Lobbying for Change
KPMB Architects softens the hard-edged geometry of a 1970s hotel in Toronto with luminous details.
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 1/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
THE HILTON TORONTO was a prime candidate for renovation. Although the angular, 1970s-era hotel was poised on a strategic downtown site, its street presence bordered on the standoffish. Inside, a dingy, uninviting lobby was weighed down with obtrusive columns and a heavy-handed decor. Circulation was clunky and counterintuitive. At every level, "it just wasn't working as well as it should," says Thomas Payne of the Toronto-based firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB), which was hired to mastermind the hotel's $17 million overhaul. Guided by a conceptual rigor that is characteristic of the firm's work, Payne, the partner-in-charge of the project, stripped the interior to reveal the building's underlying structure. "It had great bones and an elegance at that level," he recognized, "but it was robust, with big-scale members that we didn't want to fight." Instead, Payne played off the rigid geometry, injecting luminous details and undulating surfaces to create a lean, uncluttered look throughout.
The first step of the phased two-year project, which entailed updating the Hilton's 27 floors and 600 guest rooms, was to introduce a logical circulation path through the lobby. The façade and entrance were reconceived as a civic square, "like a European courtyard," notes Payne. The design team "created the illusion of arrival" by paving the entrance in cobblestones and adding a backlit fabric canopy. Inside, cobblestones give way to a swath of Canadian granite that funnels foot traffic seamlessly towards check-in. The registration desk, previously tucked into a dead-end corner, was repositioned to a more central location adjacent to the elevator bank, a "fundamental shift that freed up space and created transparency to the ground floor," says Payne. A series of inventive dividers, such as a basketweave wall of engineered walnut planks and powder-coated steel pipes, defines lounge areas while preserving the open layout on the ground floor.
To "fully exploit the atrium as a centerpiece and a metaphor for the lightening up of the lobby," layers of woodwork and grime were cleared from the skylight. The mezzanine level, which encircles the atrium, was previously only accessible by out-of-the-way elevators. "There was no sense of connectedness between the two spaces, which was really quite puzzling," marvels Payne, who united the two levels with a dramatic staircase of back-lit onyx, glass, and steel. A translucent blue glass walkway, visible from the restaurant below, joins the two halves of the mezzanine. Concrete columns lining the atrium spine were stripped of cladding and sandblasted, then partially sheathed with waves of semi-transparent fabric. Illumination from behind and above introduces "a bit of theater" to the design, says Payne, who likens the atrium to a stage set. Unusual details like the diaphanous, curtain-like scrim and theatrical lighting uphold this premise.
At every turn, KPMB introduced translucency and luminosity. In daylight hours, these qualities foster openness while integrating the Hilton into its urban surroundings. At night, however, light effects are brought into high relief against the modern backdrop, and the space becomes seductive, says Payne, "a place of fantasy and romance" befitting a world-class hotel.
Payne credits the success of the project to KPMB's rapport with key Hilton Canada project managers, including Rustom Cowasjee, Michel Recalt, and Marilyn Soper. The KPMB design team included firm associates David Jesson and Victoria Gregory, as well as director of interiors Karen Petrachenko.