Designing a bar and restaurant that stands 150 metres above the ground isn't the most straightforward of tasks. If you overdo the design you risk minimising or obstructing the views; if you under-design the space, the emphasis will be solely on the view.
"The trick is finding a balance," says James Dilley, of London-based design and architecture firm Jestico + Whiles. "It's a question of enhancing the view while not negating the interior space. This was new to us, and it's been guided by David from his experience with restaurants in tall buildings."
He is referring to David Yeo, the Singaporean-born, Hong Kong-based lawyer-turned-restaurateur; the venue is Aqua Shard, a vast, airy bar and 220-seat restaurant recently opened by Yeo in London's 310-metre-tall Shard building. Yeo and Jestico + Whiles designed the venue together.
Yeo knows a thing or two about opening bars and restaurants at a height. Many of his Aqua Restaurant Group's more than 20 venues in Beijing, Hong Kong and London are in skyscrapers. "What you don't want to do with a building of that height is force everybody to put their back against the core of the building and look outwards," he says.
"Often you will then have customers saying, 'I need to have a window seat', and anyone with their back to the view will feel like they are missing out."
Yeo wants everyone who comes to Aqua Shard to have "an absolutely panoramic view" and that's why he insisted on mirrors along the core wall and covering the structural columns that punctuate the floor-to-ceiling windows every few metres. "That way we've made them disappear," he says. "If we hadn't, you would have these huge breaks in the view."
At Aqua, the views over the London skyline and the River Thames appear almost seamless, stretching from the Houses of Parliament in the west to Canary Wharf in the east, taking in London landmarks such as St Paul's Cathedral, Tower Bridge and 30 St Mary Axe, better known as the Gherkin. The lighting was designed by Yeo to minimise reflections in the floor-to-ceiling wraparound glazing.
The food at Aqua is British modern (Welsh salt marsh lamb with red pepper, young garlic and fondant potato; or grilled octopus and Scottish mackerel with tomato sorbet, pickled shallots and aubergine dressing) and the aim of the design was to exude a geographical and cultural sense of place. "Otherwise you could be in New York, Paris or Dubai," Yeo says.
"Our first presentation to David majored on the context and the history of this part of Southwark," Dilley says. South of the Thames was historically known for crime, prostitution and drinking, and was where gin distilleries were located. The design team also discovered that a lot of cargo from Asia arrived in this part of London. "The tea from China was all brought in to the docks in Southwark," Dilley says.
These two quintessentially English beverages, gin and tea, are subtly referenced in Aqua's two wings, which are connected by a triple-height atrium in which the magnificent bar is located. Sadly, there is also a hulking wood-and-glass staircase - which is part of the building's branding and could not be touched - from which you walk down into Aqua from the lifts, or up to Hutong, the London branch of Yeo's original Hong Kong restaurant.
The 89-seat tea wing features dark green and brown leather, and dark stained oak cabinetry filled with tea products (a series of glass-encased private dining rooms line the windows here, too); whereas the 66-seat gin wing is inspired by the botanicals that go into gin and features a colour palette ranging from rich purples (in the leather seats of the banquettes and in the armchairs) to the saturated turquoise greens of the Liberty peacock motif on the upper half of the semi-circular banquettes.
At the end of the gin wing, a small bar showcases rows of butterflies in bell jars against a luminescent fuchsia pink Liberty fabric. There is an analogy between taking the high-speed lifts and a sense of freedom and elation represented by the butterflies, Dilley says. But they work almost like light fittings, too. "The iridescence of the blue butterflies lights up and illuminates the whole space."
The most striking elements at Aqua Shard are the bar and, perhaps surprisingly, the toilets. The former exudes a welcome gravitas and sophistication. It is clad in different oxidised bronzes, negro marquina marble and stainless steel, and has a mosaic of smoky bevelled mirrors above it. "We wanted something that had memory to it, not something that was brand new. It had to have a classic feel to it," Dilley says.
The toilets are ultra-luxe spaces with the same fantastic views as the restaurant. Yeo was responsible for the gents' chequerboard gentlemen's club feel with sculptural, stand-alone old-school urinals by British firm Healey & Lord. "I wanted to bring the feel of the classic West End theatre toilets into the Shard," he says.
Jestico + Whiles filled the women's toilets with blue-tinged mirrored doors and expansive basins and columns clad in a veined cipollino marble. "The marble is very, very indulgent," Dilley says, "and the way it's cut: it's sliced down the middle and then opened up like a book; so it has a symmetrical grain on each piece." The effect, combined with the blue-tinted mirrors and suffused lighting, is shimmery and ethereal, or, as Dilley puts it, "dreamy".
As a successful restaurateur, Yeo knows that it's not the design or even the views that will lure people back. "Service and food is always much more important in the long term," he says.
To see the views and the interiors in the optimal light, he recommends coming at dusk, when "you'll see the best of both worlds". He's right. As the sun starts to set, the interiors are filled with a soft and almost pink-hued luminescent light that makes everything look, well, dreamy.