Canadian firm DesignAgency brought the history of the University of Amsterdam into the modern day traveller’s experience with the Generator Amsterdam hostel.
A gateway to Amsterdam’s Oosterpark in the Netherlands, Generator Amsterdam is an urban design-led hostel in the Oost neighbourhood, a thriving destination for art, fashion and independent business.
With over ten destinations worldwide, Generator’s global design partner DesignAgency collaborated with local architects IDEA Ontwerp on this project to both convert and restore a former health sciences building and zoological museum, and breathe new life into the 100 year old brick structure, establishing the most striking Generator to date.
DesignAgency Partner Anwar Mekhayech told darc: “With each new addition to the Generator portfolio we create something with an intriguing design. We want to create a memorable journey for guests travelling in Europe and staying at multiple Generators – city to city.”
The 168-room hostel follows Generator’s concept of design-focused hospitality with an array of spaces that encourage social interaction, while the building’s original, heritage-designated spaces have been preserved and overlaid with contemporary twists. The building was initially home to the laboratory for Health Studies of the University of Amsterdam, which stood as a cornerstone of the overall design in respecting and valuing the original features of the building and its former occupation. The interior mixes the history and charm of the building with references to Dutch folk culture and iconic design, as well as playful lighting synonymous with the Generator brand.
A partnership with various Dutch artists and designers drove the project to new creative heights; DesignAgency determined the concept for the lighting, working with architects IDEA Ontwerp and lighting consultants ARTEC3. The selection and placement of many lighting fixtures was developed in close collaboration with Blom & Blom, Dutch brothers who share a passion for restoring forgotten treasures. Martijn and Kamiel Blom collected and restored hundreds of light fixtures, many from abandoned factories in East Germany, playing on the building’s new-old duality.
Mekhayech commented on the collaboration: “We discovered Blom & Blom in 2014 while sourcing furniture and getting to know the design scene in Amsterdam. Their passion for finding and restoring old lighting was the perfect marriage for Generator Amsterdam.”
The Dutch brothers’ work is seen all over the hostel, notably in the Laboratory light feature in the auditorium consisting of 70 laboratory glass beakers. Part of this glassware was actually used by the students of the University of Amsterdam and recovered from the building’s basement, while various repurposed pendants and wall sconces feature elsewhere in the hostel’s typical rooms and luxury suites. The hostel’s basement also features a bar housing a number of unique Blom & Blom fixtures, joined by a sighting of Holloways of Ludlow’s Stirrup floor lamp.
The Blom brothers expressed their enthusiasm for this project and the chemistry of all parties involved: “For us it was most appealing that this project was about giving a unique building a new function which respect to its past. It is a building with a story – a soul – in our hometown. This approach aligns perfectly with what we stand for: reviving undervalued objects to show their beauty again. When we met Anwar and IDEA Ontwerp, we knew this was going to be an interesting project.”
Determined to create something worthy of the city of Amsterdam, DesignAgency had a focus on the quirky and fun personality of prominent Dutch design. With the east end of Amsterdam blossoming as a creative hub with new concepts and places, it made the perfect home for Generator by allowing it to stay true to the DNA of the brand, while reviving the industrial and heritage nature of the building.
“The vision was to play off the heritage of the building as well as to collaborate as much as possible with local talent,” said Mekhayech. “We viewed each design element as a playful intervention in the building. We don’t have a signature style but in each project, we examine how to use design to bolster a client’s brand. And we’re most interested in projects that allow us to collaborate creatively and playfully while incorporating art and special lighting.”
The hostel’s art and lighting add to the sense of discovery at Generator Amsterdam, so whether a guest or a local enjoying the park, the venue can be felt as a gallery or museum, where one can wander through spaces and discover surprises.
“Blom & Blom’s provenance of each lighting fixture enhances that experience,” added Mekhayech. “The original building was very dark and ominous, so we wanted to open it up and infuse it with a new creative spirit.”
The lighting adds playfulness whilst remaining in line with what might have been there before. “Blom & Blom helped guide a lot of our thinking about the lighting – we tried to keep it simple, industrial and fitting to the building – which was very raw when we started this project: we love how Blom & Blom document the source of each fixture.”
Kamiel expanded on how they pay tribute to the history of the fixtures they restore: “Our products come together with a story behind them. With each purchase, we provide the client with a historical passport, a small booklet describing the origin and history of the lamp, or a museum-like sign with an image and text on its place of origin. For Generator Amsterdam, we placed the latter signage with the lighting fixtures throughout the building.”
“This was a simultaneous celebration of both history and contemporary spirit,” added Mekhayech.
All the original lighting fixtures that Blom & Blom provided for Generator Hostel originate from abandoned factories in former Easy Germany. In the last few years, the pair have strolled through abandoned factories, old laboratories and deserted military complexes to gather a large collection of original lighting fixtures, with their pieces restored and redesigned at their studio and workshop in Amsterdam.
The Dutch brothers are very particular in their selection of lighting fixtures, and find the East German lamps to be of a higher standard than lamps from other countries, with the Bauhaus movement of the 1930’s influencing many of them. “Their designs were signified by their simplicity and pureness with ‘Form follows function’ as their mantra – a design style that can also be appreciated today,” said Martijn.
Besides their collection of restored and redesigned fixtures, Blom & Blom also designed custom lighting features for Generator, which remain in line with the values of their original lights as characterised by the use of pure and often repurposed materials. These custom signature lighting statements include the triple neon keys greeting guests over the reception, which are a tongue-in-cheek reference to both Amsterdam’s coat of arms and its red light district.
Entering through the hostel’s group entrance, which leads into the ground floor café lounge, guests are greeted with Muuto’s casual Unfold pendants in black, designed by Form Us With Love design studio. Moving through to the hostel’s ground floor café lounge, Karman Italia’s Metra fixture features above the communal table and in the back coffee corner, adding a dash of colour to continue the hostel’s playful theme. This area also offers seating within house-shaped frames illuminated by Moooi’s Paper chandelier and ines.artdesign’s Nebulite pendant. Anglepoise’s Giant 1227 floor lamps also add a gentle sense of vibrancy and imagination to these spaces with their oversized forms.
In the suites, Anglepoise’s Original 1227 bedside wall and desk lamps have been incorporated, with Merci Merci’s Angled Wall lights illuminating the shared bathrooms that exist within the bedrooms.
In dealing with a space with such historic character, there are natural challenges that come with wanting to bring its heritage into the modern day. The building’s history guided many of the decisions, predetermining what they were able to do in many situations. IDEA Ontwerp worked closely with the planning department to ensure the heritage nature of the building could be maintained while adding two new glass levels to the top part of the building, giving DesignAgency the space they needed to have enough rooms to make the project viable. The auditorium with a modern cove lit ceiling, and library, featuring Resident’s Cross pendant, were sanctioned off as prime heritage rooms, as was the exterior. DesignAgency worked to find solutions to upgrade them that worked within the parameters and presented all ideas for approvals.
Responsible for the entire interior design, DesignAgency’s working relationship with Blom & Blom was one of creativity and cooperation. Martijn commented: “DesignAgency allowed us a lot of creative freedom, which was great. They adopted many of our suggestions and by presenting various ideas back and forth, I think this led to a design that captured the overall interior concept, and resulted in some great lighting features.”
Mekhayech commented on the challenges the team overcame to achieve the final vision: “In the lobby, we left the stained glass windows at the park entrance foyer and exposed some amazing internal brickwork around the reception. In the auditorium we were able to add a structural mezzanine that connects the auditorium with the library. I love how the mural by Graphic Surgery accentuates the contrast between old and new. We left the library almost completely in its original form, but with some fun new additions. The original handrail and green railings in the main two stairwells, which house Alexander and Pearl’s Area Black and White Swivel light, are my favourite features of the original buildings.”
With the final outcome of Generator Amsterdam standing remarkably close to the original vision, the project is Mekhayech’s favourite Generator project to date, telling darc. “I think it’s a very mature project that really balances a lot of elements that make for a great hotel and an even more unique hostel. Artistically, it is very expressive and the intervention of the concept into the old building works perfectly for the Generator brand. It really addresses the urban context of the property’s city side, and the true Dutch nature of its park side.”
With the playful composition of laboratory glass beakers illuminating the auditorium, and a labyrinth of pipes, values and lights crawling behind the boiler room bar, down to the Anglepoise bedside lighting, every detail of this project emphasises the building’s history. It is a combination of restoration and redesign, reflected through DesignAgency’s scheme and Blom & Blom’s dedicated and passionate work. In its new and enlightened form, the University of Amsterdam’s experimental and scientific history will resonate in the eager and enthusiastic hearts of design loving guests of the Generator Amsterdam hostel, as they return home with stories of how the building’s past twisted its way into to their modern day travelling experience.