Almost the only thing that’s hard to find in Beijing is water, as most of the year it hardly ever rains, let alone pours. Yet bringing water to the heart of the city was exactly the challenge that ASAP, New York-based architecture practice led by Adam Sokol, decided to embrace when designing the Emperor Qianmen Hotel.

Why is water the central theme of the hotel?
Adam Sokol: The neighborhood of Qianmen is associated with commerce and foreign influence prior to the fall of the Qing dynasty. Although it appears historical today, the vast majority of the extant fabric consists of reconstructions that are fairly recent. This is generally true of the hotel too, with one exception: the south façade. The two-storey white marble Western-style façade that was originally built for a Qing dynasty public bath. Our desire to connect in some way to the only remaining bit of historical authenticity was the genesis of the water theme.

How did you translate this into the interior?
In terms of interior design, the most obvious example of the water theme is water itself. Most noticeable is the indoor rainfall in the reception, but also the waterfall and pools found in the spa, as well as the ‘bubble laces’ with dripping water in the atrium, all designed by the outstanding Canadian waterfall artist Dan Euser. Beyond literal water, watery references permeate the experience of the hotel. The elevators play a looping video of a swimming woman which we conceived and executed for the hotel. The video has become a cornerstone of the hotel’s local marketing identity. The carpeting in the guestroom corridors show a water ripple pattern that we designed. Circles are used frequently throughout the interior, as can be seen in the room signage. Most significantly, bathing was planned as a key experience in every guest room. All of the rooms feature oversized bathrooms and showers, and many contain a large tub directly in the bedroom.

Is this project typical of your design approach?
On the whole, no. As the saying goes, ‘you don’t change China, China changes you’. One would like to think that one has a ‘design approach’, a methodology, a philosophy, a career trajectory, a body of work, all those things that we hold so dearly. Yet when you arrive in China, you are confronted with a wholly different set of problems and scales, and suddenly everything you thought you knew is not quite relevant anymore. However, there are still threads of continuity in our work, which I would say are less about formal strategies in this case and more about the approach to the project, the desire to connect to the place, the context, the time and the culture, and to have a way of working that is flexible enough to accommodate that.

What part of the result are you proudest of?
We made it rain in the desert.

Photos Jonathan Leijonhufvud