Jestico + Whiles: The elements of surprise

4 June 2012

With commissions ranging from converted textile mills to the Playboy Club, award-winning international practice Jestico + Whiles is celebrated for its playful take on design. Abi Millar, John Whiles and James Dilley discuss the firm’s marriage of theatricality with understatement.

When Playboy began talks with Jestico + Whiles, it was adamant that its new Mayfair-based club should communicate the unique character of its brand.

"'Just how many bunny heads can you fit on a building?'" recalls James Dilley, associate director at the architecture and interior design firm. "That was how the conversation with Playboy went. They said, 'If you give us 10,000, we'll be over the moon'."

Playboy being Playboy, subtlety was out of the equation. The brand is known for its highly distinctive - and somewhat retrogressive - aesthetic; a typology that would work perfectly in a tawdry Las Vegas casino. With the location being central London's upmarket Mayfair district, however, the challenge was clear: how would a building emblazoned with 10,000 bunny heads fit in?

The eventual design solution was as simple as it was ingenious: opaque mashrabiya-style partitions that cover the windows and section off the ground floor. Each of these screens can pivot 180°, facilitating privacy or openness. Most inventively, they are cut with radial patterns of thousands of bunny heads, which at first glance resemble little more than elaborate latticework.

"It's understated, even though we may have 10,000 logos on the wall," says Dilley. "We had to mediate between the requirements of the context and the operator - huge signs shouting 'Playboy' wouldn't necessarily have been appropriate. But you didn't pick up that those were bunny heads, so that means we've succeeded."

Subtle distinction

I am sitting with Dilley and the firm's founding director John Whiles in their slick offices just off London's Euston Road. Guided by a slideshow, they are running me through their portfolio and I can testify that the bunny heads did indeed pass me by. This is typical of a practice whose work is designed to sneak up on the viewer.

"'Just how many bunny heads can you fit on a building?' That was how the conversation with Playboy went."

"Design should grow on you," says Whiles. "If you pass one of our buildings on a bus, you'll say, 'Oh yes', but then the next day you'll go, 'Oh that's interesting'. And that effect builds. It's not in your face; it's subtle."

Jestico + Whiles was founded in 1977 by Whiles and fellow architect Tom Jestico. The firm has since grown dramatically with a second office in Prague, a plethora of awards to its credit and commissions across the world. Its expertise spans many sectors - housing, hotels, retail, restaurants, offices, schools, universities, and transport infrastructure, among others.

Theirs is a diverse portfolio without much in the way of visual continuity - each project draws far more upon contextual factors than it does upon signature motifs. Nonetheless, certain key tenets do resound throughout their output: humour, theatricality and an element of surprise. "I think people go into our buildings and smile," says Whiles. "Something's happening there that they would not expect."

Take andel's Hotel Lodz in Poland, a former textile mill completed in 2009: this is a witty, striking, art-glutted storybook of a hotel, simultaneously honouring its industrial origins and entrammelling itself in Polish culture.

In the conference break-out area, there are seats that look like sweets - commodious confectionery pieced together from scraps of fabric - and on the roof a one-time water storage tank has been converted into a swimming pool. Lucent and ethereal with music playing underwater, the pool is surrounded by transparent, glass-panelled flooring. Beneath is a sheer seven-storey drop, allowing a straight view down to the wintry city below.

Pride of place

Jestico + Whiles takes a particular interest in hotel design, having started out some 15 years ago in a purely architectural capacity before moving on to interiors. The list of past commissions is substantial: the Dead Sea Spa Hotel in Jordan; London's Hempel Hotel and One Aldwych; Abu Dhabi's Yas Viceroy Hotel; and the Red & Blue Design Hotel in Prague to name but a few.

Most recently, two newbuilds in London have opened just in time for the 2012 Olympic Games.

"London's a very difficult place in which to build if you don't take the pastichr route," comments Dilley. "We've been sensitive and gentle, but also quite brave because no one's done anything like this in this location. Especially with this forming part of the Olympic torch relay route, it's good to have something that Westminster can be proud of in a global context."

"Certain key tenets do resound throughout Jestico + Whiles' output: humour, theatricality and an element of surprise."

He is referring to the W London, which came with some particularly fusty local authority planners. Sitting across three conservation areas, the building was tasked with reflecting the vibrancy of Soho, the theatre of Leicester Square and the Edwardian formality of Haymarket, all within the context of a young and elite brand.

The firm responded by applying the high design treatment. Because planning laws required active frontages at street level, the hotel itself does not start until the first floor, meaning the entrance works as a kind of stage, and the lights and glamour of the elevated reception spill out onto the bustling streets below.

Reflecting the context took a highly literal slant. Translucent glass was suspended from the façade, mirroring the surrounding hubbub. A cacophony of colour is visible by day; an internally illuminated veil of light by night.

The second hotel, Aloft London Excel, which opened last December, was created within equally tight constraints. Situated in London's Docklands and connected to the ExCel Centre, the property is a serpentine shape that does not to encroach on the dockside. With a glass central plane and two external wings in a specially treated, light-reflective stainless steel, it is dappled with an undulating skyscape of purples, pinks, greys and blues.

Entertainment vs community

Insofar as visual dazzle is often low down a hotel's agenda, Jestico + Whiles redresses a recent trend. "Over the last 15-20 years, hotels have lost some glamour," laments Dilley. "In the 70s, going to a Hilton was the epitome of luxury and class, but hotels have been allowed to slip into a kind of mediocrity. It doesn't have to be that way. You don't need to spend more money to make something an icon."

Their portfolio thus eschews the idea of a hotel as merely somewhere private to recoup. Intimacy is supplemented with entertainment, snugness with spectacle and closed-off corridors with an expansive, public-oriented ethos.

Nor is this element of communicability confined to their hotels. At present, the firm is working on two research laboratories specifically designed to facilitate interaction.

"Intimacy is supplemented with entertainment, smugness with spectacle and closed-off corridors with an expansive, public-oriented ethos."

"Research is all about the incidental meeting of people walking past each other and chatting," says Whiles. "So we've put whiteboards in the corridors; we've included settees so people can sit down; we've made the landings on the staircases extra large so that people passing on the stairs can hang out and talk without interrupting the flow. The buildings are designed to inspire people and make the workplace a happy one."

These buildings are just two of many new projects in the pipeline. On the day of our interview, Whiles is gearing up for an upcoming meeting about an arts centre in Sri Lanka, and has just taken a call about a large retail outlet in Milan. A few weeks later, he will head to Cuba to discuss the prospect of developing a nanotechnology laboratory there. Dilley, meanwhile, is working on the off-site construction of West African modular hotels.

Both agree that the travel is enlivening, adding extra character and flavour to their practice.

Whiles remarks that he did not expect this level of growth when he started out, but he concedes that sheer grit might have had a role to play - this is an issue of trust, so the staff have a personal incentive to give their all. Everyone, says Whiles, works "bloody hard".

A testament to their ongoing success came last summer when Whiles took a trip back to an early project - Burrells Wharf in the Docklands. An industrial-style residential development, in the 20 years since its conception it has become a surprising social hub. As Whiles sat in the main square with his picnic, residents emerged from their buildings to share their views.

"Their reaction was just wonderful," Whiles recalls. "They said, 'This is the best place to live', with the barbecues in the summer and an active website. The managing concierge told us we've designed a community. Or, at least, we've designed the catalyst for the community to work."

Whatever the building, Jestico + Whiles sees its central task as developing empathy with its context. If you conceptualise a building as a journey then the designer's task is primarily to understand how that journey makes people feel: the emotions elicited from the moment you pull up in the taxi through to the point at which you leave.

Even the Playboy Club has done a sterling job of dispelling unwanted associations, evincing the firm's rare knack for turning potential quandaries into triumphs. "We've been lucky enough to get a lot of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities back to back," says Dilley. "As a design practice, you can't really ask for much more than that."


The LEAF Review

This article was first published in our sister publication The LEAF Review.

Yas Viceroy Hotel, Abu Dhabi, is one of a kind.
Thousands of bunny heads adorn the Playboy Club Mayfair.
W London reflects the vibrancy of Soho, the theatre of Leicester Square and the Edwardian formality of Haymarket.
andel’s Hotel Lodz, Poland, mixes industry and tradition.
The University of Southampton’s Mountbatten Building.

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