AMSTERDAM – Seated only a hop, skip and a jump away from Oosterpark, a decommissioned health sciences education and zoological museum building becomes one of the latest locations to expand the Generator Hostel portfolio. Surrounded by a residential neighbourhood, willow trees and the song of colourful birds, the hundred-year-old brick structure is given another chance within the tourism-heavy city as a hostel with 168 rooms.
Veterans on the Generator Hostel circuit, Toronto's DesignAgency maintains the historic charm with a sprinkle of Dutch culture and design references to produce playful spaces which generate social interaction. Playful touches of custom art and light fixtures keep the venue grounded as part of the Generator brand which now spans 12 locations around the world. Anwar Mekhayech, one of DesignAgency's founders, explains his studio's approach to make each hostel feel like it truly belongs to its host city.
As this is one in a long list of Generator hostels DesignAgency has designed, how do you keep on reinventing yourself and the hostel every time?
ANWAR MEKHAYECH: It’s an important question and was vital in the strategy's conception. We asked: 'What should a Generator be? Should it look the same every time?' We know that some clients will go from city to city, effectively doing 'Generator tours', and this formed a big part of the brand's design strategy. The idea was to create a loose style, which became clearer as we were worked simultaneously in Dublin, Barcelona and Hamburg. We knew that we didn’t really have to get posh, polished or lux in any way, just implement a lot of raw materials with blacks, whites, and greys. Then each project became informed by city where the building was located. The city – and the specific building – drives our creative freedom. There aren't ever a lot of rules at the onset of the project, so my team makes the rules and then comes up with the fun and corky details along the way.
Amsterdam's hostel is the best example of our strategy. Collaborating with different parties and people for the lighting and all the art happened in the final three months. So we didn’t really know exactly what we were going to get until it was completed. All of the stuff that we draw and specify happened nearly two years before. All the local shopping that we did – tables, the styling elements and artwork – happened only two weeks before the hostel opened. Each location becomes fun because you don’t know the outcome, it’s simply not completely planned. This keeps it interesting.
How do you go about discovering new cities and get the feeling of what a city is?
For me that has always been easy, being a traveller myself. It is no different from travelling recreationally and wanting to meet people and find the 'it' galleries and shops. I have some good friends in Amsterdam so I was coming here often, spending time and meeting people that work here as well as going to exhibits and different stores.
Once you get on a bike and start to explore, you can see the city is not that big, it is manageable. You can see a lot and meet a lot of people. This is how it happens. A lot of shopping was done at a store called Neef Louis – it’s amazing. I must have gone there at least ten times, just because it’s so fun. Every time I went, I bought things but I did not pick them up. They sent everything over for the opening.
Blom&Blom was another local shop we worked with. We picked a lot of these lights a year ago and they started fixing them for us. The fixtures in the reception are my favourite ones. The corridors on the first floor are very nice because the combination of 2-m-tall ceilings and exposed brick walls frame these amazing lights from Blom&Blom. They march down the corridor with a flower carpet. The original moulding details and looking glass on the doors all come together to make a nice moment.
Did the original structure present any challenges?
The library and the auditorium were the two big areas that we had to close off and get special permission for changes. Except for the moveable furniture, anything we wanted to do, including the pews, had to be formally approved by the municipality. This was a big process. The local architects IDEA ontwerp, who were a big part of the project, went to the municipality to present our ideas.
We did one tour of the building with the city and monument authority to tell them our vision for the building as a Generator. Then, a series of meetings followed where they actually presented their vision for the building to us. So it became a negotiation: ‘Can we do this?' 'Yes' or 'No’. The façade and the colours of the window frames were protected, and there were a lot of limitations for signage. Even the amount of light that reflects off the façade onto the park was measured. We tried to place a big neon sign on the side of the building with an Albert Einstein quote to amplify the ‘sciency’ feel but the city would not allow it because of the light spill. That was one battle I lost.
How did they respond to the glass structure on the top of the building?
That was presented three years ago before Generator even bought the building and they were fine with it because it met their requirements. With this structure, Generator was able to have two floors in the space of the original one which was made out of wood. They really liked it because it was not a heavy intervention visually and addition to the building, it just disappears because of the glass reflecting the environment. If that could not happen, then this project would have never happened. We needed at least 200 rooms to make the building conversion financially viable. Once the city was happy with our intervention, then it just became a question of what we would do with the rest of the interior.
Why are these spaces for social gatherings so important to Generator's identity?
That concept has always been part of Generator's DNA. When we started working with Generator about seven years ago, it was a typical old hostel model without the level of sophistication you see today, spaces which support a lot of solo travellers wanting to meet and talk to each other. With basic rooms, apart from sleeping and taking a nice shower, people want to get out, especially if the room is shared. By creating spaces for events and parties such as a restaurant, café and a bar makes the Generator community stronger. The model really works, people are talking to other people at Generator. By just hanging out, you meet ten people and hear all about what they are doing and where they are travelling. Other hotel concepts try to create that level of interaction but it feels more corporate and quiet, so nobody is talking.
Over the past years working with Generator, how has the budget traveller's wants and needs changed?
I think their expectations are higher now. It’s not just a hostel anymore, they want it to be designed. People are willing, if it is five or ten extra euros, they are willing to spend that if they are part of something exciting. If there is great design, they can share it on social media. If they can meet people that are maybe a little bit more into design, art or culture, they have a better chance of finding them in a place which expresses a similar mindset.
Hostels used to be in really bad locations and people thought they would not be safe. That is something that we thought about in the design, how to make people feel comfortable and safe. Just by adding the washrooms to the rooms – which a lot of hostels simply do not do – became a huge part of the business model, placing Generator in a special place between a hostel and a hotel.
What can we expect from this Generator?
We have been working on several new locations, like Stockholm and Madrid. In Madrid, you can expect the next evolution of this. We are completely converting an old office building, complete with a rooftop bar, pizza restaurant and a huge art gallery, so Madrid will be fantastic. Then in time for Art Basel 2017, Miami will get the first Generator in the United States, so it will be pretty special. It is not just one building but a clash of buildings. It is like a little community with an outdoor, pool, restaurants and cafes. There is a lot happening with the Generator brand, but we will continue the relationship with the design.
Photos Nikolas Koenig
Stay tuned for more research on today's hospitality scene in issue Frame 112, coming soon to newsstands and book stores nearest you. Available 1 September in the Frame store.