SAS Royal Hotel by Arne Jacobson: cult architecture in Copenhagen 28.07.11

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This SAS Royal Copenhagen hotel room is a portal to the past – stopped in time, preserved for posterity while everything around it is changing, writes Johanna Agerman

For €655 a night, you can stay in room 606 at the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. It's the only room in the hotel that still looks as Danish architect Arne Jacobsen intended when the hotel opened in July 1960. It's a portal to the past, a room that has stopped in time, preserved for posterity while everything around it is changing.

The SAS Royal Hotel is the first design hotel ever built. Many of its by-products, such 
as the Egg and Swan chairs, still furnish corporate lobbies the world over.

Airline terminal in a downtown hotel

The form of the hotel itself, a kind of identikit internationalism, became a global phenomenon for the growing number of hotel chains responding to the needs of the new tourist class of the 1960s. It was the first hotel built by the Scandinavian Airlines System (a merger between the national airlines of Denmark, Norway and Sweden), and its purpose was to serve as an international style gateway to Scandinavia, predominantly for the growing number of American tourists travelling across the Atlantic on the new long-range DC-8 jets. For the first time in Europe, the SAS Royal incorporated an airline terminal in a downtown hotel.

A shuttle service brought the well-heeled travellers directly from the airline terminal's cocktail lounge to Kastrup airport, 20km to the south, in less than 20 minutes.

Gesamtkunstwerk on a very large scale

Jacobsen was the man charged with realising the airline's vision for this grand hotel for the jet age. He received the commission in 1955, at the peak of his career. His solution for the troublesome triangular plot of land just by the city's central station was two boxes, one lying down and the other balancing, 18 storeys tall, on top.

There was the customary parochial uproar at this behemoth of modernism, although Jacobsen managed a graceful, almost translucent tower covered in a reflective grey-green glass. Most days the surface of the building reflects the clouds and the sky, camouflaging the tower that still punctuates the Copenhagen skyline, which even now is predominantly horizontal.

However, Jacobsen's design of the building was just the start. The SAS Royal Hotel was a gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork) on a very large scale – 22 storeys in fact, from the state-of-the-art underground service station and car park to the hotel manager's private apartment on the top floor.

Wood panelling and hand-painted crockery

He designed everything from the furniture to the aluminium mullions for the glass curtain walls, adding his touches to the carpets, curtains, door handles, wine glasses, cutlery, ashtrays and hotel signage system along the way. It set up an indelible association: Denmark was modern design was Arne Jacobsen. But as well as being a towering monument to Jacobsen's talents as an architect and designer, it was a homage to the craft traditions of Denmark. And this was the charm of the building: despite its hypermodern look, it was still very much hand-crafted, from the wood panelling in the bedrooms to the hand-painted crockery from Royal Copenhagen in the restaurant.

But only a few years after the opening, a new management team started changing the hotel for customers' increasing desire for comfort. The now-collectible AJA flatware in stainless steel, coated in silver plate, was the first Jacobsen design to go, replaced by sturdier pieces (although it was chosen by Stanley Kubrick for props in 2001: A Space Odyssey). In some ways the changes are a testament to how poorly modernism sometimes worked in practice.

The rigidity of the scheme, from the wall-mounted tables and beds to the modular boxes that made up each hotel room (the tower was constructed from reinforced concrete), hasn't withstood pressure from changing tastes.

An oasis of an era long gone

The stylistic assault on this modernist masterwork is now complete. Over the 50 years that the SAS Royal Hotel (now the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel) has stood proud on Hammerichsgade, it has slowly transformed from a uniquely realised palace of the jet age to a hotel that is literally a shell of its former self. Jacobsen's carefully executed interiors have been replaced by the kind of blandness that is the downside of the modern movement – ironically, the very forces Jacobsen helped to unleash.

It's now the stuff of what French theorist Marc Augé writes about in his 1995 book Non-Places – faceless spaces of transience. And within this shell, room 606 is the last outpost of Jacobsen's vision for the SAS Royal Hotel, an oasis of an era long gone.

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