The man who bought the arch

Rafael Serrano and the Admiralty Arch

Admiralty Arch, commissioned by Edward VII in memory of his mother, Queen Victoria, and designed by Sir Aston Webb, is an architectural feat and one of the most iconic buildings in London.

It is the gateway between Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square, but few of those driving through the arch come to appreciate its harmony and elegance for the simple reason that they see very little  of it. Londoners also take it for granted to the extent that they simply  drive through without giving it further thought.

This is all set to change within the next two years and the man who has taken on the challenge is financier-turned-developer Rafael Serrano.

When the UK coalition government resolved to introduce more efficiency in the handling of public buildings, a new Government Property Unit was created for the purpose of selling off/leasing £2.5bn of assets, one of which was Admiralty Arch.

Serrano produced no less than a 3 volume presentation (one of which  was bound as a proper book investment case study publication) to  make a case for his vision of restoring the building and turning it into a landmark hotel, with a members’ club and restaurants on different  levels. The book is full of historical references, archival photographs and architectural drawings, demonstrating in-depth knowledge and sensitivity second to none.

One would expect the man who won the much contested bidding for the Arch to have a heightened attention to detail. Serrano goes far, far beyond that – his knowledge of the architecture of historical buildings in general, and of this building’s history in particular – is nothing short of astounding.

RS: Admiralty Arch is an asset with a lot of history. I felt privileged  to participate in the bidding but didn’t dare hope to win. The  strategy of our bid was to avoid presenting the same run of the mill  documentation as everyone else. Rather, we focused on the historical  importance of the building and researched archives to come up with  every possible original drawing and photograph we could find. We hired designers to choose the colours and fonts of our presentation  booklet.

The original drawings show trees on the side of the arch that were never planted – we intend to do this and restore the building in keeping with the original concept – an opening towards, and an extension of Buckingham Palace.

We produced a video of how the building will look once restored and why we would be better than the other bidders. We explained how the new hotel will look within London and how it would compete against other iconic hotels in the capital. Finally, we presented our record of accountability and track record.

We assembled a team that has sterling experience and track record: Blair Associates Architecture, who have several landmark hotels in London to their credit and Sir Robert McAlpine, as well as lighting, design and security experts. We demonstrated we are able to put a lot of effort in the restoration of public spaces, in conservation and sustainability.

I have learned two things from my investment banking days:

1. The importance of team work. When JP Morgan was first founded  they attracted the best talent available. By creating a team like this  you achieve more.

2. The importance of execution. There were a lot of people who bid more money for this project.  They had the means and the budget.

What they didn’t have was the combination of great team work,  experience and execution capabilities.

I am well aware of the major responsibility that comes with winning  the bid; that the legacy and the beauty of the building’s original design need to be preserved. We also have an obligation to work  with everyone to preserve the historical connection and context of public buildings.

We will start construction before Christmas 2013 and anticipate  completing the project within 2/2.5 years.

BB: So this will be the best London hotel?

RS: I don’t really want to give it a label like that – let’s say I like to think of it as something London should be proud of.

In terms of location, it cannot get better than this. Very few roads come to the Arch and no service cars or trucks can drive through it. It is in the middle or everything – Buckingham Palace, the Royal Opera, the National Gallery, all the theatres and of course, the royal parks.

The red concrete road outside is very rare and walking towards the palace is like walking down the proverbial red carpet. I can see myself staying here as a guest in the years to come.

We’ve been approached to document the restoration of the building on film and in a book. I would like to do that but not as a commercial project. Admiralty Arch represents a combination of power, politics, economics, military history and various curiosities – a book should reflect that. Admiralty Arch was commissioned by King Edward VII and the ‘grateful citizens’ of Britain and its Empire to commemorate Queen Victoria. It was constructed over a century ago when London was at the heart of the largest, richest and most powerful empire the world has even seen.

It is not common knowledge, for example, that Winston Churchill worked here, as did the author Ian Fleming for a few years. Lady Thatcher kept her own notes and archives at the Arch. This should not be just about the restoration of the building, it should go beyond that. I would like to do a book on the Arch itself and the history of it, not just a pretty coffee table ornament. London has produced an amalgamation of clever, talented people; wonderful art; culture; wealth. I hope we can contribute a little to that with the creation of the hotel and its own members’ club.

On The Club

RS: The genius of Sir Aston Webb was to not just create an extremely beautiful building from the outside but also an extremely efficient one from the inside. Discovering it in its entirety has impressed even people who have worked here but were not allowed access to some parts of it (employees only had clearance for the particular wing, floor or even just room they worked in). So not only has the building been closed to the public, but also to those who worked there.

The North wing was originally designed as residential quarters. In the past, London architects built very high ceilings on ground floors to evoke a sense of grandeur and comfort. The lower ground and basement floors of the Arch have 4 m ceilings and, given that we have enough rooms for the hotel and restaurants, we thought we’d create a members’ club there. I am a huge fan of London’s clubs and belong to many. I like the traditional gentlemen’s clubs, but I also go to the new social/dining clubs, such as the Dover Street Arts Club, Hertford Street and Lulu’s. I like the Travellers and the Reform clubs.

Not only are both buildings architecturally interesting, they were designed by the very same architect, Charles Barry, who restored the House of Parliament after the great fire of 1834. At that time public buildings were built in two distinct styles: either neo-gothic or neo-classical. The House of Parliament was built in the former, while the Travellers and the Reform were built in the latter style. I have always had a keen interest in history and love architecture, in particular Italian architecture.

I envisage the club as being much more than just  a social hub – I hope it will attract creative people:  builders, influencers, originators of art, culture,  power… The club should reflect the importance of the  building and its location and develop as a hub of influence. Part of our strategy is to decorate it as a  quintessentially British club, emphasising the relationship we have with the Royal Navy.

The Tour of the Building

B Beyond felt singularly privileged to be given  the tour of Admiralty Arch, pre-restoration,  with Rafael Serrano himself as, quite probably,  the most knowledgeable guide alive. We were  keenly aware that we were seeing the building in a way that few people have and most importantly, in a way it will never be seen again. Pending restoration…

“Compared to the Foreign office with its elaborate frescoes”, Serrano speaks as we start wondering  through lofty corridors, “the Arch is quite plain,  but has a wonderful energy to it. I would like to use the public spaces to display both traditional and contemporary art and will be  forging relationships with the National Gallery, the Royal Navy and others to this end. The building does of course speak for itself – I just want to give it back its energy.”

He shows us a visual map of the tour at the outset.  Has anyone driving through it ever noticed, I wonder, that the two sides of the fan-like structure  are not equal but only look so through optical  illusion? We stop momentarily at the space where the lift  will be – right now, there is a picture of what it  will look like and even before Serrano tells me so,  I recognise it as the very ornate lift of Le Bristol,  Paris.

The building itself is a veritable maze of corridors, hallways, vast rooms with ornate fireplaces (many, historically important), stern portraits of admiralty lords, solidly built limestone stairways and, endless recess areas that will lend themselves perfectly to repose space amid the vast splendour of the new hotel. What is truly amazing is the flood of light from just about everywhere and the relative quiet – we are, after all, in the middle of one of the busiest thoroughfares of the capital.

Serrano is intimate with every detail, of course,  and shows us where every breakfast room and  restaurant will be, but reserves the piece de  resistence – or rather, two of them – for last. These are both extremities of the Arch – the rooftop  and the below ground bunkers that once housed top secret archives including Lady Thatcher’s  personal notes. If the below ground is still alive with history, it is the rooftop that I fall in love with.

Walking around would give you a full 360-degree view of London’s most important landmarks, but also the crowd down below in Trafalgar Square, and the best view of Buckingham Palace. It is perhaps there that I truly come to appreciate  what the Arch’s new custodian-in-chief means by  the unique “Britishness” of the project. After all,  you cannot get more British or, for that matter, more London, than this.

Rafael Serrano

Serrano is a walking definition of a new breed  of entrepreneurs who think and live in a global  dimension. He speaks several languages fluently  and, having lived here and there and pretty much  everywhere, exudes cosmopolitan confidence  without a trace of arrogance. His admiration for  humility punctuates much of our conversation, in  fact. Serrano is intensely private and insists that  Admiralty Arch should remain the focus of our  conversation. Still, through snippets of volunteered  information, one can just about start building a portrait of the man.

He describes himself as “citizen of the world”,  having left Madrid 25 years ago and lived in Milan,  Paris, New York and a number of other countries  in emerging markets, including Brazil. He has a curiosity, understanding and appreciation for  other cultures the likes of which one seldom comes across. London appears to have been his first foreign city and one he keeps getting drawn to (he is  the founding investor and developer behind the  Bulgari hotel and Residences in London).

That said, he also likes New York (he tells me he  went there for a few months and ended up staying 4 years) and is “very much into the American work  rhythm and ethos”.

“If you work hard and are passionate about  achievement, people will respect you. I love the energy of that and the whole Anglo-Saxon spirit of  celebrating achievers rather than begrudging it to them.”

He says he was lucky to have arrived in NY  in 1996, during the Clinton/Guiliani era when the  city was peaceful, prosperous and generally better.

Serrano’s inspiration in design was the late Alberto Pinto, whom he describes as a genius, a man full of energy and creativity. He spent much time in Pinto’s studio and loves working with French artists to this day. Serrano lived in Paris in 1991 and says, once again, he is fortunate to have lived in particular “spaces of time”. Paris at the time was “full of art, culture fashion… with less bureaucracy and politicking”. The city retains, he says, aspects of that energy and he hopes this will not change.

Ever since his father took him, as a young boy, to the Italian Embassy in Madrid, he was smitten with Italian architecture. Later on, his love for the country, its culture, its music, its food and its people grew exponentially. He is perfectly fluent in the language because, he says, “this is not just about learning a language – I like to be able to understand people”.

Serrano comes from an investment banking  background but in his heart is in land. His  grandmother owned vineyards and gave him a  special love for the earth.  He bought his first property at 19 – a much loved mews house in Knightsbridge London, often  referred to as “the friendly house”, recently sold but remembered fondly.

Having done the prerequisite law degree that “gives you a lot of gravitas in Southern European  countries”, Serrano started investing seriously in  property. He bought a few more London houses and, while still with JP Morgan, he acquired land in NY, on the Upper Hudson river. The land status was changed from office to residential and the subsequent development and sale allowed him  to create his own private equity vehicle, Prime Investors Capital.

“We are”, he says, “very careful and old-fashioned when it comes to selecting properties and protecting our investment”. When Prime Investors Capital works with co- investors, it is with sovereign wealth funds and big international companies. He is, however, the only investor in Admiralty Arch. “If I get co-investors here”, he says, “it would be a sophisticated partner”. One of his ‘partners’ is none other than the Spanish Government, in fact, advising on the Cervantes Institute in Eaton Square.

Prime Investors Capital will, he says, continue to specialise in developing public buildings and the company’s track record will doubtless help him with future bids. Serrano is a great admirer of Former Prime Minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher who, he says, “opened the UK to the international business based on meritocracy and made it attractive to people like me to come and do business here”.

He is also a “big fan” of the royal family for their integrity, humility and sense of responsibility. They are, he says, leading by way of example – and the world needs leadership; without it, we are lost. He talks about the importance of respecting the local community and the responsibility to give back – and although It very easily could, none of it sounds cheesy or grandiloquent.

Probably because of the palpable enthusiasm and passion the man positively exudes… Probably because he really does see himself as  a custodian of what Sir Aston Webb created 100 years ago…

“Not only are we responsible for preserving the heritage of the building”, he says, “but we have  an opportunity to do more than that – we should  enhance and protect it for future generation.”

“It is a major task and I like to be very focused.  And after you’ve put all that drive, energy and  focus into each day, when you go to bed, you have to ask yourself: have I achieved something today?”

To me, that goes a long way to summing up Serrano,  the man.