Viewed from the outside, the Istanbul Edition does not look particularly spectacular. Situated in the business district of Levent, the hotel started life as the Turkish headquarters of HSBC, and its exterior is as unassuming as you might expect from a one-time office block.
Nor is the surrounding area much of a tourist trap. This is a district of skyscrapers, rather than obelisks; shopping malls, rather than bazaars. Tucked behind the hills of the Bosphorus, it is some way removed from Istanbul’s historical peninsula, instead bearing all the hallmarks of a thriving commercial hub.
And yet, once you step through the soaring entrance and into the lobby (your eye drawn to the 30ft aquarium by the staircase), you may regret having judged on first impressions.
With creative direction supplied by Ian Schrager, and managerial oversight by Marriott, this is a so-called ‘design hotel’ in the truest sense – aesthetically and experientially like no other.
"Ian gave the direction that each Edition hotel should be one of a kind," says Michael Gabellini, of Gabellini Sheppard, the New York-based design firm behind the interiors. "This allows him to assign a different designer every time, so that each has its own sensibility."
The unconventional architect
Hotelier, entrepreneur, maverick, impresario and co-founder of Studio 54, Schrager is well-known for dispensing with convention. New York’s Morgans Hotel, for example, which he opened in 1984, introduced the world to the now ubiquitous concept of the ’boutique’. And then there’s The Royalton in New York, which was relatively staid before Schrager took it over in 1988. Recruiting Philippe Starck as his designer, he refitted the hotel and overhauled its image, drawing upon the lexicon of the fashion show or nightclub and welcoming in a style-conscious elite. The message was clear: staying at The Royalton meant entering the in-crowd.
Meanwhile, Starck found himself catapulted to the forefront of the design world’s gaze. The Royalton had been his first hotel and was not to be his last. Like Andrée Putman before him (her inaugural hotel gig had been Morgans), Starck went from industry novitiate to an established name in the field.
We might wonder whether Gabellini Sheppard is set to be next on the list. Although it boasts 20 years’ experience in architecture and interior design, Edition is its first foray into the hotel space.
"We’ve known Ian for a number of years, and we’ve had discussions about working together, but Edition was the first opportunity that really came up," says Gabellini.
"For us, it’s an extension of more than 20 years of research and design in residential interiors and architecture."
Up to now, the firm has been known primarily for its retail and residential projects. Gabellini, with his business partner Kimberly Sheppard, has tackled such commissions as the Jil Sander flagship store, a Giorgio Armani centre in Milan, gallery spaces in New York and homes for individual clients. Their signature style is minimalist, using space and light as sculptural building blocks.
"Kimberly and I incubate projects together – there’s never a project we take on that we aren’t centrally involved with," says Gabellini.
With a hotel, however, came a new and fascinating set of challenges. First was providing a sense of place without resorting to hackneyed motifs. The team studied Turkish architecture intently, gaining a feel for the proportioning of Byzantine structures, and deploying traditional materials and crafts.
In the suites, there is an abundance of rosewood or soaped oak material, widespread in many Turkish homes. And the public areas are lavished with bronze and white gold, matching the grandeur of the Ottoman empire.
A chief concern was guarding against cliché.
"There are a number of new hotels in Istanbul that approach the Ottoman legacy, and kind of hit you over the head with the theatre of it," says Gabellini. "What’s curious is that you might find you know foreigners making reservations, but very few locals go there because it becomes a kind of cartoon of the history it’s trying to emulate."
Edition, by contrast, is designed to appeal to Istanbulites as much as itinerants. The aim was to integrate local character with the needs of an international market, providing a home away from home for business travellers, holidaymakers and local people alike.
The project’s initial constraint came in the shape of the building itself. Following a terrorist bombing in 2003, the tower ceased to be a bank and was ripe for renovation.
Security was tightened, the exterior revamped and the task for the designers Herculean – to transform a former office with a chequered past into a haven of quiet elegance.
"We worked with a local architect who was in charge of renovating the building, as well as determining its configuration," says Gabellini. "We reoriented and redistributed the rooms based upon the interior elevators and staircases. And because an office doesn’t make a home, we had to do a lot of masterplanning in order to create a welcoming lobby and reception."
In its final form, the hotel segues from public areas on the lower levels (lobby, restaurant, nightclub, spa, bar, lounge) through to the privacy of the guestrooms above. Here there is a layered progression: social to intimate, bustling to peaceful, busy urban boulevard to lush terraced suite.
Stylistically, the interiors mix East with West, apposite for a city that spans two continents. Subtlety and authenticity are the watchwords, with the glare of Ottoman tradition filtered through a cool, contemporary prism.
"There is a legacy associated with what you see," says Gabellini. "But it has gone through an editing process so that you don’t need to have overt symbols that immediately recall the tracery of the area. We designed this hotel to be understated and gracious, to balance international sophistication within a specific cultural context."
The lobby, for instance – domed and dramatic – owes as much to traditional architecture as it does to the imperative to be ‘chic’. Embellished with gold leaf and tiled with mosaics, it amounts to a concentrated burst of Byzantium. Meanwhile the spa, which combines hammam with fitness centre, is a thoroughly contemporary take on ancient rituals. This three-floor ESPA offering has embossed floors and a silver-tiled pool, and there are scrub, steam and treatment rooms alongside the gym.
This is characteristic of the hotel at large – tapping a rich seam of heritage while alert to the needs of the present day. As you move up towards the bedrooms, the emphasis is on their sensory aspect.
"The guestrooms are designed to elevate their functional requirements to a backdrop that enhances the enjoyment of daily living," says Gabellini.
In practice, this means the sleeping and lounging areas provide a cocooning warmth, with deep U-shaped sofas and sumptuous beds. The washrooms were conceived as miniature hammams, facilitating bathing and highlighting its pleasures.
Here, Gabellini Sheppard took its cue from the Roman baths, in which bathing was a social experience. Well-being was deemed as important as hygiene.
Such details give this the air of a genuinely luxurious hotel. Whereas in times gone by, a designer could convey luxury simply through laying on the glitz, today’s hotel guests are not impressed by decontextualised opulence. The point of this design is that it spins a narrative, forging an emotional connection with visitors. It aims to evoke a sense of character and enmesh itself in the fabric of the place.
Spurred on by the success of its latest venture, Gabellini Sheppard is now at work on several other hotels.
"Hotels for us are a compelling and captivating typology," says Gabellini. "Like projects we might do for a fashion retail clientele, they are aspirational at heart – they’re about how you create a spatial overlay for a particular lifestyle. But, as importantly, they’re kind of worlds within worlds – you’re thinking about a city in miniature. We look at this as a kind of legacy project. It is one that is meant to be around for a very long time."
This article was first published in our sister publication The LEAF Review.