framing views of Hyde Park and tempering all the steel and glass. I spent a night in a sprawling André Fu-designed suite, which seemed to contain more seats than my local cinema. Executed in tones of timber with the occasional highlight of richly veined marble, it carefully reconciled scales and materials, and felt surprisingly domestic. “The suites are intended to be a kind of home; more than just a hotel,” affirms Wylde. The minibars, with their curved glass corners, have a certain irresistible slickness, the miniature bottles like priceless backlit exhibits in a museum vitrine. Another two floors feature the work of Patricia Urquiola, yet more strikingly modern and streamlined.

A suite by Champalimaud Design
A suite by Champalimaud Design © Kensington Leverne
The Richard Rogers-designed building’s façade
The Richard Rogers-designed building’s façade © Kensington Leverne

“I approached the design with a deep respect and appreciation for the architectural framework provided by Richard Rogers’ building,” Urquiola says. Her understated interiors bring a little Milanese modernism to Knightsbridge. The remaining floors were overseen by NYC-based Alexandra Champalimaud of Champalimaud Design and Paris-based Pierre-Yves Rochon, who revivified London’s Savoy and the nearby Four Seasons. The penthouse was fitted out by local firm Rigby & Rigby.

Each designer appears to have independently adopted a language similar to the others’, using the warmth of wood, the solidity of marble and various neutral fabric textures to leaven the cool high tech. But the park, too, softens the feel; looking out of the floor-to-ceiling windows is a little like looking out over Central Park.

It is French designer Rémi Tessier, however, who has exerted the real influence in the common spaces. Maybourne had already commissioned him to design the Claridge’s glass penthouse, famously now the city’s most expensive room. You can sense Tessier’s training as a cabinet maker in his evident delight as he runs his fingers along the polished copper in the bar, pointing out the details: how the doors slide open to align perfectly with the columns, how the metal’s tone chimes with the fine copper details in the glasses on the shelves. 

The restaurant bar exudes an amber glow; “a little like whisky,” I suggest. “Cognac!” Tessier shoots back. Of course. “There is a tribute here too,” the designer says. “We looked at Richard Rogers’ kitchen at home [overseen by Rogers’ widow, Ruth, of The River Cafe], the island counter.” The chunky cylindrical legs are certainly still there, and the oval counter top; but while the Rogers’ kitchen was all industrial brushed stainless steel, here it’s all golden luminosity.

The restaurant sees globetrotting French super-chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten expand his empire with an offering that blends his three NYC big hitters: abc kitchen, abcV and abc cocina. Elevated a little above the pavement, its huge plate-glass, park-facing windows allow diners to graze and gaze, with a few tables on a terrace above Knightsbridge. 

Up on the rooftop amid the high-tech rigs and “sails” are Bar 33 and the Cigar Merchants – that pair of glass boxes, like miniature California modernist villas, also designed by Tessier. Because of the proximity of the park, and the terraces and garden squares of Belgravia (and the gardens of Buckingham Palace), there are few visual blockages round here; the view consequently takes in the whole of the metropolis, from the hypertrophying cluster of City towers to all the most prominent landmarks. To the west is the glassy bulk of RSHP’s One Hyde Park; to the east, its Cheesegrater at 122 Leadenhall, where its offices are based – nice bookends to place you in a very specific architectural (and, perhaps, economic) context.

A work from Damien Hirst’s The Secret Gardens Paintings series in abc kitchens restaurant, designed by Rémi Tessier
A work from Damien Hirst’s The Secret Gardens Paintings series in abc kitchens restaurant, designed by Rémi Tessier © Kensington Leverne. Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2024
A bathroom in one of the André Fu-designed suites
A bathroom in one of the André Fu-designed suites © Kensington Leverne

The cigar bar features a suspended “halo” that functions as both a lighting feature and an ingenious smoke extraction device. The whole resembles a super-sized humidor. Tessier has managed to carve out intimate, convivial spaces amid the minimal rigour of the modern armature.

The atmosphere shifts when you get below ground; and The Emory extends a long way down. Its four storeys of wellness, branded Surrenne, are also by Tessier, but in a very different vibe. His nautical-design background is useful down here below deck, and he manages to make the spaces warm and enveloping. There’s a 22m swimming pool with a gilded ceiling, and restfully, expensively stone-clad treatment and massage rooms. A contraption that looks a little like a submarine turns out to be a hyperbaric chamber, for those days when you need a massive dose of oxygen supplied in a Jules Verne steampunk steel barrel. Using wood, marble and mirrors, Tessier expands the spatial sensation so that it feels surprisingly generous and inviting. Facilities cover every base from gym to “in-water musical meditation”, workouts by the Tracy Anderson Studio and a “longevity and human optimisation” suite (Wylde tells me it’s a trend that’s big in Switzerland, often comprising biohacking and nutrition advice and cryo-technologies).

Arrive at the hotel by walking through the newly revamped Old Barrack Yard
Arrive at the hotel by walking through the newly revamped Old Barrack Yard © Kensington Leverne
The “megaframe” around the building
The “megaframe” around the building © Kensington Leverne

This is a very different kind of hotel, one in which the design is not employed as a space of display but as a minimal armature that allows the city in; the canopy of green, the views, the odd cocktail of military processions, joggers, guards and festivals going on in the park; the big skies and the constantly evolving skyline beneath them. From its back-alley entrance to its soaking up of the city from the suites, The Emory is somehow simultaneously a very London hotel and something new and truly intriguing. 

the-emory.co.uk, from £2,050, including breakfast, all minibar, airport transfers, membership to Surrenne for duration of stay, and complimentary use of Emory chauffeur

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
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