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Ace Hotel by EPR and Universal Design Studio: ‘a piece of make-believe that distills an image of Shoreditch life’

AR BnB 2016 Highly Commended: a dreary hotel in Shoreditch is transformed into a Mecca for scenesters

Almost twenty-five years ago, nobody went to run-down, boarded-up Shoreditch without a reason. It wasn’t obvious then, but the district’s mutation had already begun, with the arrival of artists such as Tracey Emin or gallerists such as Joshua Compston, attracted by its cheap rents and central location, just north of the City’s Bishopsgate. By the turn of the millennium, Shoreditch had already evolved from underground to hip, with trendy bars popping up like proverbial mushrooms, and all sorts of Cool Britannia creative types flocking to its picturesque streets. Now it has moved on to the next phase of gentrification, where its scenester image is being colonised by capital to be sold for profit – a process arguably consecrated by the arrival, in 2013, of an Ace Hotel at 100 Shoreditch High Street.

For those unfamiliar with the brand, Ace Hotels began in Seattle, in 1999, when local boy Alexander Calderwood and two of his friends converted a former Salvation Army halfway house into a new kind of hotel, one that broke accepted hospitality-trade rules by mixing the high and the low – shared-bathroom budget rooms side by side with luxury suites – and promoted an eclectic, relaxed, slightly grunge style of vintage furniture and retro nostalgia. Seven years later a second Ace Hotel opened in Portland, Oregon, followed in 2009 by the New York and Palm Springs branches, each one very different in response to both its location and the building it occupied. Yet there was a common thread, a mélange ‘of grunge, hip hop, letterpress, army surplus, vintage vinyl, steampunk, machine-age architectural salvage and the trappings of the Beat Generation,’ as Civilian breathlessly wrote in 2013, a mix they claimed ‘has become a design movement in itself. Coffee shops and boutique hotels the world over have stopped taking their cues from Starck and Schrager, and now take them from Ace Hotel’.

Ace hotel site plan

Ace hotel site plan

London’s Ace Hotel Shoreditch was the last to be masterminded by Calderwood, who died a rather rock‘n’roll death there from a drugs and alcohol overdose six weeks after its September 2013 opening (those close to him say the drugs and alcohol were his way of coping with the travel-heavy stress of running an international business). London’s Ace is a makeover of an existing hotel, the dreary Crowne Plaza, which Calderwood had long used because of its location, and whose lease he bought when it came up for renewal. Two firms were responsible for the conversion: EPR, a hotel specialist, who had already worked for the building’s then owner, Starwood Capital; and Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby’s Universal Design Studio (UDS), who were brought in by Ace both because they were local – so well- placed to understand the neighbourhood’s character – and because they’d never done a hotel before, which meant they’d come at it with a fresh approach.

For Tiffany Neller of EPR, ‘The challenge on this project was the building.’ Indeed, as Jason Holley of UDS recalls, so anonymous, bland and undistinguished was the Crowne Plaza that none of his staff had actually noticed there was a 264-bedroom hotel on this stretch of Shoreditch High Street, even though they walked past it every day. Opened in 2004, and extended in 2011, the eight-storey building displayed a long, featureless facade of punched-out windows, part of which kinked to accommodate a shift in the street line, its elevations painted white, bar a punctuating brick-red ‘tower’ at the southern end. An access ramp prevented interaction between the slightly raised ground floor and the pavement, while dark-tinted glazing precluded any visual engagement between the lobby and passers-by.

‘The idea, says Holley, “was to avoid the usual strange built-in hotel furniture and make it look more like you were staying in a friend’s flat”’

Neller and Holley say they weren’t really given a brief. ‘Generally there’s a formula for hotels’, Neller explains. ‘The location of reception, housekeeping having to be able to get in and out within a certain amount of time, that kind of thing. But Ace just said, “Scrap the rule book and start again!”’ Instead the design process became an ongoing conversation between client, architects and designers. ‘We talked a lot about trying to find the voice of the place, about listening to the building, to the neighbourhood and to the city,’ says Holley. The timetable and budget were not generous, so ‘the bedrooms were very much a soft refurbishment’, says Neller. A few were knocked together to form suites, but otherwise what you get are the standard Crowne Plaza rooms, relooked with grey carpets and dark-grey paint on the ceilings, and fitted out with Ace-style accoutrements: large bespoke couches, assorted chairs, walls bedecked with guitars and rotary pencil sharpeners, and turntables and vinyl collections in the larger rooms. 

The idea, says Holley, ‘was to avoid the usual strange built-in hotel furniture and make it look more like you were staying in a friend’s flat’. There wasn’t much money for the facade either, which has been pared down to a minimum in light-grey, anthracite and white so as to distinguish its constituent parts, thereby breaking up its great length into smaller units in keeping with the surrounding urbanity. On the top floor, Ace made the decision to convert the whole storey into conference and meeting rooms, meaning that six bedrooms were lost (something that hoteliers never usually countenance according to Neller), while its facade was pulled back to create a street-side roof terrace.

Over a third of the budget went into the ground-floor refurbishment, which was the principal architectural intervention at the Ace Shoreditch. ‘At the outset there was an understanding that the ground floor would be a public area with activation of the hotel,’ explains Holley. ‘The idea that the hotel is part of the neighbourhood implies that there’s some sort of reciprocal relationship. It’s not just taking from the neighbourhood, it’s trying to give too. You welcome in locals and partner up with people who’ll attract locals, so it will not only feel like, but actually is, a part of London.’ By moving all the back of house down into the basement car park, EPR and UDS were able to free up the entire street level. ‘We didn’t want a grand, intimidating gesture,’ says Holley. ‘Instead we broke the space up using screens and dividing devices to form what reads as an informal series of rooms. We wanted people to go and explore a bit.’

Ace hotel floor plans

Ace hotel floor plans

Floor plans, left to right: ground floor, first floor, seventh floor. Click to expand 

A recessed canopy studded with light bulbs signals the entrance, which leads  on one side to the coffee shop and on the other to reception (which, full of Ace merchandising, looks more like a trendy boutique). The street facade is animated with various retail spaces: London record store Sister Ray, a pop-up unit, a juice bar, and local florist Hattie Fox. And it’s through Hattie’s, speakeasy style, that you access the hotel’s restaurant, Hoi Polloi, an impressive space that has been dressed up like a ’60s brasserie with an eclectic palette of high and low materials including wood, marble, encaustic tiles, lino (on the tables) and leather (on the long banquettes). And it’s this rich material vocabulary, and the quality of the detailing, that sets the Ace Shoreditch apart from most of its hipster neighbours.

‘The Ace Shoreditch is a fascinating phenomenon, an altered readymade that’s been art-directed to within an inch of its life’

Besides the industrial references – anthracite engineering bricks, Crittall atelier windows, cork ceilings, pavement lights set into the walls – there are contributions from London-based designers such as Philippe Malouin (the restaurant chandeliers) and Max Lamb (the hand-welded zinc bar and its stools), and even from Jean Prouvé in the form of a bench that Calderwood found in a French flea market (the café walls had to be demolished and rebuilt to fit it in). A rooflight was punched through in the rear bar area, while a long bespoke library table in the central zone, inspired by the one in the Ace New York, is always full of scenester 20-somethings on laptops, none of whom are under any obligation to consume anything. The importance of the ground-floor spaces to the Ace ethos is celebrated in the detailing of the entrance doors: UDS had suggested that the hipster mode of locomotion par excellence, the bicycle, should be celebrated by including bike stands in front of the building; they then went one further by casting rails wound with handlebar tape in solid bronze to form the door handles.

The Ace Shoreditch is a fascinating phenomenon, an altered readymade that’s been art-directed to within an inch of its life (even the staff appear curated), a piece of instant make-believe that distils an image of Shoreditch life for both locals and visitors alike. While definitely not to everyone’s taste, it’s always packed, and made back the initial investment in only two years. Pitched just right, it brings in Shoreditch regulars but also alters its surroundings, for as Neller points out, this stretch of the High Street was dead before the Ace opened, but is now a scene of constant animation. ‘When staying at the Crowne Plaza,’ she recalls, ‘Calderwood noticed that people tended to speed up as they walked past. He wanted to achieve the opposite with the Ace.’ And he succeeded.

Ace Hotel Shoreditch

Executive architect: EPR Architects

Design Architect and Interior designer: Universal Design Studio

Structural engineer: Simpson Associates

Photographs: Anthony Coleman

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