Located in Nishi, a new mixed-use building in Canberra’s New Acton precinct, Hotel Hotel is the result of an intense collaboration between more than fifty designers, architects and artists. By directly engaging with the complex systems that shape successful cities, though, it transcends the already remarkable sum of its parts.
There are several ways for a visitor to enter Hotel Hotel, the latest addition to Canberra’s remarkably skimpy selection of boutique accommodation offerings. Those looking for a dramatic entry, though, would be best to take the stairs. Here, more than 2150 pieces of recycled timber whoosh up the walls, forming a carapace that somehow manages to be both rustic and baroque, high-tech and low-tech, simple and mind-achingly complex. It makes plodding up the stairs feel a little bit like a jump to hyperspace in the Millennium Falcon – just swap speed-distended strips of starlight for frozen battens of timber offcuts.
The staircase, designed by March Studio, is just one piece of many in the Hotel Hotel puzzle. More architects, designers and creative consultants have had their hand in this knotty concern than it is possible to list, a pluralism that extends to the project’s agenda, which touches on everything from sustainability to urbanism, arts patronage and community development to architecture and design. The force that threads all of this together, though, is a commercial one, which produces contradictions as well as complexity.
Hotel Hotel sits within Nishi, a mixed-use building that is the latest stage in the decade-long realization of the New Acton precinct by Canberra-based developer Molonglo Group. The developer has positioned the precinct as a counter to Canberra’s nebulousness, a dense neighbourhood of the kind of localized urban energy its host city otherwise seems to lack. Hotel Hotel in some ways is a reflection of the broader concerns of New Acton – the principle of diversity, for one, which, according to Molonglo Group director Nectar Efkarpidis, in part is what has led to the project’s small army of creative consultants.
“Often it’s easier to have linear processes – one designer from start to finish. I think the value of having multiple hands with disjunction and meanderings is it allows you to explore, it allows you to really challenge the status quo,” says Efkarpidis. “It’s like any intellectual endeavour, the capacity for dialogue and multiple voices, no matter how messy it makes it, has to enrich the outcome.”
After launching up the stairs, the visitor finds themselves in the vaguely subterranean hotel lobby proper, surrounded by furniture and objects specially developed for it by Broached Commissions and designed by the likes of Lucy McRae, Adam Goodrum and Charles Wilson. These items share space with mid-century furniture pieces selected by Hotel Hotel’s room designer Don Cameron. Fender Katsalidis Architects and Japan’s Suppose Design Office designed the Nishi building proper, and March Studio is responsible for much of the lobby. That makes for a lot of “chefs in the kitchen,” with more unmentioned, but the various strands of the design do somehow emulsify into a single, coherent experience.
Molonglo Group worked closely with Cameron to develop a sensibility for the hotel as a whole. They describe this as inspired by the romantic ideal of the Australian shack, which relates in turn to ideas of authenticity and sustainability. The idea that the shack, a housing type born of grinding rural poverty, could inform a purpose-built, boutique hotel for Canberra’s fly-in fly-out professional class might be a little too rich for some. Shack chic rhetoric aside, though, there is a lot to be admired of a hotel interior that features furnishings and materials of enduring quality, many of which are “vintage” at that. Whether or not they will be able to weather the vagaries of fashion and demand for the forever-new remains to be seen, but for now the sentiment is commendable, even brave.
“We didn’t want you to just go to a bland, cookie cutter, beige and pastel room – we wanted you to feel like in your room it was a home,” says Efkarpidis. “It was inviting, tactile and it wasn’t about slick finishes, it was about materials that were authentic, that were real and that over a period of time will continue to get better, will age. As they age, like an old leather jacket or pair of shoes, you love them more and more.”
In the lobby, the emphasis is on expressed materials, with lightly finished timber and raw concrete beams forming walls and surfaces. The rooms, meanwhile, with their textured surfaces, autumnal colours and carefully tempered lighting, are just theatrical enough to give the guest a sense of being transported somewhere out of the ordinary.
The project’s real genius lies in its understanding of the big picture, though, rather than its finely grained decoration. Molonglo Group has always seen Hotel Hotel as part of an ecology. Sitting above the hotel, there are 220 private apartments, while the “lobby” also plays home to a suitably urbane cafe-bar and a number of retail tenancies (the lobby is really a kind of semi-public arcade). The presence of the hotel helps support this amenity – which the more permanent residents of the comparatively inexpensive apartments upstairs benefit from. Stroll back down March Studio’s staircase and you’ll find a cinema and a 6-Star Greenstar office building, which takes up half of Nishi’s footprint but also provides recycled water and other services to its neighbours. Step outside and you’ll be surrounded by the busy streetscapes, restaurants and businesses of a burgeoning new neighbourhood that brings much needed life to Canberra’s inner city.
“Unfortunately a lot of our models tend to be ones of ‘here’s my square,’ whether that’s a block of land or domain of work,” says Efkarpidis. “If you think about the world that way – ‘Everything outside of that box is someone else’s and I don’t [care]’ – it really undermines the capacity to make great places.”
The work of many skilled and accomplished hands, Hotel Hotel is filled with tiny pleasures and clever design. Thanks to Molonglo Group’s understanding of the complex systems that shape successful cities, though, it quite remarkably transcends the sum of its parts.