In the first of a series of updates on IHI’s major projects in development, Insider goes behind the scenes as Corinthia Hotel Brussels, formerly the Grand Hotel Astoria, rises in the Belgian capital.
Part 1: Preparing the ground
In the first quarter of 2018 the Corinthia’s new landmark property in the EU’s defacto capital is beginning to take physical shape. After extensive consultations, approval of alterations to the building permit was received in December, and the construction of the mock-up guest room, corridor and bathroom is underway, to be completed in March. Project Manager Sebastien Giordano of QP Management Ltd told Insider: “Despite its ambitious objectives, and a challenging administrative process, the permit modification was obtained in record time, and with no objection, which is a first in Brussels for a project of this scale and nature. “This was achieved partly because the project has been actively supported by the local community, who have been made an integral part of the project’s development.”
The creation of the 42m² mock-up room reflects just some of the early unique technical challenges faced on the rue Royale site, says Giordano, who has been on the ground in Brussels since August 2017. “Integration of the design into the building is complex. It’s a very constrained development process, with no two rooms alike, and few straight walls even. Basically, we’re keeping the load-bearing walls, and replacing the horizontal slabs. Because this is not just one building (we have three houses at the back which will be part of the hotel, and on the ground floor there are six different levels), we have to make a coherent unified space out of many different buildings. That’s the challenge.” Such insights reflect just the tip of the technical iceberg. Michael Izzo, who is heading the development process for Corinthia, describes the inter-relation of design, engineering, and above all, the communication that is needed between team members, to realise such a heritage-sensitive project.
“The architect defines the shell, the levels, and they feed the interior designers – GA Design, who populate the floors. All this information goes to the engineers, so that they can plan and the services – electricity, water and heating – and then those plans go back to the architects, who make sure what’s being proposed follows the local legislation approvals. It’s very much a live process.”
“We’ve researched art – historical and modern – related to Brussels, and in the suites for example, we’ve looked at Rubens and the colours he used as a reference for the colour schemes.”
Lead architectural consultant on the project is the Brussels firm MA² – Metzger and Associates Architecture – the award-winning company known for the subtlety and rigour they bring to the renovation of large historic buildings. Francis Metzger, MA²’s chief executive, describes himself as “a gourmet architect, driven by curiosity”, and the re-imagined Astoria promises to whet the appetite like no other hotel in the city. “The particularity of this project is to be able to rethink a historic hotel, the mythical Hotel Astoria, from the original building, and the area and buildings around it,” Metzger says. “The key has been to find a coherence between the past and the present – and what makes a luxury palace of today, and the challenge has been to establish a respectful identity between the historical parts of the building’s collective memory, and all the new parts.”
Metzger points to two of the many elements of the building that are being reimagined: “In 1910, the hotel’s majestic suites were located on the first floor, but our plan sees them moved to a higher level, with the most luxurious spaces in the upper section. “To meet these requirements, the project accommodates two additional floors, allowing terraces, views, and particularly bright spaces, that will satisfy the most discerning guests. Meanwhile, the basement, historically the cellars and storage rooms, are designed to house the pool, and and what will be Brussels’ most luxurious spa. Responsibility for the hotel’s interior is being managed by UK firm GA Design, who fitted out Corinthia Hotel London. GA’s designer Ed Davies, says key to the interior has been not only to re-imagine the internal spaces, but the connections between them. “We want to create something that has a freshness and is relevant for today; we don’t want to create a museum piece,” says Davies. “It’s all about asking how the user wants to feel when we are entering a space. As designers there are a whole range of emotions that we want to impart – perhaps joy at the unexpected, relaxation or a sense of home.”
“Integration of the design into the building is complex. It’s a very constrained development process, with no two rooms alike, and few straight walls even.”
Belgium’s artistic heritage, along with the building’s rich history (and its relationship to the community that surrounds it), has given GA some potent references for the interior. Local traditions of fine lace-making and metalwork will be referenced in furnishings and finishes, connecting past to present. Nowhere will that approach be more visible and tactile than in the subterranean spa, which will use timber and stone to create a healing spiritual environment. “It’s important to weave a story into the interior that relates to that building,” adds Davies. “We’ve researched art – historical and modern – related to Brussels, and in the suites for example, we’ve looked at Rubens and the colours he used as a reference for the colour schemes. The colour palette, elegant detailing and materials all come together to create spaces that feel very appropriate for Brussels and for the Corinthia Hotel.”
Meanwhile, with the aesthetic finishes still on the digital drawing board, and structural building work just begun, costs are firmly on track. Despite the original 16000m² development increasing to over 19,000m², keeping to the budget is uppermost in the development team’s mind. “There are always surprises,” says Michael Izzo, “but I don’t think there will be any major changes to our thinking, and we’re hoping that after the tender is awarded in April, the contractor will come up with some options for optimising our budget.”
Looking ahead to the impact the hotel will have on the Brussels luxury hotel market, and given the intensive research undertaken during the early stages of the project, Izzo is upbeat. “We’ve done a lot of work on looking at the competitors. You don’t have the high-end suites, you don’t have luxury spas, and the average room size is quite small, so there are significant opportunities here which were identified very early on.” Two years since its acquisition by IHI, work has begun to resurrect this remarkable historic property. The grande dame of Brussels is preparing to return – reincarnated; fresh, beautiful, and more alluring than ever.
Insider+ will be preparing updates on the progress of the Corinthia Hotel Brussels until its opening in 2020.