Outside In

How a set of characterless rooms and an unused roof at The Marylebone hotel have been transformed into a beautiful new space

Words: Viel Richardson

“The place was all cluttered walls, low ceilings and bland white lighting. On one side, there were some very ordinary meeting rooms and the other, some unused old bedrooms that had seen better days. My first thoughts were that we needed to blow the cobwebs out this space.”

Finn Christiansen, project architect of The Marylebone Rooms—a new addition to The Marylebone hotel—knew he had his work cut out. The rooms in question were separated by an outdoor space, one of those hidden roof areas that you often find in large complex buildings, and it was part of the brief to make use of it.

“It was dreary, with air conditioning units on a gravel floor, but the hotel told us they wanted to make a more beautiful and productive space from it,” Alex Michaelis, co-founder of Michaelis Boyd Associates, explains.

New meeting room concept
The brief was to create a new suite of meeting rooms, but not a replica of the kind of dull meeting spaces you can find across the capital. Michaelis Boyd was brought in to create something different. “They realised the whole concept of the ‘meeting room’ and the way these spaces are used is changing. They wanted to shake up the idea of what a meeting room can be,” Alex continues. “They wanted a place that was cool—an environment that pushes design to another level. As well as being first class business spaces, they also had to be seamlessly flexible: somewhere you can not only rent for meetings, but also host corporate events. Space planning was crucial. We had to understand how the spaces were going to work in relation to each other.”

The Blue Room

It was up to Finn as the project architect to come up with a design that would deliver this flexibility. “During the day, the space needs to be able to function as separate meeting rooms, each with the ambience and facilities that modern business people demand,” he explains. “But in the evening, things like projection screens and television monitors have to disappear, as the space transitions into somewhere with the feel of a club lounge, with mobile bar units and the kind of mood lighting necessary to create the ambience of an evening destination.”

Transforming that outdoor roof space into a usable terrace would prove pivotal. Both meeting rooms overlook it, which meant that, with the right configuration, it could work as a central hub, with the new meeting rooms acting as two wings, thus allowing the whole place to open up into one large event space. First, though, the architects needed to establish whether using the terrace space in this way was structurally possible—a question that nearly brought the whole thing to a halt early on.

“The platform was designed for chiller units and very light use—suddenly we had to plan for the possibility of 100 people having a bit of a party up there,” Finn continues. “We always knew that we were going to have to add extra structural support, but the loading calculations were made that bit more complex by the fact there is a space underneath the terrace, which called for extra reinforcement. It meant that for quite a small terrace area, quite a lot of structural work was necessary.”

More than a breakout space
Once they’d established it was possible, the next step was the design itself. The initial idea was for the terrace to simply be a breakout space for the meeting rooms, but the more the team thought about the space, the more they realised that it could be so much more.

“It started as a completely outdoor space and gradually became more covered as discussions progressed and its importance within the overall design grew. We began to envision a space which provides almost indoor levels of protection from the elements, but without losing that outdoor feel. The way we covered the space was therefore vitally important, as we knew the standard awning would not work.”

Tables in The Courtyard

They eventually went for a bespoke system built by Tony Holman of Crown Outdoor. “He’s one of those guys who thinks nothing is too difficult,” Alex recalls. “You present him with a problem and he will come up with a solution. We gave him a sketch and some drawings of what we wanted to achieve and he came back with ideas for making it happen. It was then a case of having a series of discussions to finalise the design.”

A wonderful piece of engineering
The final system uses a framework which houses a series of metal louvers to provide protection. These can be opened to different angles at the touch of a button, but will never go beyond 60 degrees from horizontal—so even if they are fully open, you will never find yourself getting soaked by a passing shower. “It is a wonderful piece of engineering.”

Another equally challenging, but perhaps less obvious issue was the placement of fireplaces. “The client wanted to install a series of fireplaces as part of the refurbishment, and had some very specific requirements,” Alex explains. “As well as looking beautiful, they wanted to incorporate television monitors and make it so they were easy to hide from view when not required—all of which added several layers of complexity to the fireplace design.”

And, of course, they had to work. Fireplaces need effective chimneys, and the team had to find a route through the building that didn’t create too many new holes, thus keeping the structural engineer happy while ensuring the route was as vertical as possible to meet the demands of the fire consultants. “There were some quite intense meetings between the various parties,” he recalls. “But the result is something that we can all be proud of.”

Challenging as it was, Finn really enjoyed working on the project. “The clients were really fun and interesting to work with,” he says. “They had very high expectations, which kept us on our toes in meetings, but we reached the stage where we were on a similar wavelength. It was very enjoyable going to work each day.”

Looking back, Finn thinks the meeting room called The Blue Room has been a particular success, and The Library—a snug containing bookshelves and the aforementioned fireplace—has proved very popular. “I think it works very well. You see it from the terrace—it invites you to go in.”

For Alex, the transformation of that once dreary outdoor patch of tarmac and air con units is the centrepiece of the whole project. “It is a beautiful space in itself, but it works beautifully as the central hub that unites the different zones and allows them to become one unified space. I definitely did not think it would turn out as well as it has.”