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Can you retrofit cool? Can you take even the blockiest, dreariest hotel and turn it into a beacon of urban style?
I would have said no, you can’t – but that is exactly what the Ace Hotel group has tried to do with its first property in Europe. The original Ace opened in 1999 in a converted Salvation Army hostel in Seattle, followed by hotels in Portland, Palm Springs and New York. The chain quickly earned a reputation as the hipster’s favourite, even being spoofed as the “Deuce” in the television satire Portlandia. Nevertheless, its latest project – the conversion of the once execrable Crowne Plaza in London’s Shoreditch – seemed laughably ambitious.
I have been proved wrong. Here is a hotel pulsating with life and that has already, despite opening only last month and not yet being entirely finished, established itself amid the fast-changing local street scene. Its lobby is inhabited by long, lean characters in over-turned-up skinny trousers, luxuriating in generous beards and waxed moustaches. Its restaurant and café are turning over brisk business.
It’s now difficult to believe that this was once the blandest of corporate hotels, a building that managed to make a bleak, traffic-clogged street even worse, killing a stretch of Shoreditch High Street stone dead. But, to give it credit, it was also the first big hotel in an area that now, with its pivotal position between the creative and clubbing triangle of Shoreditch, Hoxton and Hackney and the wealth of the City, seems an indispensable part of London but which, only a decade ago, was marginal, a no-go area for big business.
The Ace Hotel group, cofounded by affable and contagiously enthusiastic New Yorker Alex Calderwood, makes a point of attempting to embed its hotels in a local scene. That might sound like an easy cliché but it actually demands a real knowledge of – and affection for – a particular place, something at which hotel chains are notoriously incompetent.
The most important thing that Ace and its designers here, Universal Design Studio (which is based just around the corner from the hotel), have done is to plug this building back into its surroundings. The clunking street façade has been broken up into a series of shopfronts more in scale with the ragged, mostly Victorian fabric of the Shoreditch streetscape, once a warren of cabinetry workshops and small retailers. The ground-floor walls have been clad in slate-grey engineering brick, laid in complex patterns that appear almost to weave the façade back into the city.
Most striking is the inclusion of a florist shop (operated by local florist Hattie Fox), creating an overspill of green on to the street as well as an unexpectedly theatrical entrance to the hotel restaurant.
The porte-cochère is defined by a grid of naked lightbulbs on the ceiling and by the doormen kitted out in green bomber jackets and Dr Martens (not a look I’d have gone for to express welcome but certainly different).
The lobby is exactly what a lobby should be. Despite inheriting the original, low-ceilinged, uninspiring space, the designers have managed to create a place that appears already to be functioning as a kind of extension of the public realm. A long table, resembling something from a library (specially commissioned from furniture makers Benchmark) acts as a meeting place, where locals and guests can whip out a laptop or a newspaper. A blend of vintage and modern furniture, and separate little enclaves within the bigger lobby space, creates a relaxed, almost collegiate feel.
The 258 bedrooms themselves are slightly surprising. This is, as new London hotels go, a kind of budget refit – or, at least, the money has been spent in unexpected places and on unexpected things. The bathroom suites, doors, hardware and so on from the old rooms have simply been left in place while the money has gone on the sparse, elegant furniture and on art applied directly to the walls.
Each room features a long, built-in seat so the space appears less like a bedroom and more like a living and socialising area. A metal shelf runs along another wall and displays a mix of resolutely British-manufactured or crafted items for the use of guests (anything from a bespoke leather coin box to specially selected LPs to be played on slick Rega turntables). Radios (lovely Revo models), vintage chairs, all the items that create the landscape of hotel-dwelling, have been carefully collected. I was relieved not to hear the word “curated” but you do get the impression that Calderwood has hugely enjoyed sourcing this stuff.
The aesthetic is, slightly weirdly, somewhere between east London industrial chic, back-of-house no-nonsense and budget hotel robustness. It is not a look I’ve seen before – cables in galvanised conduits, hard-wearing grey carpets and plain white walls. But the most striking thing is the wall art. The Ace has attracted a group of young artists (most of whom have a background in street art) to create murals on one wall in each room. The quality is variable but the effect is electric, lifting the greyish rooms and connecting them with the art scene outside that has made Shoreditch the place it is today (even if the artists themselves have long been priced out).
The hotel restaurant, Hoi Polloi, is operated by Bistrotheque, the Shoreditch restaurant known for its architecturally inventive pop-ups (including Studio Dining East atop a multi-storey car park). The menu is fashionably British and its virtues are spelt out in a menu-cum-newspaper, printed weekly, in which the food offering sits beside ads for local galleries and articles about nearby culture. The booths, the modern take on wood panelling, the well-designed and crafted furniture situate this somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, a little closer to London than Brooklyn but still a place where hipsters or the less corporate versions of business travellers could feel equally at home.
The Ace is not as self-consciously hip as many other boutique hotels. It eschews the worst clichés of lobbies full of set-piece furniture and silly chandeliers while also avoiding the dismal chain-branded tedium that plagues many hotels. Instead, its careful, well-designed confidence allows it to slot into Shoreditch with deceptive ease. But, more importantly, it has given London back a bit of its streetscape that seemed lost forever.
Doubles at the Ace Hotel cost from £215
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture correspondent