The most dramatic skyscraper to join the Philadelphia skyline over the course of the past two years is the dual-branded W/Element Hotel, which stands at 1141 Chestnut Street in Center City, a block south of City Hall. Designed by Cope-Linder Architects and developed by Chestlen Development, the 617-foot-tall, 52-story structure combines a 460-room Element Hotel and a 295-room W Hotel. The building has stood largely finished for the past few months, as the Element Hotel opened in May and its dynamic nighttime illumination finishing its testing rounds. As of last week, we may officially declare the building as complete, as the W Hotel opened its doors on August 23rd.
The upscale hotel’s interior aesthetic celebrates the city’s storied history and culture. The wide selection of art, commissioned by the hotel from local artists, ranges from abstract to figurative and focuses on paying homage to the city’s many notable musicians. The room design is restrained yet suave, with beige, wood, and brass tones comprising a distinctive amber palette. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer some of the most dramatic views to be found in any lodging establishment in the city, spreading for miles in all directions.
To the average observer, however, the building’s salient quality is its unique exterior design. The architects deconstructed the trite, ubiquitous concept of the glass slab via notches and cantilevers that gently notch into, and protrude from, a gently setbacked form that steps up to its logo-adorned pinnacle like a mountain crag. Under proper weather conditions, the overall effect is sublime. Like an iceberg, the jagged, classy slab may gleam in the sunlight, hover like a transparent crystal, or loom like a brooding obelisk. Perhaps white coloring would have been more fitting for the staggered mechanical screens at the pinnacle, in order to reinforce alpine and iceberg imagery; on the other hand, the current off-black coloring pleasantly harmonizes with Alexander Milne Calder’s William Penn statue atop City Hall, which looms nearby at a similar height.
Just as importantly, at the ground level the architects defer to the building’s predominantly masonry context. The lower levels are clad in light beige stone panels that are an excellent match for the hallowed architecture on the surrounding blocks. At the same time, the narrow vertical windows and a staggered panel layout ensure that the base maintains a distinctively modern character and harmonizes with the shifting cantilevers at the upper floors.
As delightful as the design appears during the day, the building truly blossoms at night, when the crown lights up with bright lights that cascade down the facade in dazzling colors.
The W/Element Hotel is an excellent example of how much an otherwise generic building design may be improved with subtle yet thoughtful and fine-tuned detailing. Architects, take note.