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The lobby at SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen.
The lobby at SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen.

Aviation

1960s: SAS opens doors to a hotel

Designed by renowned architect Arne Jacobsen, the SAS hotel became a Copenhagen landmark.

It is said that Arne Jacobsen didn’t like the word “designer” and never used it himself, which makes writing articles like this one difficult. After all, here we have an architect who designed the world’s first designer hotel, the SAS Royal Hotel in downtown Copenhagen, Jacobsen’s hometown.When the building was completed, it was the tallest building in Denmark.

The 22-story building with 275 rooms stands a stone’s throw from Tivoli Gardens, and it changed the Danish capital’s skyline, the SAS image, and Jacobsen’s legacy. Even Jacobsen’s most famous pieces of furniture, the chairs called Drop, Egg, and Swan, were designed specifically for the hotel, as was everything else from the stainless steel cutlery and furniture to the ashtrays and roller blind grips.

For the building itself, Jacobsen drew his inspiration from Manhattan, especially from the exclusive Park Avenue. In 1960, when the SAS Royal Hotel was completed, it was the tallest building in Denmark. At 69.6 meters tall, it was the country’s only skyscraper, and there was also parking space for 300 cars.

The novel idea for the hotel was that it doubled as an airport terminal – the first such solution in Europe – with a shuttle service taking 1960s true travelers from the SAS Royal Hotel’s cocktail lounge to Kastrup airport in just 20 minutes.

The architect himself wasn’t pleased with everything, though. The fluorescent lighting in the terminal was forced on him, and he felt the bright white lights made the area too intense.

Arne Jacobsen.“I don’t like it much myself, but right now I just can’t get around it,” Jacobsen told Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter in 1959, 11 months before the opening. “But the lighting’s better in other areas.”

But that was a small price to pay for the chance to make history. Of his three chairs, Swan and Egg became Danish classics. At the time, their no-straight-lines design made not only for a beautiful design but a technological innovation and a challenge for the manufacturer, Republic of Fritz Hansen.

“He always used round shapes as a contrast to his very precise buildings,” Paul Ove Jensen, an architect at Arne Jacobsen Studios, says on a 50th anniversary video for the Swan. “For example, the spiral staircase became a standard feature in his buildings.”

The SAS Royal received the same treatment. On the outside, the building is a decorated with vertical lines that cross the horizontal glass lines, and on the inside are the round shapes of Eggs and Swans and a spiral staircase.

Both Egg and Swan can still be seen in public spaces around the world. For example, those traveling to San Francisco can see a bunch of Eggs in Terminal 2.

From left: Drop, Egg & Swan chairs. All designed for use in the SAS Royal Hotel. Photo: Fritz Hansen

But SAS Royal Hotel was much more than “just” a designer landmark. If you walked past the travel agent, the bank office, and the car rental office, and through glass rooms to the booking agency, you came to a direct line to the basement and the real novelty of the building.

In the bowels of the hotel there was “a mysterious electronic brain,” as Dagens Nyheter called it when the terminal opened in January 1959.

“The electronic brain tells you how many empty seats there are on a plane to Los Angeles, just by pressing a button on a calculator,” the newspaper wrote.

The new booking computer was the largest of its kind this side of the Mississippi, or at least the Atlantic, and in “just a third of second it [could tell] where all SAS planes were in the world.” The 1.5-million-Swedish krona computer (in 2016 terms, 17.7 million krona or 1.9 million euros) also had a designated staff to operate it.

Only a few years after its opening, changes were made to the SAS Royal Hotel, and most of the Jacobsen influences disappeared, except for one room, 606, which was always kept in its original state. Since 2014, room 506 has also been designed in Jacobsen’s spirit.

SAS got out of the hotel business in 2009, but the SAS Royal Hotel still stands tall, with the big SAS logo still where it’s always been.

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