History Lesson

The architect Piero Lissoni slips a thoroughly modern glass addition into a grand old building in the center of Amsterdam.

Piero Lissoni doesn’t want dead-cat space. The Italian designer is talking, from Milan, about a hotel he designed, mostly in his 70-person office in Milan, but also in Holland, more specifically in Amsterdam, even more specifically on the grand Museumplein. Called the Conservatorium in a nod to part of the structure’s history as a music conservatory, the hotel opened last year with 129 rooms, restaurants, a lobby, a spa—and a grand staircase.

The central staircase is the topic at hand, and that’s where there isn’t going to be any dead-cat space (you know the space: the strange nook cut out of a closet; that area under the stairs that not even boots can occupy), not if Lissoni can help it. “For many, many architects, unfortunately, a stair means no space, or space in the middle of somewhere,” Lissoni explains. “For me, the stairs mean it’s one of the most important places to be—and people now like to use the stairs because it looks like they’re onstage.”

That notion of hotel-necessity-turned-stage brings to mind another iconoclastic European designer, the great jokester Philippe Starck, and the way in which he turned the lobby—at the Royalton, the Delano, the SLS Beverly Hills—into a runway. But where Starck did it with oversize furniture and an alien sense of fun, Lissoni does it with an eye toward form and shape and color (or, in the case of this particular staircase, the absence thereof).

“The staircase is like origami,” he says, explaining how the folded black form—part Serra, part Hadid—operates not only as a connector between floors but also between the hotel’s existing building and the new glass addition. First built as a bank in 1901 by the Dutch architect Daniel Knuttel, the Conservatorium was, for the first 80 years of its existence, a financial center, changing only in name as the original institution—the Rijkspostspaarbank (loosely translated as National Post Savings Bank)—went through the typical mergers and acquisitions that such entities do, until employees outgrew the structure and had to move. Between 1978 and 1984, the building stood empty, until three musical institutes merged to become the Sweelinck Conservatorium and moved into what became the eponymous building.

Until 2007, it operated as a home for the best and brightest bowers and blowers of Holland, as serious students of music practiced their grace notes and 16th rests in the classrooms and private study rooms, and held concerts in collective open areas. The conservatorium left the Conservatorium only because, as the bankers had so many years before, the occupants outgrew their shell and moved to a building near Amsterdam Central Station. And so an empty building stood in the cultural center of Amsterdam—the Museumplein features the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum—until The Set, led by Alfred and Georgi Akirov of the Israel-based Alrov Group, bought the property in order to help launch a design hotel company based on the idea, as Georgi says, of building “a collection of hotels that share the same DNA, while each hotel has its own identity connecting to the city and to the building to which it belongs.” The duo had worked with Lissoni on the high-design Mamilla Hotel in Jerusalem, and so the architect was a perfect fit for this new and resolutely Dutch project. (The company will roll out two additional hotels in historic buildings: the Café Royal Hotel, with interiors by David Chipperfield Architects, is scheduled to open in London later this year; the Hotel Lutetia, with interiors by Jean-Michel Wilmotte Architects, debuts next year in Paris.)

The idea of adaptive reuse has been steadily taking hold since the mid-2000s, when hoteliers and restaurateurs in New York—and then London and San Francisco and Chicago and Denver and now everywhere, including Austin and Peoria—began looking toward an aesthetic of purposeful nostalgia and a co-option of historical ideals. The critical mass for the look peaked in 2008, coincidentally the year that Akirov bought the building, but Lissoni’s move is less like the slick pastiche (taxidermy + mustachioed waiters + velvet drapes = design!) evident in the early 2000s and more like the move his fellow countryman Renzo Piano made at the Morgan Library in New York in 2006: linking an existing structure with the addition of a glass-sided atrium, turning outside into inside, and creating a courtyard where before there was simply urban fabric.

“I only tried to respect the building completely,” Lissoni says of his approach to history and his own contemporary aesthetic, seen in projects like the Mamilla, private apartments in Milan, and the occasional luxury boat. It’s hard to imagine that conflation and connection happening without compromise, but a quick spin through the hotel’s spaces shows that not only is it possible, but that Lissoni pulled it off.

The center point is the lobby; the walls of the glass-fronted-and-roofed structure abut the existing Sweelinck music conservatory, turning outside into (barely) covered inside. The exterior of the conservatory becomes an interior wall for the hotel’s guests, while that almost-black, origami-folded staircase punches out occupiable space and becomes a kind of kinetic sculpture.

It’s clear that Lissoni has either done his architectural- history homework or has a knack for picking up on existing threads and possibilities, as the iconic staircase treads seem to cling to the outside of the existing building, much as they do in Piano’s Centre Pompidou, in Paris. That mix isn’t an accident. “I designed the stairways like a sculpture,” Lissoni says of the way the stairs meet the existing structure. “Each floor is connected with one bridge and one piece of staircase. Bridges and stairs—in the end all they’re doing is culture.”

A sense of co-opting and expanding on the location’s existing culture is essential in an adaptive reuse project like this, and even though this was Lissoni’s first project in Holland, he became familiar enough with the local history and culture to be able to play with the details, furniture, and art. “I combined the antique culture of Holland with the new idea of modernity,” he says, explaining the choice of chairs by Marcel Wanders, pieces by Hella Jongerius, and antique ceramic walls colored the blue of seventeenth-century delft china. Through it all weaves Lissoni’s own furniture and interior decoration, but not, as he says, “like out of a Piero Lissoni catalog.”

Instead, it’s like a highlights reel of his particular talents: the clean lines and modernist aesthetic come from a long history of collaborations with serious furniture companies like Boffi (for which he acts as artistic director), Alessi, and Kartell. The historical awareness and moments of playful color (like the bright-green chairs in the atrium) seem to come from projects like the Hotel Monaco & Grand Canal in Venice (completed in 2004) or the Mamilla. He cites the 1,000-square-meter Akasha Wellbeing Center as the focal point of all the different aesthetics and histories and narratives running through the project and says it produces the kind of calm almost unheard of in a bustling city like Amsterdam. “We designed everything to be not exaggerated, but to be special,” he says of the low-lit swimming pool, the wood-lined treatment rooms, and the clean—yet comfortable—modernist lines of glass, sofa, and fireplace. That same desire for a place of respite appears throughout the individual rooms, whether they’re the smaller private rooms, the midsize duplexes, or the three enormous “supersuites,” as he calls them, that take up all three levels of the building’s roof structure. “It’s like a cathedral,” Lissoni says of those spaces, which reiterate the lobby’s staircase, the spa’s lines, and the existing structure’s history. “I tried to connect antique things and antique meanings with a totally new contemporary architecture, without any level of compromise.”

Compromise is usually what happens with this kind of an overlap of different countries, aesthetics, movements, and styles, but Lissoni sees it differently. “This combination is like a contamination,” he says, and lists the varying aesthetic and cultural influences visually represented throughout the hotel. “There are antiques with Chinese pieces, African pieces, the local art,” but inside, he says, they commissioned only Dutch artists, as well as a Dutch chef. “It was my first project in Holland, and it wasn’t aggressive, because I don’t want to be aggressive. I’m not there to create a new icon of architecture; I’m there to talk about the silent architecture in town,” Lissoni says, making an oblique reference to a few Dutch architects who are perhaps more interested in exporting their brand to condos in Manhattan and cities in Korea than they might be about fitting into the existing architectural and cultural landscape. The biggest success for Lissoni has been the way in which locals have adopted the space. During the weekend—which in Amsterdam, he notes, runs from Thursday evening until Sunday night—the bar and restaurants see between 600 and 800 people a night. “I designed something for tourists, and now it’s full of tourists but also locals,” he says. It’s become the new spot for power breakfasts among the city’s cultural elite, many of whom work in the nearby museums (the Rijksmuseum is just 500 feet away), and also power lunches and power cocktails and power dinners and power postprandial hot chocolates. And not a dead cat in sight.

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