A building site next to Leicester Square will soon become a cinema and hotel — and recently there was a chance to look around while it’s still concrete and steel.

Although it’s in height proportioned with the rest of Leicester Square, as with many large buildings in London now, there’s as much going on underground as there is above — and around half the building — some 30 metres worth is subterranean.

They couldn’t easily go any deeper as they needed 30 metre worth of piles underneath to hold the building in place, and at that depth, they’re starting to hit the bedrock underneath London’s clay.

As it was, during excavation, it was one of the largest and deepest holes London has ever seen, with the walls held apart by massive braces as they dug down, and eventually in 2017 started filling the space in with floors and columns to hold everything up again.

But first they buried a time capsule in the basement for future generations to uncover.

The reason for the great depth is that while the above-ground is for the hotel rooms and dining spaces, the basement houses a replacement cinema and a large banqueting suite for events.

The site used to be the home of the Odeon’s “overflow” cinema in Leicester Square, which had been built in 1930 as a stage theatre. After several refurbishments and incarnations, it was acquired by Odeon in 1946 and converted to a single screen cinema in 1968 finally becoming the Odeon West End in 1988.

The block also housed an office, a small hotel, a pub, and a betting shop. In 2008 planning permission was given for a large hotel and cinema on the site, but the recession put that on hold. In 2011 the site was bought by the privately owned Edwardian Hotels group, and in 2013 they submitted a revised planning application for the site.

Normally, when a large building gets approval from Westminster Council, part of the package requires some form of public art to be provided by the developer. Rather than just buying a sculpture, they’ve decided to turn the building itself into a work of art.

An artist, Ian Monroe has looked back into the art-deco heritage of Odeon cinemas, and the use of faience tiles in London Underground buildings and has created a modern interpretation of the 1930s style cinema frontage.

High up the tiles are clamped onto the building allowing for decorative patterns to be formed by the gaps between tiles, but lower down, they needed to be grouted to the building instead, due to people’s tendency to see a gap between tiles, and fill them with cigarette stubs.

Although final details were designed on a computer after collaboration with the artist, the 15,000 tiles are being hand made by Darwen Terracotta in Blackburn, with staff making most of the flat panels, and just one chap, Arnold making most of the 3D shaped tiles by eye.

There is an appropriateness in the firm providing the tiles for the new building, as it once provided tiles to the Odeon cinemas back in the 1930s.

As with a lot of architecture images, the computer renders look lovely when shown at twilight, and the end product often ends up at either end of the spectrum — either awful or stunning. A few glimpses through scaffolding and fences do suggest this could be leaning towards being an impressive frontage for the building though. We’ll have to wait and see when the whole is uncovered.

At the very bottom of the basements, two floors of space for staff, kitchens and mechanical equipment, then above it the cinema and a swimming pool.

At 30m deep and with six levels below ground, when it opens this will be the deepest habitable-grade commercial building basement in London, and one of the deepest in the world.

The presence of a two-screen cinema below ground wouldn’t normally be a problem, but here, underneath a hotel, with a spa and swimming pool next to it, they had to think about noise. People doing yoga or whatever in a calm space don’t want to hear the booms of sci-fi monsters destroying planets next door.

So the cinema sits in a box with very thick walls, but to fully soundproof it, the cinema has been built as an independent box that sits inside the concrete shell on vibration absorbing supports and is then surrounded by noise absorbing padding.

This far down, you need temporary toilets for the builders.

Also down here is one of a large hotel’s significant income sources, the corporate entertainment space. A three-floor high space that’s rated for up to 1,000 people to be told how wonderful they are at widget award ceremonies, artists to air-kiss each other, big weddings, and car makers to show off their latest toys.

Yes, there is a big enough lift in the building.

The massive roof beams (made in Yorkshire) sit on vibration pads and are not actually clamped to the building — but sit in place under their own weight and are designed to transfer the weight of the above-ground structure over the area of the basement.

What’s harder to see is that one corner isn’t entirely square, as they had a bit of a shock when digging down — a huge tunnel that didn’t appear on any maps.

The building sits comfortably between three tube lines (and Crossrail 2 eventually), but unknown was that one corner had a large electricity mains. Some careful discussions and they were able to shrink the normal 2-metre engineering exclusion zone to just 50cm, otherwise, the banqueting suite might have had a large intrusion into it.

A huge concrete void running the height of the basement will eventually become a grand staircase, which was suggested will be coated in a bronze finish, with a sculptural design. No images of the interior fit-out were permitted on the site visit as they’re still confidential.

Above ground, the hotel is slightly unusual.

Most hotels average a ratio of roughly 70% rooms to 30% food and beverage, but the Londoner Hotel (as it is to be called) will be roughly half and half. With five restaurants and numerous bars, it’s responding to the high footfall that would be passing any building in Leicester Square.

What the building won’t have though is a huge open roof terrace. They had tried to put a swimming pool up here, but it’s not to be, but they’ve been able put up three bar areas which will be open to the sky — when the weather is nice.

Most of the rest of the roof is given over to the mechanical plant as it was simply wasn’t possible to put all of it in the basement.

The building is however also structurally designed to accept another two floors to be built on top, should local planning regulations relax to permit it. Realistically, that’s not for another few decades at the soonest, as it’ll be dependent on the slow creep of other buildings getting ever higher over the decades.

Another factor in the hotel’s engineering is how it deals with fires. Although it looks like one large building, from a fire safety perspective it can be treated as three separate enclosures. If a fire alarm goes off, they only need to evacuate that segment, and then fire doors close to seal it off. Only if the fire alarm turns out to be more serious than burnt toast do they evacuate the rest. Considering the size of the building, evacuating all of it at once would be unwise, so the design allows for staged removal of people.

It’s entirely possible that someone munching on a fine lunch would be entirely unaware that the rooms next door were being emptied by the fire brigade.

The rest of the building from an engineering perspective is frankly, pretty routine, a large series of floors divided up into hotel rooms looking outwards and inwards over a covered atrium.

The very top of the Odeon column though will house a penthouse suite.

At the moment, the entire building is covered in scaffolding, so there was a chance to climb outside onto the wood and take in some exceptional views across this part of central London.

The site visit was with Woods Bagot, the lead architects for the building, and Blue Sky Building the Construction managers. Arup is the engineering team.

The hotel is due to be completed next year.


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One comment
  1. CityLover says:

    I was on that tour. Were you the journo taking notes?

    I particularly liked the London Underground mosquitoes in the basement.

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