Canadian Architect

Feature

High-design Hostels

A Toronto firm refurbishes old buildings with design-savvy interiors for an expanding chain of European hostels.

March 1, 2014
by Cerys Wilson

Projects Generator London, UK; Generator Venice, Italy; and Generator Berlin Mitte, Germany
Designers DesignAgency with Orbit Architects (London), Progetto CMR (Venice), Ester Bruzkus Architects (Berlin) and WAF Architects (Berlin)
Text Cerys Wilson
Photos Nikolas Koenig unless otherwise noted

When Generator Hostels was founded in 1995, it had just two properties to its name: a former office building in the Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood of East Berlin and an old police station in the backstreets of London’s then seedy King’s Cross. Following an acquisition by real estate investment firm Patron Capital in 2007, it has become the fastest-growing hostel group in Europe, with eight properties open, two under construction, and a further eight planned for 2015. Unlike the party hostels of yore, Generator has taken a different tack: luring mature travellers with its design-conscious brand, centred on memorable interiors crafted by Toronto-based studio DesignAgency.

The driving force behind each hostel design is the city itself, notes DesignAgency principal Anwar Mekhayech, who spent much time sourcing locally made furniture and xtures, as well as the work of local artists. Regional architects are brought on board for each project, ensuring a fresh palette of ideas and materials. They also contribute their expertise in local building codes–crucial given that all of Generator’s locations involve the adaptive reuse of centrally located older buildings.

Take the case of the London hostel, which reopened earlier this year after an extensive renovation. A window over the main entrance spans three of the property’s six floors, giving ample light to the central interior stairway. Beyond the clichéd red double-decker bus that protrudes from a wall–a seeming concession to the backpacker demographic–the spacious lobby offers tasteful and inventive solutions. A sophisticated reception desk blends brick, wood and steel elements. Old re extinguishers are ingeniously refashioned into lamps. A wall of glass bricks, adapted to shelve bottles of liquor, is one of the few telltale signs of the building’s former life as a police station. Small enclaves throughout the ground floor anticipate various activities: a café has both individual and communal seating areas, while a partially secluded breakfast room is divided into smaller zones by a snaking origami-like partition. An adjacent lounge, with a police-tape-yellow ceiling and tiered seating, doubles as a film-screening room.

Patron Capital partner Josh Wyatt stresses the importance of narrative in their roster of hostels. “We look for unique buildings, with a true character that reflects the city,” he says. “We want to help bring back certain stories. Often the best way to do this is through a building which has had its own history.” When scouting for properties, Wyatt is partial to former residences or offices: buildings whose layouts meet Generator’s needs and standards. “Having beautiful windows also helps the cause,” he adds. 

That is certainly the case with Generator Venice. The city’s only hostel, it is located on the small island of Giudecca, a short water-bus ride across the lagoon to Piazza San Marco. Canalside rooms boast spectacular views of the domes of the Santa Maria della Salute and San Giorgio churches. The palazzo was built as a granary in 1855 and was first converted to a hostel in 1950, run by the International Youth Hostel Federation. Subject to the Venetian Fine Arts Committee’s strict regulations, the building’s exterior remains unaltered to this day. 

Generator Venice opened its doors last September after a complete interior refurbishment. Those who remember its previous incarnation–with its vast, inhospitable dormitories and strict curfew–will find little besides the façade that remains the same. A grand lobby with full wraparound bar has six distinct seating areas, from a cozy quartet of armchairs to a high wooden table ringed by vintage metal stools. Long tables encourage communal dining. Sources of natural light are intentionally limited: velvet drapes, a carved stone fireplace and a walnut-toned, herringbone-patterned floor welcome the darkness. Together, they create a rich dramatic atmosphere that speaks to Venice’s former decadence. Touches of Mekhayech’s cheeky humour also enter the design: a neon sign in the fireplace reads fuoco (Italian for fire) while off to the side, a four-poster bed is a hat tip to the notorious Venetian lothario Giacomo Casanova. Above, small glass clowns swing from a Murano chandelier, and a faded yellow sign–a last remnant of the old order–perches on a nearby shelf. 

White marble stonework has been refinished throughout, as have wooden beams that run alongside metal pipes. The hostel’s 240 beds spread over three floors offer a mix of sleeping arrangements with en-suite facilities. Like most hostels, Generator’s standard dorm rooms are equipped with basic comforts, with little in the way of shelves and hanging space. The exception at Venice is a cozy and private third-floor attic room, complete with closet and quilt.

Generator Berlin Mitte, the newest of two locations in Berlin, sports a minimalist aesthetic that stands in stark contrast to Venice’s luxe atmosphere. Many of the building’s rougher elements have been showcased. A web of pipes above a ground-floor communal area are not only left exposed, but painted red as part of an on-site art installation; dorm rooms are topped by exposed concrete ceilings. A generous use of copper and mirrors gives the lobby bar an elegant edgy feel. Suitably, the library exudes a softer old-world-meets-rec-room atmosphere, with tan leather sofas and a dove-grey shag carpet. The breakfast room similarly has a casual feel. Metallic ducts wind overhead, while at eye level, an exuberant collection of houseplants fills several windows. Picnic-style tables with wooden seating cubes add a warm touch. 

Berlin arts collective Urban Art Clash occupies a permanent studio space on Mitte’s sixth floor, hosting regular open nights for the general public. Street art informs the upper floors, with graffiti-style murals lining the corridors. Creatively tiled washrooms–including some with traffic-barrier-stripe patterns–enliven the dorms and suites. Quirky oversized wayfinding graphics add punch to every elevator, stairwell and room door. Similar details are shared between all Generator properties, helping to solidify the brand by creating a community that can move with ease between locations.

The number of luxury and design-led hostels in Europe has increased in recent years, as has the championing of reuse over new builds. SafeStay Hostel in London’s Elephant and Castle is the former Labour Party headquarters, and Amsterdam’s Cocomama was once a brothel. Generator distinguishes itself by its particular brand of dynamicity. It is at once local and international; its unique designs appeal to an array of tastes and needs; it attracts younger and older travellers alike; it accommodates large groups and individuals on business. Generator has not only created inviting spaces encouraging travellers to linger, but is now actively drawing the city at large through its doors with projects aimed at public engagement. A residency program for emerging artists is currently underway in Venice, providing studio and living space for a period of two to six weeks. Similar initiatives in Berlin Mitte and London are planned, with the goal that all works created on site will become part of Generator’s adaptable design concept.

For Mekhayech, work on the London, Venice and Berlin properties is all but done. “At a certain point, we hand over the keys,” he says. “How the space then changes is really up to the guests.” 

Cerys Wilson is a visual
artist, writer and researcher, specializing in spatial design and image-making. She is based in London, UK.

Generator London
Client
Generator/Patron Capital | Architect Team Orbit Architects–Philip Atkinson, Llinos Hughes | Structural Evolve | Mechanical/Electrical BWB | interiors DesignAgency | Contractor County Contractors | Art Installations/Consultancy Acrylicize | Lighting FD Creative (Chris Peach) | Area 6,000 m2 | Budget Withheld | Completion March 2014

Generator Venice
Client
Generator/Patron Capital | Architect Team Progetto CMR–Roberto Borsaro, Rossana Cicolella | Structural/Mechanical/Electrical Progetto CMR | interiors DesignAgency | Contractor Consta | Project Management EC Harris | Area 26,000 FT2 | Budget withheld | Completion September 2013

Generator Berlin Mitte
Client
Generator/Patron Capital | Architect Team Ester Bruzkus Architects–Ester Bruzkus, Ulrike Wattenbach, Alexandra Spiegel, Lukas De Pellegrin, Martina Zeyen, Zlatan Kukic, Lisa Plücker; Waf Architects–Mark Asipowicz. | Structural Ingenieurbüro Azadvaten | Mechanical/Electrical Ingenieurbüro Sawka | Interiors Designagency With Ester Bruzkus Architects | Contractor Hagenauer Group, Immenstadt | Lighting Pslab Stuttgart | Area 5,500 m2 | Budget withheld | Completion October 2013





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