Addressing the lack of outdoor public space in urban hospitality, Aidia Studio brings one of NYC’s most iconic hotels to new heights.

In the lead up to each issue, we challenge emerging designers to respond to the Frame Lab theme with a forward-looking concept. Lingering travel restrictions mean urbanites looking for an escape from daily life are more bound to their immediate surroundings, leaving local hospitality entrepreneurs questioning how to evolve to best serve them. To find answers for Frame 140, we asked three creative practices to share their ideas.

Prior to founding Aidia Studio in 2018, architects Rolando Rodriguez-Leal (Mexico) and Natalia Wrzask (Poland) worked at Foster + Partners, Zaha Hadid Architects and Ateliers Jean Nouvel. The pair proposes to fragment, reinterpret and reimagine the public spaces of NYC’s historical Plaza Hotel by activating a new, redefined open-air ground on top of the building.

What effects of the coronavirus crisis in the hotel industry have you witnessed?

ROLANDO RODRIGUEZ-LEAL: The 2020 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of the hospitality sector in unprecedented ways. The impact has been felt more acutely in urban settings where open spaces are scarce and where the quintessential hospitality experience is inspired and driven by the density and intensity of city life. For all city lovers, this lifestyle is now, as the result of the pandemic, the epitome of the type of reckless behaviour that leads to mass contagion. 

NATALIA WRZASK: Yet cities remain importantfuture-oriented, progressive and innovative places. For over a hundred years, cities have consolidated not just as economic hubs, but as the centre of culture, fashion, art and design. 

But isn’t it an option to divert to the less densely populated and built-up countryside?

RRL: For half a decade now, leading voices in architecture seem to believe it could be. Just in February 2020, Rem Koolhaas, who’s always ahead of the trend, curated the exhibition Countryside, The Future at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. In his words, the exhibition ‘explores radical changes in the rural, remote, and wild territories collectively identified here as countryside, or the 98 per cent of the Earth’s surface not occupied by cities’Although we tend to agree that there’s been a rebalancing between the rural and the urban, we don’t see them as competing grounds.

NW: The dust of the pandemic has yet to settle to be able to fully examine the impact on city life and to confirm the establishment of emerging trends such as the consolidation of the home office, the collapse of the office space as a monothematic typology, and the cementing of Airbnb as the new hegemonic normal for hospitality. One thing is certain: cities will continue to find ways to reinvent themselves and in doing so will continue to attract business, redefine cultures and act as an inspiration to artists and designers. An invigorated hospitality sector will likely surface. One that reinvents experiences, challenges conventions and attracts curious minds. 

So how do you envision this invigorated sector in your concept for this Challenge?

RRL: Full of possibilities, daring in nature and rooted in the sense of wonder, tradition and luxury. Our research for a spatial response to The Challenge takes us to The Plaza Hotel in New York City, designed by Henry Hardenbergh in 1907. Rated by many specialist publications as the most iconic hotel in the world, it is quintessentially urban and therefore the perfect ground to test ideas and explore design alternatives for our post-pandemic future. A century-old landmark, it has succeeded throughout the years in reinventing itself and adapting to different times, including the great depression of 1929 and the prohibition era. 

How will your idea help it survive our current crisis?

NW: Well, the biggest deficit of urban hotels is the amount of open, outdoor spaces, which has never been more critical than now. On top of that, at The Plaza, public space only accounts for seven per cent of the total floor plan. For the most part these public areas are enclosed, inward-facing and centred on the ground floor. The hotel features an inner courtyard on the fifth floor with fountains and gardens, but that space is mostly contemplative. We saw an opportunity to grow and recalibrate the public-private proportion of the available space.

RRL: We mapped out the public programme of the building and looked into some of the now gone signature rooms such as The Persian Room, Oak Bar and the original Hardenbergh Ball Room and consolidated them into a ‘mass’ to use as our raw material. We also noted that, when opened, The Plaza, with its 20 storeys, was the tallest building on its block. Today, over a century later, 50-storey skyscrapers dwarf our icon and make us wonder how we could reimagine this virtual void. So we envision a new ‘ground’ on top of the building, activating the rooftop and triplicating the public, open space programme. These new grounds capture the essence of the hotel’s emblematic rooms and venues, the ceremonial beauty and the sense of awe and wonder, reinterpreted into an open-air version. 

NW: In part contemplative, in part programmatic, we imagine a new Palm Court, a reimagined Persian Room and a contemporary Oak Room. Our reinterpreted signature rooms will be surrounded by green, ludic areas, swimming pools, shopping arcades and observation points. Bridges and staircases will connect spaces with broad views of Central Park and the city beyond.

Get your copy of Frame 140 here.