The Dolder, Bolder
Foster + Partners and United Designers perform a fairy-tale transformation on Zurich's Dolder Grand
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 6/1/2008 2:00:00 AM
"Did you notice the gnomes?" Stefan Behling inquires. It had been generations, the architect points out, since guests entered Zurich's Dolder Grand hotel through the front door—under the watch of squat, stony, proto-Disney-esque Swiss characters that still, a century on, appear to strain at propping up the building's facade. Previously, a restaurant addition had been blocking the way, and arrivals were funneled through a back entrance accessorized with what Behling, a senior partner at Foster + Partners, calls a "horrible canopy and funny potted plants." Now, excavations have permitted a generous passenger drop-off lane for the original front door, plus a new casual restaurant and function rooms beneath the driveway. The restoration also created an opportunity for a new flared canopy in a striking red.
With one black Mercedes-Benz after another pulling up, it's almost impossible to remember that the building actually began as a rather sensible suburban kurhaus, or health retreat, built for locals in 1899. "I'm not saying hospital, but there weren't grand rooms," Behling explains. A faded period photograph shows the central hall cluttered with Asian-inflected fan-backed rattan chairs and not so much as a proper chandelier above. "You can imagine some bourgeois writer sitting there all day with his love letters," he continues almost wistfully. Today's chandelier positively drips with crystals.
The opulence continues in Foster's two wings, which confidently wrap the shoulders of the original, historic building like a shawl. At the mere suggestion of sun, awnings automatically unfurl to shade wide sliding glass doors. Some of the glass is also screened by perforated aluminum panels installed in front. Water-jet cutters ran practically nonstop for the better part of a year to remove 40 percent of the metal in those panels, and their digitally abstracted tree pattern derives from snapshots taken in the surrounding forest. Similar panels appear as balustrades.
Foster's office provided general interior layouts throughout and got as far as a mock-up of the aluminum facade for model rooms, set up at a site down the road. Then the owner, London-based Swiss financier Urs Schwarzenbach, switched gears and charged three additional firms with the interiors. FSI Design handled a pair of neo-postmodern libraries on the lobby level. Sylvia Planning and Design's Sylvia Sepielli took on the spa level, perhaps most remarkable for its inky-black swimming pool lined in glass mosaic tiles. She also pushed for the Snowparadise, which amounts to a small refrigerated room with ice-slicked faux-stone walls. Think of it as an anti-sauna for exercising your pores.
All the rest, from the ballroom to a themed suite, proved the project "of a lifetime" for United Designers, founder Keith Hobbs says of the $400 million restoration and expansion. Although the square footage has roughly doubled, to 463,000, the key count remains roughly the same, at just 173.
In both wings, Hobbs used oiled, brushed oak for bedroom flooring and lavish dark, iridescent granite for bathrooms. Desks are oak with chrome, and lounge seating is covered in winter-white leather. A dip into the archives at De Sede, which made that seating, happened to reveal an unusual sofa commissioned by Dolder guest Mick Jagger—ideal when upholstered in shocking pink for the rock-and-roll decor of suite 100.
Strict modernism or even minimalism was never the goal. So, in the historic part of the hotel, there was no conceptual problem with using vintage wallpaper and preserving painted ceilings. When rustic murals were uncovered above the false ceilings in two public rooms, slated to become a lobby lounge and fine dining, Hobbs negotiated with a design-review board of locals assembled by the owner. "We were dealing with the Swiss, who are a unique race," he says. "There was nothing free and easy about it."
Perhaps it was the sheer scale of construction that ultimately convinced everyone to play along. "Their comments as amateur interior decorators weren't really. . .appropriate," Hobbs adds with a barely detectable note of British triumph. There will always be an England.