Arabian Beauty

Re-imagining Abu Dhabi’s cultural past, Hirsch Bedner Associates uses elements of Art Deco to create a fantasy world within the city

Once a small, undeveloped area known for pearl diving, Abu Dhabi’s past is a far stretch from Europe’s Deco era. A few years down the line, the city’s name, which translates to “Father of Gazelle,” became synonymous with luxury and sophistication.

The façade of St. Regis Abu Dhabi tells just that story. The building of the hotel itself is a distinctive addition to the city’s skyline. The ultra-sleek glass and steel landmark is composed of two sky scrapers, linked by a sky bridge which is one of the world’s highest bridges between two towers. St. Regis Abu Dhabi occupies the top floors of the smaller tower.

But what this modern skyscraper beholds an imagined history of Abu Dhabi’s young past.
HBA, the masterminds of the design scheme, chose an approach that greatly differed from the more common blend of European design and local detailing. Rather, the team created an imaginary historical starting point for Abu Dhabi: a city with a history of Art Deco.

“This raised the central imaginative question: what would classical Art Deco have looked like if it had been expressed in Abu Dhabi during the 1920s and ‘30s?” explains Josh Mason, associate designer, HBA.

To answer the question, the design includes very few explicit references to local culture. The team directed their attention to more subtle detailing such as the colours of the sands as well as the traditional foods, spices, arts and crafts that flourished the markets at the time.

Mason says HBA used the St. Regis New York as a benchmark for classical St. Regis signature style and incorporated the heritage of Abu Dhabi.

“We studied the UAE and specifically noted the gazelle, the importance of water and vessels, the way the sand changes colour as you travel deep into the desert, local plants that thrive like the desert rose, the patterns that can be made with fishermen’s netting, and exotic spices,” he lists.

Nods to the city’s heritage are incorporated especially within the guestrooms of the hotel, Mason says.

“Every piece in the guestroom artwork package references Abu Dhabi,” he assures. “We worked closely with Soho Myriad to put together a collection of artwork that feels fresh and modern, incorporating abstract photographs of Dirhams (UAE currency) and a collection of found objects including a piece of tapestry woven by a Bedouin artisan, and a contemporary design over the beds that is inspired by one of the most important native plants in the region, the date palm.”

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Yet the place where it all starts is the lobby, described as a “peerless example of the celebration of shape that informs new Arabian Deco.” Large-scale, fluted columns soar up to the atrium’s ceiling, honouring classical Deco. The columns mark the atrium cut-out’s distinctive geometry, reminiscent of a violin’s feminine curves joined together by ornate, scrolling corners.

The cut out’s shape is accentuated by an exquisite, hand-made railing on the staircase. The design team explains that due to the atrium’s complex curves and detailed metal work, local artisans crafted each section of the railing specifically for the place in which it sits.

The scale and shape of the lobby in St. Regis Abu Dhabi called for two groups of chandeliers that were inspired by Arabian lanterns, suspended from the centre of sunburst patterns inlaid into two main domes in the atrium ceiling, a fusion of intricate Arabian art and the clean geometry of Art Deco.

Mason credits Lasvit, lighting designers and manufacturers, for some of the spectacular pieces hanging throughout the hotel, signalling out the impressive crystals in the winter garden as well as in the bathrooms.

St. Regis Abu Dhabi, much like all other St. Regis hotels around the world, features key Food & Beverage areas. One of such areas is the St. Regis Bar. Decorated by a triptych mural that pays homage to the area’s Bedouin influences, the bar space itself evokes a Bedouin deco ambiance.

The space includes rich Arabian-style rugs covering the floor and wooden lattice panels adorning the high ceilings. The bar is divided into three spaces: a library, a bar and a cigar bar.

Another significant spot is the Rhodes 44 restaurant, created in the spirit of Gary Rhodes, an English restaurateur and chef. The space is divided into individual food stations, reminiscent of an open market. The ceiling is made from an organic floral pattern inspired by the Harrod’s in London. The outdoor bar is reminiscent of a traditional Abu Dhabi wooden hull boat.

Among the many places in the hotel, the guestrooms are said to be the ones that truly come off as Deco showpieces from the dentils on the over scale crown moulding to the subtle pattern in soft gold carpeting. The bulk of the furniture is classical, in richly finished, dark walnut, with sleek curves and ornate detailing.”

In the bathrooms, the walls, floors and ceilings are clad in white stone mosaic or complementary marble, carved into complex, fluted mouldings at each doorway, corner and seam. A modern metallic frame which repeats a simple Arabesque shape circles the vanity mirror.

Yet the most spectacular part of the hotel is the two-storey Sky Suite, which occupies a portion of the sky bridge. Inspired by the spirit of the ‘Roaring ‘20s’, the design puts together bold lines and bespoke embellishment of the post Art Deco period.

“The colour palette is warm gold and amber, amplifying the brilliant blue of the Abu Dhabi sky,” says Mason. “Arabian motifs in stone and onyx define the floor pattern. The predominant timber is a dark Asia Cherry, used in both matte and semi-gloss finishes, with burled walnut accents. The variety of colours and finishes are used together with inlaid metals in order to create patterning in the millwork.”

Key fabrics across the Sky Suite include silk and velvet in rich hues of ruby, turquoise and amber, creating an addition of opulence to the scheme. Velvet upholstered walls, intricate glass mosaics, leather wall tiles and gold leaf accents are used to elevate the space.

All the details and compositions within the hotel were made to evoke the feel of a dreamed past the city never had. Yet the confident application of the design scheme makes it seem almost real. What would classical Art Deco have looked in Abu Dhabi during the 1920s and ‘30s? HBA showed us the answer.

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