Bold new hotel offers rooftop pool and design delights

If the names Arne Jacobsen, Bruno Mathsson and Alvar Aalto mean anything to you, you'll be in your element at the Clarion Hotel Sign, which opens its doors on Tuesday. Even if classic Scandinavian design isn't your thing, you might still be interested in dipping your toes in the spectacular rooftop pool of Stockholm's newest hotel and conference centre.

With 558 rooms, Stockholm’s newest hotel will also be its largest. The rooms on four of its floors are outfitted with furniture by some of the biggest names associated with Scandinavian design. One is dedicated to Sweden, and its rooms are filled with the work of Bruno Mathsson, arguably the most well-known Swedish designer, as well as by Eric Jörgensen, who like Mathsson, was known for his functionalist approach to furniture-making.

Another floor showcases the work of Finnish designer and fellow functionalist Alvar Aalto (think squiggly-shaped Iitala candleholders), including a tea trolley he originally designed in 1935. Yet another floor sports the furniture of the granddaddy of Danish design, Arne Jacobsen, whose Egg, Ant and Swan chairs are the kind of stuff that make design mavens go gaga.

Finally, a fourth floor is home to Norwegian design, which is decked out with the work of Norway Says and Fjord Fiesta. The fact that nobody has heard of “Norway Says” actually says a whole lot about the Norwegian design scene. For whatever reason, Norway never achieved the same acclaim as the other Nordic countries, which became the darlings of the design world in the 1950s and 60s, but its contemporary scene is one of the more lively.

While each floor represents its own Nordic nationality, the basic layout of the rooms is the same and the beds and bathrooms present a kind of elegance and functionality that one would expect from a hotel dedicated to Scandinavian design. However, there is a certain sterility and it’s easy to wonder if the couches are as nice to sit in as they are to look at. The business lounge, for instance, features chairs with an attitude (okay, chairs called “Attitude” by Danish designer Morten Voss) that certainly qualify as eye candy, but they don’t exactly invite you to plop down and stay awhile.

The hotel itself was designed by Gothenburg-based architect Gert Wingårdh, who was also the mastermind behind the House of Sweden, the Swedish embassy in Washington D.C. that opened in October 2006. Wingårdh, who is probably the best known contemporary Swedish architect abroad, described the hotel as “a massive sculpture.”

Wingårdh’s granite and glass construction has two points that zig zag towards Central Station. The black exterior facade slopes out at a four degree angle, which means that the suites situated in the southwest corner of Norra Bantorget get bigger as you go up the building.

With the exception of the roof, the views from the hotel either overlook Norra Bantorget or the inner courtyard. The back of the building facing the railroad tracks has no glass in it and functions as a bomb wall. The front, on the other hand, is almost entirely made of windows.

It’s the top floor, however, that will hold appeal for travellers and Stockholmers alike. The spa is run by SelmaSpa, which also has the largest spa in Sweden at its Värmland location. There is the standard gym equipment and relax area, but the real draw is the rooftop pool and terrace. The southern terrace has a view over downtown Stockholm, and the pool, which is heated in the winter, overlooks Kungsholmen. Visitors who are not staying in the hotel can pay 395 kronor during the week or 495 kronor at weekends for a day pass. (You can also get a year membership for the measly sum of 9,995 kronor ($1,550).

The new hotel’s other main attraction is the restaurant, Aquavit Grill and Raw Bar. The original Aquavit was opened in New York City in 1987, and this is the first time it has opened a location outside of the United States. Like the hotel’s decor, the cuisine also has a classic Scandinavian theme.

The new Clarion Sign is a beautiful example of Scandinavian architecture, and is certainly a welcome addition to Norra Bantorget, which is situated alongside the railroad tracks and has long been rundown. The hotel itself replaces an old gas station, and more shops, restaurants, offices and apartments are on their way. The entire area is being redeveloped, and should for the most part be complete by summer 2009.

The hotel is also a breath of fresh air to anyone who thinks Stockholm needs a shake-up when it comes to modern architecture. “Compared to other cities in the world, Stockholm lacks up to date, innovative architecture,” wrote architect Rahel Belatchew in The Local. Her firm, RB Arkitektur, has proposed a 30-storey skyscraper beside the tracks of the central railway station. The proposal for the controversial tower followed a heated debate about the Stockholm Kallbadhus, a new bathing house planned to be built on Lake Mälaren.

While it’s not clear whether Stockholm’s urban planners will buy into either Kungsbroskrapan or the Kallbadhus, the new Hotel Clarion Sign is certainly one step in the right direction towards revitalizing Stockholm’s architectural scene.