April 1, 2008
Inside a 1970s Hilton in Prague, David Collins concocts a restaurant with historic flavor.
Center-city Prague bulges with beefy Beaux-Arts cornices and faceted Czech Cubist lintels. On a street corner near Wenceslas Square, the Prague Renaissance Hotel tries to blend in with a mansard roof and an upper tower, but, says London architect David Collins, “It is probably the ugliest building in all of Prague.” For its November re-launch as the Hilton Prague Old Town, Collins didn’t touch the 13-year-old hotel’s drab concrete facade or misaligned windows but rather gave its interior common spaces a radical transformation inspired by some elegant older neighbors.
Unlike hospitality brands aligned with design stars—such as W Hotels, or Marriott’s forthcoming Edition chain, overseen by Ian Schrager—Hilton hasn’t overtly used celebrity talent to lend cachet to its image. “Rather than engage design through the whole brand, it is individual-location driven,” says John Ceriale, adviser to the Blackstone Group, which purchased Hilton in June 2006. The Prague property was one of those rare instances where the company decided it needed to up the wattage. “For years it had a mid-level tourist crowd at best,” Ceriale says. But owing to the hotel’s excellent location, Blackstone, which develops Gordon Ramsay’s North American restaurants, was able to negotiate an outpost of the fire-tongued TV star’s Maze franchise for the site. It then commissioned Collins to revamp the restaurant and the hotel’s first two floors.
To transport visitors beyond the bland exterior, Collins channeled the spirit of Czech Cubist architects like Josef Gočár, Pavel Janák, and Josef Chochol, some of whose early-20th-century buildings are nearby. The Maze bar’s seating is upholstered in color blocks of green leather that recall a Vlastislav Hofman chair, while oversize flame-stitch rugs in the bar and a chevron-patterned tin ceiling in the main dining room suggest the chiseled surfaces of Chochol’s Hodek Apartment House. Collins also made reference to a concurrent historical style: antiqued brass rods were fashioned into a decorative detail that runs up columns and over headers, providing a whiff of Art Deco. The floor plan, however, is more open than Czech Cubist designs, or the warren of rooms of the former Renaissance. After completely gutting the public spaces, Collins rearranged the entry, columns, and existing services, using so-called architectural tricks to encourage guests to explore what’s ahead (for instance, a custom chandelier hangs above a new marble staircase to lure people toward a conference area beyond). “Nobody feels comfortable asking a concierge for directions to the bathroom or restaurant,” Collins says of his intuitive approach.
Ultimately, working with such an “ugly” structure allowed Collins to mix and match the best of history, rather than delivering a period piece. “People associate a brand hotel either with something super modern and overwhelmingly luxurious, or something from a bygone age,” Collins says. “I wanted this to be bygone age, with a modernist twist.”