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Architect Deborah Berke on Designing Museum Hotels and Buildings 'That Dance Between Foreground and Background'

About a decade ago New York-based architect Deborah Berke presented a proposal for a development project in Louisville, Ky., the so-called "Gateway to the South" that was (and is) undergoing something of an artistic renaissance. She didn't get the gig, but something about her ideas, perhaps her love for architecture's "dance between foreground and background," sparked an interest in one of the panelists reviewing the proposals. Shortly after, Steve Wilson, a Louisville art collector, called her up and asked if she wanted to work on a side-project he was co-founding: a combined boutique hotel and contemporary art museum, to be plunked in downtown Louisville. Since that partnership was forged, Berke's team and Wilson's ilk have built three branches of the 21c Musem Hotel, and there are no signs of slowing down. Curbed catches up with Berke about her process, and how exactly she creates "stop you" architectural moments in a sea of contemporary art.

How did you consider the unique 21c Museum Hotel premise when designing?

One of the very interesting things about the 21c museum hotels is that they actually are museums, legally. The public spaces double as lobbies or are extensions of lobbies, halls, meeting rooms and such. The collection is a real collection; it's not bought with an eye toward whether it fits in a hotel, it's bought with Steve Wilson and [co-founder] Laura Lee Brown's personal art-collecting convictions and beliefs.

This was an eternity ago, but I went to RISD [Rhode Island School of Design], so I've done a lot of work for artists and for art collectors. That's important because we are designing to make a great hotel, sure, but can't ever lose sight of Steve and Laura Lee's art collections. Because that's what they are: collectors. We will design certain spaces around specific works of art.


So in the hotel we've just finished in Cincinnati (an old building that was originally built as a hotel, though we completely reshaped the rooms) there was an old—now I hate the world "airshaft" because that sounds so negative—but basically a slot of space in the original building. It was lined with glazed white brick that's 100 years old. It's so beautiful, with lots of delicate cracks in the glaze and this sort of unusual and rich white color. We decided to hang a tapestry in that space that's made out of LED light fibers that change color (↓) because we wanted to work with the light-reflective qualities of the space. We also really liked the 100-year-old white brick alongside the very 21st-century technology—actually weaving with fibers that conduct electricity and change color.

We'll also make big spaces that can take many different kinds of art because the collection is really varied: they have video, they have sculpture, they have paintings, they have prints. So we have to make spaces that can receive and get joy out of a lot of different kinds of work.

What lured you to this project?

Both Steve and Laura Lee are fantastic people, so working with them is a delight. You know, when we did the first one, nobody knew that there would be more of them. And then the hotel was so successful that other places became interested. Nobody went in thinking, "Oh we're going to create brand" or any of that. The process has been very authentic, which is something I find particularly fulfilling.

Because you do them as one-offs, each one is a precious thing.

That's exactly right. Even though the art is a continuous presence throughout all of the projects, as are the people involved, each one is a one-off. The hotel in Bentonville [on Curbed's 2013 Hotel Heatmap] is a ground-up new construction, the hotel in Cincinnati (↓) is an old building that was a hotel, the hotel in Lexington—in the early stages of construction—is a building that was a bank. Each one is unique because of the building, the city, the site, and how the art fits into that place.

Is there anything about the building design, besides the presence of art, that connects them?

These hotels, and for a lot of what I do in my work in general, I'm interested in creating that dance between foreground and background. You can say, "Wow, what an amazing room," but also it can go mute when there's a great piece of art in it.

What kind of rooms are the "wow" rooms?

Each hotel has what we call a "ballroom," because it's a space where you could have a huge meeting or a giant party or a wedding. Those spaces are always special, spatially. There's something about the proportion, like a high ceiling, or its unique combination of materials. They have a kind of "stop you" moment about them.

Similarly, in each hotel, the lobby [like the one in Bentonville, below], is another kind of "wow." It's not just about getting yourself to the registration desk, it's about being aware of the proportion and volume and character of the space.

What are some design details you've included that people may not notice?

One of the great things for us is that we do the interiors. We do the furniture in the rooms. When you're choosing the fabrics as well as making the space, you can really get to a level of both detail and a sort of richness. I think what people don't notice is how seamlessly it's all put together. Everything's been thought about by us: fabric, lighting, how the window shade works.

How did you get the gig?

I interviewed for a project in Louisville, Ky., an arts-related project that I did not get. But Steve Wilson was part of the committee. We share a similar vision for many, many things so when he decided to do this hotel he called and said "You may not even remember me from the interview process, but I'd like to talk to you."

What's the design process like?

You go to the place and try to understand its particulars. When it's the case of an old adaptive reuse building you understand the beautiful secret pleasures and opportunities of this building and its limitations.

We rarely start by saying, "Oh, piece of art X has to go here." It's more that as one gets to know the property and shape the organization and spatial ideas, you think—like with that white brick airshaft or the double-height space that we created in Louisville—oh this will be great for a piece of work.

Designing hotels is really fun. I mean, hotels are about being a visitor in a new place; they're about sex and secrecy and fun and food and drink. What 21c brings to that then is art and a sort of whimsical, energetic, experimental sense to the architecture.

So it's all the fun stuff of a hotel with even more good fun stuff on top of that.

· 21c Museum Hotels [official site]
· Deborah Berke [official site]
· All Deborah Berke posts [Curbed NY]
· All 21c Museum Hotel coverage [Curbed National]
· All Hotels Week 2014 posts [Curbed National]