21c Museum Hotel 03.10.16

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  • The dining room features exposed structural elements from the original factory

  • The ballroom is enclosed by acoustic drapes, which are operated mechanically

  • You Always Leave Me Wanting More, sculpture by SuttonBeresCuller, 2015


Art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson bring their boutique-hotel-cum-gallery concept to a 100-year-old Ford assembly plant in Oklahoma City. By Debika Ray

As the cost of living escalates in major urban centres, America’s secondary cities are experiencing something of a renaissance, with waves of millennials going in search of cheaper living space, while aspiring to retain their metropolitan lifestyles. ‘I call it the “Brooklynisation” of America,’ says architect Deborah Berke.

It’s a trend she’s tapped into with her projects for art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. Over the past ten years, their company 21c has collaborated with Berke’s practice on a series of ‘museum hotels’ across the country: multi-purpose spaces for tourism, culture and socialising, incorporating bedrooms, galleries, bars, restaurants and meeting areas. These are located in what Berke describes as ‘blue cities in red states’ – Democrat-voting, liberal cities surrounded by mostly conservative Republican areas. The first was in 21c’s hometown of Louisville in Kentucky, followed by Lexington, Bentonville and Cincinnati. Projects in Nashville and Kansas City are underway and Indianapolis is on the drawing board. In the spirit of revitalisation, most occupy existing buildings, often designed by big names such as McKim, Mead & White (designers of the original Pennsylvania Station in New York) and Shreve, Lamb & Harmon (architects of the Empire State Building).

The latest to complete, in Oklahoma City, offers 135 rooms, gallery space, a restaurant and lounge, a spa and a conference centre – all in a former Ford factory designed in 1916 by Albert Kahn. As the first project undertaken in an industrial structure, this had particular challenges: primarily, that the building was ‘vastly too big’. Berke’s practice set about trying to create an intimate feeling without losing the structure’s industrial qualities. This was achieved by creating numerous self-contained, freestanding volumes within the hotel – lower in height than the original ceilings, these retain the scale of the building while creating manageable spaces within it. The most striking of these is the ballroom: its rounded shape contrasts with the factory’s orthogonal grid and it is surrounded by richly coloured acoustic drapes that allow it
to be opened up or closed off at will.

Glass-block light wells pull natural light into the core of the building, while a consistent palette of neutral colours, industrial lighting and materials such as corrugated metal, mesh and concrete ties the spaces together and references its original use. In the bar and restaurant, reclaimed wood and custom amber-glass pendants add warmth and richness.

The display of art is a subject close to Brown and Wilson’s hearts. ‘They wanted work to be seen in a 24/7 environment that is welcoming and approachable,’ Berke says. Kahn’s vast building lends itself well to displaying installations. The main gallery floor is embedded with a commissioned artwork featuring urban signage; the guest room floor has an installation of large red arrows that light up.

In the age of Airbnb, the ambition is to reclaim a more old-fashioned role for a hotel – one that unites service, experience and sociability. ‘Like it was in the 19th century, a hotel can be both a magnet and a beating heart of downtown.’




Debika Ray

quotes story

In the age of Airbnb, the ambition is to reclaim a more old-fashioned role for a hotel

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