KXGymUK, by husband-and-wife firm Thorp Design, gives London a thoroughly civilized way to exercise
Mary Killen -- Interior Design, 10/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
The Brompton Cross area is London's understated center of rich chic. With a rarefied but village-y collection of restaurants and fashion boutiques, all anchored by the Conran Shop in the landmarked Michelin building, the area had everything going for it—or almost everything. So when a two-floor, 16,000-square-foot space came on the market, investment banker turned entrepreneur Simon Fry moved quickly.
"Compared to hotels, gyms in the U.K. still tend to be rather utilitarian, like petrol stations," points out Fry—who gives credit for this observation to his fitness-loving wife. "When you say, 'gym,' what comes to mind is hot sweaty bodies, not beautiful people. There's no reason why a gym shouldn't be a lifestyle experience, emphasizing all-around well-being." For Fry's KXGymUK, those hired to produce said sense of well-being are Thorp Design's James and Philippa Thorp. She is the "creative one," says her husband; he is the one with the stamina and resolve to tackle any structural problem. His past triumphs have included an underground network of tunnels for Burmese wildcats whose London owner wanted to give them a "wilderness experience" without risk of their straying into neighboring gardens. Another engineering feat, this one part of a residential conversion in Mayfair, involved using aircraft-lifting technology to scoop cars out of a beautiful courtyard and deposit them in an underground car park.
Fry had worked with the couple before, on his residence and his yacht. "We share a lot of thought processes," he says. Seeing eye to eye was clearly essential, given the time frame: only 13 months between starting the project and welcoming the first of KXGymUK's sophisticated, often international members to the facility. ArchiCAD software's advanced virtual-reality and 3-D imaging capabilities put the visualization process on fast-forward. Construction moved ahead at a similar pace. "We had, on average, 100 people on-site every day. Making sure they all did their jobs was probably the most difficult part," says James Thorp. But, he continues, time constraints were in some ways an advantage in bringing together, managing, and coordinating the team on behalf of his client: "If you had infinite time, you would come up with an infinite number of design solutions. The skill is in knowing when to stop."
Among the distinctive solutions at KXGymUK are 13-foot ceilings and Alice in Wonderland double-size doors. Rather than feeling dwarfed, as the doors swing steadily but lightly open, one feels curiously aggrandized—even when merely passing through to the loo. Curiouser and curiouser, though, an atmosphere of genuine serenity pervades KXGymUK. Is this a natural consequence of the gym's menu of relaxation treatments, ranging from Indian head massage through flotation tanks and Chi yoga? Or is the calm an architectural construct?
The mood music helps, of course. So does the halogen lighting, recessed into floors and shadow gaps in ceilings for glare-free brightness. Each exercise studio is separately climate-controlled to make sure the temperature is always just right. And high ceilings, tall doors, enfilades, and long vanishing points say "this is a bigger space" than it really is. Case in point: the premises are in fact too small for a pool. Initially, this worried James Thorp—until he came to the realization that most people who go to a gym like to know that a pool exists but actually tend not to use it. (Why swim when, with treadmills and stationary bicycles, you can watch television or play interactive games?)
Throughout, Thorp Design relied on a very restricted palette of colors and materials. Tobacco, tan, ocher, and black predominate, suggesting opulence and sumptuousness. Panels and doors are Macassar ebony; floors are hammered-limestone in some areas, teak with polyurethane-based caulking in others. The front desk combines steel-clad honed limestone, etched glass, and sharkskin inlay. "As soon as you have wood, stone, and leather, you have the perfect combination," says James Thorp.
Add to the Thorps' total attention to visual detail—all one would expect for this Oxbridge of gyms—the relaxed manner of the carefully educated trainers in charge of the exercise classes, top-of-the-line equipment, and clever motivational Fitlinxx program, which measures heart rate, calorie burning, and other stats, then sends them to the member's trainer for monitoring. Then there's the fact that no cash need change hands; all transactions are accomplished with a swipe of a key fob whose leather pouch holds a chip embedded with account data. (Bill Amberg, who spearheaded the revival of vegetable-tanned leather in the 1980s, designed the pouch.) Not to mention that cell phones don't work within. The final element of aesthetic harmony? "No baggy vests," declares the rule book.