"Book homes from local hosts and experience a place like you live there."
As aspirational slogans for multi-billion dollar startups go, the idealistic, simple premise that pushes room-sharing behemoth Airbnb is one of the best. The company is now far from its startup roots: tangled in legal tussles with numerous cities and boasting more available rooms than most major hotel chains, the former bright idea from a pair of Rhode Island School of Design students is now big business, raising money at a $30 billion valuation and serving as an official sponsor of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. But the slogan reminds guests of a simpler time, when Airbnb was just a great idea the founders tested out in their own loft in 2007, a concept so liberating and and easy to grasp that it’s fair to say thousands, maybe millions have thought, "why didn’t I think of that?"
Turns out architect Michael Grugl and his friends sort of had a similar idea. And they did it in 2006, a year before Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia unveiled AirBed & Breakfast during an industrial design conference held in San Francisco in October of 2007. They even had the beginnings of a pretty catchy slogan: "The city is the hotel."
Grugl and four other artists and architects were the brains behind the Pixel Hotel, a concept they created in their hometown of Linz, Austria, not as a money-making scheme or a hot new startup, but as an urban intervention.
"When we later saw what Airbnb became, it was much clearer what we could have become," says Grugl, via Skype. "This is my personal viewpoint—I can’t speak for the viewpoints of everybody in the group—part of what remains with me is that Pixel Hotel was a missed opportunity, or an opportunity we still should pursue, perhaps."
The extent of Pixel Hotel’s success, even the definition of its success, can only be understood in relation to how it started. The idea came during discussions in 2006 between a group of five friends and colleagues: Grugl, Jürgen Haller and Christoph Weidinger, all architects at ANY:TIME Architects; Richard Steger, an architect and head of Rihl-Steger who teaches at the Art University Linz, and Sabine Funk, currently in charge of Pixel Hotel, who runs a number of Austrian cultural initiatives. They called themselves A.ORT.A (Architecture. Place. Analysis), and focused on urban interventions and placemaking.
While thinking about interesting ways to activate empty spaces in their hometown, a mid-sized Austrian city with a burgeoning cultural scene and scruffy industrial edge, the discussion turned toward empty spaces, or urban voids, and the idea surfaced; what if we activated them as some kind of network?
"We didn’t have any model as an inspiration," says Grugl. "It was more about, ‘what kind of interventions could we use for the benefit of the city?’"
The lodging concept made a lot of sense (as did the name, a play on the decentralized notion of this lodging concept). There was a ton of vacant spaces in town, and if you "activated" them and turn them into art installations that doubled as rooms, then guests would get to experience parts of the city they would otherwise never see, and the art project would become self-sustaining. As Grugl explained it, the city becomes the hotel, and the spaces are the rooms. The same selling point that Airbnb uses—the location of rooms and spaces, away from the typical block of downtown hotels, encourages exploration and a more "real" experience—was also a mantra for Pixel Hotel.
"We wanted people to get to know Linz and see areas where tourists would never go," says Grugl.
To scout out potential spaces, the team rode their bicycles around Linz, and asked friends to keep an eye out for abandoned or unused spaces. The word-of-mouth factor in the artistic community of a small town means the Pixel Hotel group quickly had a potential roster of spaces.
The first prototype Pixel was in an empty garage in the city center on Marienstrasse; colleagues has a studio nearby, and let the Pixel team know the space was for rent. The group placed a trailer inside as a makeshift bedroom, and, with access to a small patio, it felt both spacious and unique. The decor inside the studio, which dated back to the 18th century, suggested as much. Inside, it contained an industrial-strength freight elevator-turned walk-in closet, and a hand-operated color organ meant to evoke the photo studio that once occupied the premises.
Pixel Hotel applied for, and was awarded, funding from the city, and decided to open this test space in 2007, just in time for Ars Electronica, the city’s annual festival of art and electronic music.
From the beginning, it was an art installation that turned to business to keep the doors open. But the realities of running a room for rent made these artists and architects think like hospitality staff. They had to figure out simple things like where to buy shower gel for guests, or how they could set up arrangements with local restaurants to provide breakfast. Running a single prototype allowed them to get feedback and figure out how the whole system worked.
According to Grugl, the feedback was, in a word, fantastic.
"I’m not lying, we’ve only had positive reactions," says Grugl. "It was a project that created a lot of positive emotions. The guest reactions were usually ‘wow wow wow,’ and the locals reacted pretty positively to having new people coming in and out of the area."
It’s perhaps easy to see why, since the Pixel Hotel experience seems to have been an exemplar of what Airbnb promises (and it’s perhaps a safe bet that anybody booking a random room in an Austrian art installation was at least somewhat adventurous). After guests booked a stay on the installation’s website, they would inform the Pixel Hotel team of their arrival time. One of the receptionists/local artists—Conny Kraus (singer, musician, graphic designer, tango dancer), Gunda Wiesner (textile designer), Johanna Leitner (photographer), Clemens Wassner (3D artist), or Tanja Lattner (textile designer)—would meet the guest, perhaps at the Linz train station or nearby grand cafe, and take them to their room, providing not just a sense of hospitality but a description of what made the space and neighborhood they were staying in special. Guests also had the benefit of free rides on the tramway, thanks to a deal with the city, and could catch breakfast at one of a network of local restaurants via a coupon.
Here's how the project's own press release describes it:
Markus Berger, a professor at RISD who heard about the idea from Grugl, stayed at a Pixel Hotel space, a former soup kitchen, and while it wasn’t the most exciting place to stay the night, he was fascinated by the concept. His work focuses in large part on finding potential in unused, existing building stock, and the Austrian concept seemed ahead of its time.
"The more I got into the project the more I understood the true innovation in the project," says Berger. "All cities have a huge amount of unused or underused spaces that have the potential for the "new." The argument I and others madeis that society is starting to look for real quality experience in shopping, traveling, living, and this stimulating "pixel" idea can bring this out."
Soon, the Pixel Hotel expanded, eventually growing into six different spaces spread out around the city, including a converted art gallery and even a tug boat on the Danube River(a proposed Pixel on a crane didn't work out). By 2009, when Linz was declared a European Capital of Culture, an EU honor that supports local artistic events and brings plenty of tourist traffic to the chosen cities, Pixel Hotel was officially sponsored by Linz. The concept was a small hit, and earned coverage in dozens of local, national, and international publications, according to Grugl. It was only a matter of time before they considered expansion and growth.
The team pursued a few different leads and ideas without much focus. They heard from a group of local artists in Tel Aviv who wanted to create their own Pixel. Grugl was flown to Havana, Cuba, to meet with city officials. The idea was to link up with like-minded locals, who could take the framework and run with it, but nothing clicked.
"Six or seven pixels was too small for a good business," says Berger, "but if they would have moved the Linz pixel into a 'system,' they would have been ahead of Airbnb."
Security concerns became a big issue. And ultimately, the legality of the whole concept (an issue that others sidestepped they were forced to address it) made expansion a problem. And, with the organizers placing monetary considerations far behind the guest experience, the team didn’t exactly have a ton of capital to invest in the concept.
"Due to some shortcomings on our end, and the inability of getting a Pixel Hotel off the ground in other places, we never expanded," says Grugl. "After some time, we moved on with our businesses and studios, and didn’t push as hard anymore."
Perhaps the most serious opportunity for expansion was when the team was invited to participate in Radical Innovation in Miami in 2009. A then-new initiative led by hotel industry leaders, namely John Hardy, a leading global developer, the competition looked for outside ideas that could revitalize the hotel industry. Pixel Hotel was invited to participate, and ended up winning that year’s prize, which included funding and support from investors.
According to Hardy himself, who said the "creative, design-oriented" solution was like nothing he’d ever seen before, Pixel "completely rethought the hospitality experience." It also sadly couldn’t be replicated.
"We explored doing it in Paris and New York City, but ran into many of the same obstacles that Airbnb avoided or ignored in the growth curve," he wrote in an email. "Ultimately, we passed on the idea because of zoning and condominium/cooperative legal issues."
When asked if he thought the concept would have worked given the right funding and support, Hardy simply replied, "Absolutely."
Looking back, 2009 was the highpoint of Pixel Hotel. The group managed to keep the spaces operational for the next three years, but over time, rental agreements ran out, or someone else moved into the spaces being used by Pixelhotel. A few new ones entered the mix, including the only one that still operates, inside an old clocktower, but it’s a shadow of what it once was, and most importantly, not really the network that the founders envisioned.
While it’s easy to compare the concept to Airbnb in retrospect, Pixel Hotel had a different philosophy and approach. While others saw this kind of distributed stay concept as a great way to build a business, the Linz-based crew behind Pixel Hotel saw it as a way to revitalize and energize a city.
"It integrated aspects of new urbanism in the sense that it repurposed a variety of existing buildings as guest rooms with the city as the lobby," says Hardy. "The concept promoted cultural venues, public transportation and local businesses, allowing visitors to experience Linz in a new, non-typical way that was closer to that of a local."
So, asking Grugl if he thinks Pixel Hotel could have been Airbnb, in a way, misses the point. If it had grown, it would have been something else. But it can be hard to escape the comparison. His first stay at an Airbnb was a very positive one. But it immediately made him think of the Pixel Hotel idea.
"In many senses, it does what Pixel Hotel did," he says. "I don’t think our idea was necessarily better by any means. But with us, there was a whole process of design considerations, more focused on creating a truly unique experience. In short, if you transformed the Airbnb idea to Pixel, it would be a much more design- and experience-focused operation."