Executive Romantic

Hilton Toronto Hotel Renovation, Toronto, Ontario

Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects

At the heart of the Hilton Toronto Hotel renovation by Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects is a lobby imbued with two distinct identities that enhance the activities of the space at different times of the day.

“The hotel lobby had to have a dual personality,” says KPMB partner-in-charge Tom Payne. “The building had to accommodate corporate functions by day but it also had to transform into a romantic personality in the evening.” The transformation was so successful that the elegant hotel project received an Interior Design Magazine Award as one of the best renovations of 2001.

Hilton International presented Payne and associate David Jesson with the task of renovating the lobby, circulation spaces and 600 rooms to create an upscale hotel that was simple yet enticing. Planning and logistics were complicated by the fact that the 32-storey hotel would be refurbished over a continuous two-and-a-half-year period while remaining in full operation.

“We wanted to do something completely new and different,” says Marilyn Soper, General Manager of the Hilton Toronto. “The hotel business is fun and sexy. We wanted to get back to the showbiz side of the business.”

The first task on the $25 million project was to strip back the existing fake wood, plants and brass to reveal the structure, natural light and vast open lobby of the original hotel, designed in the 1970s by Vancouver-based hotel specialists Reno C. Negrin Architects.

“The building had great bones,” says Payne. “We removed the things that were masking the elements of the lobby in order to celebrate the forms for what they are.”

The designers reworked the flow patterns of the ground level by relocating the restaurant, lounge areas, check-in desk and circulation spaces. Clean lines, minimalist detailing and a palette of natural materials were chosen to create an understated backdrop to make the constant activity in the lobby the primary focus. By day, the lobby sees passers-by criss-crossing their way to surrounding business, civic, legal and entertainment districts. As a respite from the non-stop bustle, the designers decided to make the lobby a city courtyard and a natural resting place for pedestrian traffic.

The arrival area has been updated with the addition of the porte-cochre in front of the hotel. Replacing the disco-styled jumble of harsh asphalt and outdated Fat Albert light bulbs, the designers chose a composition of granite cobblestone and an illuminated canvas ceiling to bring some refinement to the entrance. The granite floor pattern flows through the front door and guides visitors into the lobby.

On entering the hotel, patrons are greeted by a grand three-storey space accented with sycamore paneling, glowing lanterns and curved stainless steel railings. Visitors typically stop and admire the dramatic lobby, conceived with a granite courtyard at the centre, with the check-in desk to the west side and the restaurant to the east. “We wanted to open up the lobby to feel the scale of the building,” says Jesson. “We wanted people to see activity going on around them.”

Beyond the courtyard is a raised wood stage area with couches, chairs and coffee tables for lounging. “Lobbies are people-watching areas,” says Jesson. ” The stage is where the performance happens and people can watch the activities on the stage.” To filter light and add a lustrous backdrop to the lobby, a sheer cotton scrim of the type usually used in theatres hangs from the ceiling. The theatre imagery is animated with overhead stage lights that pool down on the jatoba wood stage and reflect off the scrim.

By night, the executive image is turned down and the lobby is transformed into a luminous oasis that encourages customers to melt into their padded chairs and relax over martinis around the bar. To enhance the romantic side of the lobby, the designers overlaid a gauzy softness to the interior through the use of fabric and gently lit architectural features.

The most prominent elements in the subdued evening personality of the lobby are the lofty fabric column lanterns that radiate a warm light and mark the opening to the courtyard. Like oversized bamboo stalks, the three lanterns are crafted from metal hoops swaddled in canvas and act as a visual foil to the angular lines of the surrounding architecture.

To connect the lobby with the mezzanine, the architects finessed a pristine glass, steel and onyx stair that is perched in the centre of the lobby. Tactile and with a strong presence, the stair coaxes visitors up to a look-out balcony/landing and then further up to the mezzanine to promenade above the lobby. Lit from the interior of the balustrade, the onyx stone casts a luxurious amber radiance to the evening lobby.

But what really makes this project is the use of the building’s original structural concrete columns that have been exposed and lightly sandblasted to create a stone-like texture. In a gutsy move, the architects showcased the massive columns and dramatically washed them in bright light from above to celebrate their rough, unfinished quality. The raw concrete with its sculptural imperfections adds a needed visual heaviness to ground the delicate steel and wood details of the lobby.

Finishes in the lobby include an undulating perforated metal screen which allows a visual connection to the lobby but also provides a measure of protection to customers and their luggage at the check-in desk. The architects introduced curved plaster walls that act as focal points and are subtle direction indicators to the front desk and elevators. The attentiveness to colour and light extends to the elevator walls, which are paneled with back-painted glass and illuminated from concealed lighting above.

When KPMB was hired to renovate the hotel, II x IV Design Associates Inc. were entrusted with the task of designing the kitchen, dining room and bar. Because the two offices bring a similar modern sensibility to their work, the collaboration was a success. As KPMB delineated the spaces, II x IV designed the backdrop, bar and custom furniture with materials and hues to complement the ambience. With edgy one-armed chairs and serpentine walls, the new Tundra Restaurant fulfills General Manager Soper’s desire to reintroduce sophisticated dining in hotels.

The same simple approach and materiality of the lobby was applied to the rooms. Bathed in shades of moss and taupe, they are designed with broad maple headboards, sleek credenzas and elongated lamps to foster a crisp, comfortable look in the suites. An elliptical work desk is equipped with a power source incorporated into the table top, while chic black-and-white photographs on the walls deliver an updated finish to the room.

Bathrooms clad with mosaic tile and washed in soft lighting continue the commitment to calm and spaciousness. While a trend in Paris and New York hotels has been to discard the traditional ordinariness that has long typified hospitality design, Hilton International deserves applause for its courage to be the first hotel in Toronto to renovate using cool modernity.

“We feel that the project has given Hilton a new prominence in the city” says Soper. “We’ve developed new partners who would never have considered us before. We’ve expanded into new markets in the fashion, art and design fields. Clearly, people in this city were ready for something out of the ordinary.”

It does the heart good to come upon a fresh, contemporary gathering place that invigorates city life but doesn’t try too hard to impress. The Hilton is a sensuous place between places. In a mad city where people bolt to catch their commuter trains, it provides a rare opportunity to pause, sit and enjoy seeing.

John Ota is a Toronto architect and Cultural Agencies Co-ordinator with the Ontario Ministry of Culture.

Client: Hilton (Canada), London & Leeds Development Corp.

Architect team: Thomas Payne (partner-in-charge), David Jesson, Victoria Gregory (associates), Greg Guerra, Robert Kastelic, Kelly Chow, Pau
lo Rocha, Bill Colaco, Ulrike Lubeck; Karen Petrachenko, Kelly Buffey, Miyako Panalaks, Jill Osiowy (interior design)

Structural: Yolles Partnership Ltd.

Mechanical/Electrical: Maunder Britnell Inc.

Interiors: Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, II x IV Design Associates Inc. (Tundra Restaurant)

Contractor: Pantar Developments (construction manager)

Lighting: George Sexton Associates

Area: 292,582 sq. ft. of phased renovations to existing public areas (entrance court, lobby, mezzanine, meeting rooms), 27 floors and 600 guest rooms.

Budget: $17 million

Completion: Phase 1, April 1998 (300 guest rooms, meeting room floor); Phase 2, Spring 2000 (300 guest rooms, lobby, mezzanine, restaurant)

Photography: As noted.