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Clients want more ‘authentic’ hotels. So how do we design them?

Reception 03 lr
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RESEARCH: The generic hotel has fallen out of favour as guests seek an ‘authentic’ Airbnb-style experience, writes Aukett Swanke’s Nicholas de Klerk

Research in architectural practice is a vastly underestimated and, consequently, undervalued process. There are practices – still a visible minority – that have developed prolonged commitment to advancing specific approaches, typologies, material use and applications. When you consider that almost every project, whether it is built or not, is effectively a prototype by virtue of its brief, context, budget and other determinants, you start to appreciate that on many levels practice is research. 

Earlier this year, Aukett Swanke set about identifying current issues affecting hotel design which would underpin more sustained research into the typology, and it seemed obvious to us to start with our own studio. Our hotels team is a diverse, international group of architects and interior designers who between them speak 36 languages and have worked in over 20 countries. They also, of course, travel themselves, which means they can consider the issues as both designers and users. 

Courtyard avixual

Courtyard avixual

Source: Aukett Swanke

Courtyard of a 102-bedroom hotel in London’s West End for Amazon Property

The responses we gathered were as diverse as our consultation group, taking in everything from existential philosophical questions to technical and operational issues. We distilled these observations into 10 themes and recast them as propositions; challenges to both ourselves as designers and the industry at large. Each of the propositions describes a specific focus within the hotel as an idea, considering issues such as authenticity, technology, shopping, the public, luxury, wellness, sustainability and segmentation. It was important to us that this work was accessible to a wider audience, so we used photography from within the studio, developed a strong graphic identity and, in using occasional references to cultural and other memes, invested the series with a subtle humour.

Perhaps the most common theme to emerge in our survey was the challenge being brought to the hospitality industry by so-called disruptive home-stay technological sharing platforms, such as Airbnb. The question of authenticity is something we have interrogated in two recent design projects as part of this research. In the first, a study for a new 102-bedroom hotel in London’s West End for Amazon Property, we considered how we might respond to the changing nature of public areas in hotels. Hotel guests increasingly demand a more legibly ‘authentic’ experience of their stays, something that engages the hotel’s physical, historical and cultural context. This is a direct rejection of the more generic and global approach that has previously characterised hotel design. At the same time, the characterisation of hotel lobbies as ‘public’ is self-fulfilling as they are increasingly used as both leisure and work spaces, by local residents as much as guests, if not more so. This seemed to us to be both the challenge and the solution. 

Our West End hotel has a north-facing street frontage and party walls on the three remaining boundaries. We created a relatively generous courtyard on the south side of the site, drawing natural light deep into the plan and giving all rooms at the upper levels an external aspect – not always a given in constricted urban projects. On the two ‘public’ levels – ground and lower ground – we arranged the spaces around the courtyard into a series of rooms and inserted a large stepped seating area in the centre of the plan, linking the two levels and providing a dramatic approach to the courtyard on the termination of the primary entrance axis. This draws on the typology of the traditional town house but inserts an urban element into it, drawing the city and its activities into the space. The rooms are designed to function as meeting, work and leisure spaces, both independently and collectively, giving the hotel operator more flexibility in how it can use and manage the space.

Reception avixual

Reception avixual

Source: Aukett Swanke

Reception area of a 102-bedroom hotel in London’s West End for Amazon Property

The second project offered a distinct challenge. The commission to design a concept guestroom for Sleep, the hotel design event, came on the back of our 10 propositions, with a brief to respond to a new segmentation model developed by the Sinus Institute research group in Germany. In brief the model considers lifestyle and values as opposed to solely income and age in identifying social groups. The Sleep event asked us to design for a group identified as ‘sensation-oriented’. Members of this group place a high value on travel as an escape from their day-to-day lives to what they consider to be their real lives and authentic selves. They also travel in groups to events and festivals and often self-identify with subcultures.

Our response to Sleep’s brief will be revealed in a full-scale mock-up at the event later this month. We have created a completely immersive environment with a fully integrated lighting concept by Susan Lake which is at once social and intimate and one which offers gentle challenges to an occupant’s haptic, acoustic and visual sense of the space. We deliberately elected not to design for a specific subculture as this runs the risk of stereotyping and essentialising the designated group. As a consequence the room is both more abstract and more receptive, inviting the guests’ participation and performance in creating an authentic experience.

This project has been extraordinarily collaborative, starting from an ideas call in our London studios and developed in a number of design charrettes and workshops with architects and interior designers in the practice. It has provided the opportunity to consider approaches to modelling and prefabrication to handle the short build time. Working closely with specialist fabricators and suppliers, we have investigated new applications and combinations of materials, prototyping bespoke fixtures and finishes, and offering an unequivocal demonstration of how research in practice can itself become propositional.

Nicholas de Klerk is an associate architect at Aukett Swanke

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