Letter From Shanghai
A00 Architecture and Studio 1:1 have transformed a post office into the premier property of Urbn Hotels & Resorts
Catherine Soie -- Interior Design, 7/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
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Perhaps it was a sense of youthful adventure that compelled Raefer Wallis and Sacha Silva to relocate to Shanghai from Montreal in 2002, when they were both still in their 20's. The bold move proved to be professionally fruitful, however, as the McGill University–trained architects—who call their firm A00, as in A ZeroZero—have become specialists in bringing the city's old houses into the 21st century while preserving historical patina. The partners' most public project is the first in a planned chain, Urbn Hotels& Resorts. Situated in a four-story building that was once a post office and, before that, a factory, the Urbn is entered via a courtyard open to a bustling street off Nanjing Road, a pedestrian shopping zone near the city's French Concession. Silva and Wallis neither erased nor enshrined the building's past but instead created a mix of existing and newly imagined elements.
The most striking example of the latter is the wall behind the reception desk, where vintage leather suitcases are installed in a monochromatic relief like a Louise Nevelson sculpture. According to Wallis, the idea came late in the construction process: "We needed to find something that said recycled but in a very cool way. It also needed to say luxury and travel." When the architects presented the suitcase idea to Urbn owners Jules Kwan and Scott Barrack, Wallis recalls, they answered, "That sounds absolutely nuts. But run with it."
Walls in the rest of the low-key reception area are tapering stacks of gray clay tiles, the kind produced in nearby Suzhou for thousands of years. Silva and Wallis constructed the walls without visible mortar, the tiles' rough edges suggesting geology as much as architecture. In context, the suitcase wall reads as just one of many material explorations.
The hotel's owners are determined to make their 20,000-square-foot venture carbon-neutral. That requires the purchasing of credits; the hotel itself is far from self-sustaining. But renovation—the recycling of a building—is inherently green and particularly worthwhile in China, where the destruction of old neighborhoods is an everyday occurrence. And the Urbn has many other green features, including water-based cooling and carefully positioned sunshades of bamboo and steel.
In guest rooms, the architects set out to use fluorescents without disturbing the restful mood. The namesake firm of Tais Cabral, a Brazilian whose career has taken her to Paris and now Shanghai, was delegated to find Chinese-style lanterns. Through their raw silk panels, the fluorescents cast a gentle glow.
And while the Urbn's owners weren't ready to dispense with bathtubs, the architects—wary of anything that hogs space and water—put those tubs to the test. "In most hotels, people don't use the bath, but that may be because you usually get a view of the underside of the sink," Silva says. Here, Wallis adds, tubs are positioned in "a variety of cool locations, next to the bed or re-created as plunge pools anchoring the washroom. If people still don't use them, we'll know we can cut them from Urbn Two."
Most of the floors are salvaged Shanghai mahogany, as are built-in tables and banquettes. Smaller pieces of furniture, what Silva and Wallis call the Urbn scoopchair and cube, are laminated plywood. Cabral chose the seat cushions' prewashed cotton chenille. Her color scheme, gold over olive green, is meant to reference nature—and romanticize it.
The lounge and the adjacent restaurant, Roomtwentyeight, are by Israël Noël and Karen Hui, fellow Canadian transplants and principals of Studio 1:1. (That's Studio One to One.) Overhead, 120 porcelain lanterns draw attention to their soft, sculptural forms while casting a diffuse light. Alas, the lanterns require incandescent bulbs, which burn more energy than the compact fluorescent lightbulbs favored by Silva and Wallis. That presents a challenge to be solved at the next Urbn.
PROJECT TEAM PATRICIA DURO; CINDY XU: A00 ARCHITECTURE. GREENSPACE: LANDSCAPING CONSULTANT. MAO JUN HUA: STRUCTURAL ENGINEER. COOP-ARCHINA BUILDING CONSULTANTS: MEP. SHANGHAI JIA SHENG RENOVATION; WELL-ALLIANCE: GENERAL CONTRACTORS. PRODUCT SOURCES FROM FRONT STRADS DESIGN: CUSTOM SOFAS, OTTOMANS, TABLES (LOUNGE), CUSTOM CHAIRS (BAR). SHANGHAI YANQI CARPET CO.: CUSTOM CARPET (HALL), CUSTOM RUGS (RECEPTION, GUEST ROOMS), SEATING FABRIC, WALL COVERING. RETONE SANITARY EQUIPMENT CO.: SINK FITTINGS (BAR), SINK FITTINGS, TUB FITTINGS, SHOWER FITTINGS (GUEST ROOMS). THROUGHOUT GUANG-DONG FOSHAN NANHAI LUOCUN HUILONG LIGHTING ELECTRICAL CO.: RECESSED CEILING FIXTURES. BENJAMIN MOORE & CO.: PAINT.