The newly updated lobby
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When it opened in 1960, the SAS Royal Hotel was Copenhagen’s most hated building. If the Danish capital was trying to establish itself as a design capital, someone seemed to have screwed up.

In a city that had previously stuck to a strict five-storey limit, the 22-floor glass tower rising above the railway tracks looked more like something from Madison Avenue than a carefully crafted work of Scandi chic. But time dilutes disdain. Nearly 60 years on, the hotel is an indispensable element of the city’s skyline, an elegant Modernist temple to a disappeared jet age.

It does, however, still embody the paradoxes that define the hotel industry — that hotels must, for example, express something of the local area while also employing the globalised language of luxury, and must respect heritage while adhering to the changing demands of fashion. Next month the hotel will complete the final touches of a two-year renovation at the hands of local architects Space Copenhagen. The SAS logo still shines bright atop the slender slab but the hotel has been rebranded as the Radisson Collection Royal Hotel, its links with the Scandinavian Airlines System long severed.

The website and PR material describe this as “the world’s first design hotel”, which is both kind of true and completely idiotic. True because its celebrated architect, Arne Jacobsen, designed everything, from the door handles and clocks to the chairs. Stupid because the term “design hotel” is a much more recent invention, referring to high-concept properties with interiors and furnishings chosen to impart a theme. They come with a narrative, a spiel about the provenance of furniture and food, and they strive to offer not just a bed and board but an experience.

Arne Jacobsen at the hotel in 1960

In 1960 that experience was not a carefully curated blend of design objects, fusion cuisines and atmospheres. It was just straight-up, super-cool modernity. The best that could be made. The theme was now.

The Royal Hotel was conceived as a showcase for Scandinavian design but it was also a transatlantic gateway — on the first floor was an SAS lounge with ticket desk and check-in from where passengers and luggage would be whisked away on a streamlined bus (also designed by Jacobsen) to the airport 20 minutes away. Thus the hybrid feel was surely intentional, this would be a shimmering slice of Midtown beside Tivoli Gardens.

That it was built at all shows the power of SAS and the sheer will to create a sliver of glassy modernity in the bricky city. Copenhagen’s first luxury hotel sits just across the road, the also determinedly Modernist Astoria (opened in 1935). At only four storeys, its horizontality seems to express the streamlining of the railways (for whom it was built) just as the SAS reaches for the sky.

The new bar

The SAS hotel’s ground floor was designed as a vitrine, a glassy showcase for Scandinavian good taste. There was a shop selling Georg Jensen silver and Royal Copenhagen porcelain, beautifully crafted, elegant and expensive pieces sitting on slender shelves spotlit and suspended on wires. There were espresso counters, a winter garden and cocktail and snack bars.

Photos from the 1960s show a cool interior, minimal, modern and chic, strikingly open and empty except for a few slender women in kitten heels and elegant winter coats and men in sharp suits, slim ties and trilbies (with, this being Denmark, the occasional cardigan popping up). When I first visited about a decade ago, all that was gone. The lobby was a mocktail of corporate banality and big-business bad taste.

Space Copenhagen has done it over well, peeling back layers and opening out the ground floor in a refined approximation of the original. But they’ve put a little too much back in. The reception desks that were once super-minimal veneered counters with lighting above, rather like a cool bar, are now brassy sub-Art Deco pods and there are clunky marble tables dotted about, clashing with the lightness of Jacobsen’s structure. The ethereal spiral stair survives as a sculptural feature, skilfully illuminated. But what they have also done is to reintroduce, in a big way, the architect’s original, and wonderful, furniture.

A guest room

Jacobsen designed some of modern furniture’s most familiar pieces for this hotel. They are items that have become so ubiquitous and so widely imitated that they have become almost invisible. (My local branches of both McDonald’s and the estate agent Foxtons have garishly upholstered derivatives of Egg chairs in their windows.)

I should acknowledge here that even at the hotel’s style nadir, room was always found for Jacobsen’s inimitable (or, perhaps, all-too-imitable) furniture and fittings, but now their original manufacturer, Fritz Hansen, has revived all the pieces in cool colours and high quality. Fascinatingly, the furniture creates its own landscape. Diametrically opposed in its sumptuous organic form to the severe lines of the architecture, the pieces populate even the emptiest of spaces so that there appears to be a presence even when the lobby is empty.

The same contrast between architecture and furniture appears in the refurbished rooms. The mix of rooms here reminds us that, despite its image of jet-age luxury, the early 1960s tolerated conditions that would seem a little spartan to us. Some of the rooms were, and still are, small. But the corner rooms, with their wraparound windows, are astonishing. With no structural columns, there is an tangible sense of lightness and a panorama of the low-rise city that spreads as far as Sweden (it is this detail that makes the hotel look so light from outside, with sun shining through the corners and breaking down the mass). My room overlooked Tivoli Gardens, which, although it was still closed for winter, was gently illuminated so the outlines of pagodas, palaces and fairground rides were lit up in colourful fairy lights, cheering a misty evening view. The rooms themselves are more comfortable than they were and the suites have been kitted out with updated Jacobsen furniture along with other bespoke Fritz Hansen designs.

The way to fully appreciate and enjoy the new rooms, however, (and the way to understand the history of the hotel and, perhaps, of Modernism itself) is to visit Room 606, which has been preserved in its original state as a museum piece. While the hotel around it has been refreshed, refurbished and almost rebuilt since the early 1980s, Room 606 has remained a point of stillness.

It is an undeniably charged space, a quiet, almost perfect minimalism, which, despite its modesty, takes the breath away. To see this room is to appreciate the depth of Arne Jacobsen’s design and, ironically, to realise why hotels keep having to spend so much money on reimagining themselves.

Drop chairs in Room 606

The furniture is all here, the Egg, the Swan, the beautiful Drop chairs and the 3300 sofa, all upholstered in a kind of dull turquoise. The walls are a duck-eggy, pale blue-green and there is dark wood panelling. Built-in furniture, like the dressing table with lift-up top that reveals an illuminated mirror, is exquisite and meticulously made.

The frugal twin beds have no pillows (Jacobsen apparently thought they would spoil the geometry, so a maid would bring them in only in the evening). A drape hangs in front of the beds to create a layer of separation; the net curtains are weighted so they hang straight but also cast an undulating shadow on the sill below (surely influenced by the glass vases of Jacobsen’s Finnish contemporary, Alvar Aalto).

Everything here, from the standing aluminium ashtray to the lamps that run on rails for easy adjustment, was designed by the architect. This is a complete environment and as seductive a mid-century interior as there is, which is why it crops up in so many photoshoots and fashion spreads. Yet the room is also a little washed out — dreary, even, like a fading, misty memory. Squint and it resembles a mid-market Stuttgart airport hotel from the later 1960s. What looks impossibly glamorous and impeccably Modernist in sharp-contrasted black-and-white photos can look dreary in reality.

The exterior

It’s impossible to imagine that the new rooms will be preserved, even if they are more convenient and more luxurious than Jacobsen’s originals. In 1958 Jacobsen could design a hotel that was perfectly Modern; there was a consensus about Modernism as the end-point, the evolved zenith of architecture. It turned out it wasn’t. Architecture and design kept evolving, becoming less pure, less well made, if more luxurious and forgiving. There are few places you can see the two modernities together, side by side and with such clarity — classic, austere and authentic beside commodified, contemporary, compromised and yet comfortable. It’s fine to enjoy them both and still feel something might have been lost.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s design critic. He was a guest of the hotel, which has double rooms from DKr1,095 per night (£129), see radissoncollection.com

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