Behind the Curtains

David Rockwell is sitting in a rocking chair in the lobby of an Aloft hotel, looking at a pool table. It’s 10 o’clock on a Monday morning in January. More accurately, he’s rocking in the rocking chair, which is green and plastic, and he seems calm for someone who created this theatrical space, whose architecture and design tends toward the bright sweeping gesture, the triple-note move, the overt discussion of play and stage and movement. Every­thing looks good: the pool table is in the right place; the LED lights on the bar glow steadily; the entrance’s two glass doors are perfectly spaced; and the hallway carpet (designed to withstand 75,000 double rubs) looks like it’s barely been touched, even though it has, so far, supported hundreds of meetings, visits, inspections, and cocktail parties.

Rockwell is calm because his design for a new hotel chain—with the first location opening this summer in either Beijing, China, or in Lexington, Massachusetts—is looking great. He is happy because he knows that when the first one is finally built, it’ll look pretty much the way it looked in his mind—no small feat for an architect. And he’s in a good mood because the interior is feeling as right as it did the last time he checked in. There’s just one snag.

This isn’t quite a lobby: it’s a stage set, a full-scale mock-up of an interior, a sort of hospitality soundstage tucked away inside a long block of a low-level industrial building that lines a strip-mall parking lot in Hawthorne, New York, about an hour north of New York City. For about two years it’s been used as a way for Aloft to convince potential developers that this is a franchise they want in on.

Aloft is Starwood Hotels’ latest venture, and it’s a departure for the typically luxe-oriented chain. This is the company that introduced the world to the W, one of the most successful hotel launches in history, and the hotel that brought design to the popular world and the popular world to design. Although they didn’t invent the boutique hotel—that would be New York’s luxury-condo developer Ian Schrager—it was largely the success of the W that took private design into the public hospitality mainstream and established a higher bar. The W made people who might have thought they didn’t care much about design or architecture think it was time to pay attention, and it brought the expectation of a consistently high level of aesthetic cool to everywhere from New York to Seoul.

But that was New York and Seoul, places where it isn’t so surprising to find a Moby-sound-tracked lobby and a Todd English restaurant. What the Aloft chain is doing is bringing this same level of design to, well, just about anywhere, if the spread of the first 16 hotels slated to open this year—with 50 more in 2009—is any indication.

“Certainly in the last several years we’ve seen the democratization of design,” says Brian McGuinness, vice president of Aloft, explaining why the good corporate people of Starwood thought a chain of “select service” (“That means no service,” principal architect Ed Bakos says drily) hotels, designed by a well-known architect who was certain to come at a higher price point, made sense. “We were doing focus groups down in Kansas City, and someone said to me, ‘Oh, that’s the Ghost Chair,’” McGuinness says. “And I thought, How do you know that?” It turned out she had seen it at Design Within Reach.

And that’s what Aloft is capturing: the heightened everyday acknowledgment of design by a far more educated audience. “’People have a higher expectation of design,” McGuinness says. And it was up to Rockwell to meet it.

How then to create a design template for a line of franchisable hotels, buildable for the comparatively low price of about $150,000 per room? (The average full-service hotel room costs $255,500.) “The compression benefits it,” Rockwell says. “It feels exciting.” Exciting, yes, but to a very specific customer. “We believe in trip personas,” McGuin­ness says. “You go somewhere with a persona in mind.” Project architect Bakos talks about the personas he expects will be drawn to a place like Aloft. They’re on-the-road, business-oriented people. And they don’t need shoe shining, laundry service, or a great restaurant. What they need is a place where they can check in, access their e-mail, go to sleep, wake up to natural light, and be able to grab a quick banana on their way out, all in an atmosphere of aesthetic attention and awareness of design. What they don’t need is another Ramada, Quality Suites, or La Quinta.

It isn’t just the general counsel on her way to a meeting, though. “We’re trying to imagine the salespeople who are on the road constantly, to families, to the couple trying to impress each other with how hip they are,” Bakos says. And what does Rockwell, looking around the nearly empty soundstage populated only by a few Aloft staffers, two architects, and a journalist, imagine? “We wouldn’t cast it with just stylish people,” he says. “We didn’t want this to be one of those places where everyone was straight out of central casting.”

And we’re back to Rockwell Prime. The architect does the opposite of the quiet ethereality of a Tadao Ando or the workhorse delicacy of a Renzo Piano. Rockwell Group is about emotion—about walking into a space and having it affect you, and you’re not sure exactly what you feel or why. It’s about an ephemeral connection, about shaping and making the way you experience the space. In other words, it’s about that most basic element of architecture: space, formed in a way that changes you.

The lobby is divided into separate zones, each defined not by a railing or a separation but by the visual datum of a plywood ceiling, a slab of pale wood dropped and bent from the top. There’s a hangout area furnished with a series of sofas and a cork ottoman, the material both hip and cheap, each of those qualities basic necessities here. A long LED-lit bar operates as a breakfast table in the morning and a pickup spot at night, thanks to a backdrop of glowing panels that swivel and reverse to show either a glowing flat front or a backlit rack of bottles. A circular seating arrangement next to another long countertop has little plugs hidden ever so quietly underneath so you can catch up with your eye-catching neighbor over a martini or catch up with the office over a coffee (and feel completely comfortable either way). And then there’s that classic green-felt pool table, an addition that could make this place look like something out of The Real World circa 2001 but instead makes it look playful. “We’re really trying to take people into account,” Rockwell says. “What interests me is thinking about how groups of people move from space to space.” It’s easy to move easily here, to take a few steps down toward the bar and a few steps over toward the line of simple table-and-chair arrangements that detail another corner of the lobby; and it’s easy to feel like this is all a big connected space that you can define on your own. It’s all focused on a central circular check-in desk that separates these whatever-you-make-them spaces from the one completely defined nook that houses the snack bar. “The person who you check in with is the stage manager of the place,” Rockwell says. And even though there’s no one behind any of the three computers that break the circle up into a peace sign, it’s easy to imagine this lobby as a friendlier version of the Panopticon.

The public spaces work. But hotels are often finally about solitude. At the end of the night, the solo traveler has to stop the out-of-time flirtation and hide away, and here Rockwell has managed to reinvent even the seemingly unchangeable cheap hotel room. “We had to accomplish certain things with broad, simple moves,” Bakos says, referring to the square rooms—shaped differently from the typical shoe-box configuration we know and don’t love from Holiday Inns the world over. He explains how the headboard ended up turning into the only real piece of built-in furniture in these high-ceilinged spaces. It’s one move, but it kills two problems by both orienting the bed outward (toward the two windows the architects created from the industry standard that is almost always one) and creating a feeling of intimacy through an inability to see the room all in one go. “The headboard is your arrival moment,” he says. “And there’s a basic simplicity and directness to the move that allowed us to achieve a lot.”

So they’ve established that the stage set works. What now? It’s up to Aloft. Starwood has been working for the last year on shaving every last dollar and cent, finding new and different suppliers, and figuring out how to construct the hotels both cheaply and consistently. The company is selling franchises to developers and leaving it up to them to construct their own, so Rockwell’s lobby is a template, not a direct model. At a certain point the architects have to let go, but McGuinness is clear that Starwood will be overseeing brand maintenance. “We have the final say on everything,” he says. “Then we’ll periodically visit these hotels, and we can say that it’s in default and pull the brand from them.”

Rockwell Group is disentangling from the details, but what the architects are holding onto is the emotional experience they want this space to create. “We hope the basic palette—the material ideas, the spatial ideas—are able to survive that little bit of individualization,” Rockwell says that morning as he walks through the folded, black-draped corridor leading from the stage set to the nondescript parking lot in this nondescript industrial park, the hallway a final reminder that this is all about performance.

Aloft isn’t the only hotel brand to be aware of the importance of design, but it’s the only thoroughly affordable roadside one. The buildings will be instantly recognizable, their swooping roofs as clear a marker as the red ones of the Red Roof Inn. And as they start popping up along highways and interstates, and as the tired traveler decides that tonight is the night not for a lonely vending-machine dinner in La Quinta but a yogurt parfait from a chandelier-lit snack bar just off Stage Management Central, and as families with children realize that this design was created just as much for them as it was for the readers of the Design Within Reach catalog, the lemmings of the hotel industry (as Bakos calls them) will begin to follow. And our landscape—and how we see it—will change.

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