Hotel Lloyd: A Beautiful Chaos

A building that was once a claustrophobic hell-hole has been re-invented as hotel and ‘cultural embassy’.

By Steve Korver, 17-11-2004, cover feature, Amsterdam Weekly



While I’m a fan of the Disneyland of modern Dutch architecture along the Oostelijke Handelskade and further east along the IJ, I have to admit that I also find the overall effect a bit clinical, and a smidgeon anal. Or maybe I just miss the coolest cultural squat on the planet, Vrieshuis Amerika, which was traumatically torn out this area in 1998.

Certainly this most constructed of ‘hoods could do with some more nature — or at least some more of the ‘natural’. The Vrieshuis, with its inflatable flowers on the fifth floor, its Wild West roller disco on the second floor and its clutch of caravan dwellers on the ground floor, was a truly hip artists’ paradise that grew organically from the chaos. It was natural. What this new neighbourhood needs is more chaos — both of the cultural and biological kind. Nature would then start occurring, um, more naturally.

The ‘Dutch Model’ of design has been hyped around the globe — or at least in Japan and Scandinavia — for being both pragmatic and futuristic, and for its easygoing attitude to the boundaries between building, urban, and landscape planning. Still, to my mind it often misses the mark by regarding nature as an artificial construct that must be nurtured. Sure, Holland has the ultimate excuse: everything is fake here anyway. (‘No land, you say? <I>Slap gelul<$>! Hell, we’ll just reclaim some from a soggy marsh!’)

Of course, the real can be faked. But faking the real still takes time. Nature, complex mistress of chaos that she is, is really too multi-dimensional to fake in the short term. The Amsterdamse Bos may have acquired an authentic forest vibe, but it only achieved this after many decades of wild growth.

Some beehives have been installed on that stack of oversized tables towering above where the IJ-tram is due to run, but these won’t be enough to bring nature to eastern docklands. The area is desperate for that certain something that can’t be arranged even by the most cutting-edge urban planning on the planet. Maybe the area needs a farm, or a subsidiary of Artis Zoo. Perhaps inburgering a few more non-human fellow creatures will bring more balance to the humans who live and/or party there.


Humanising a hell-hole
Then again, the other side of the equation also needs attention. To this end the Lloyd Hotel, once a karmic hell-hole, is being turned into a happening hotel. And it’s a good sign that MVRDV, the architects who gave the world Pig City 2001, a skyscraper for pig breeding, and Atelier van Lieshout, the artist/designer responsible for Pioneer Set, a mobile farm, are involved in the hotel’s re-invention. With such influences, there’s a good chance that the area’s also a step closer to humanisation.

I ask Suzanne Oxenaar, one of the project’s jump-starters and the person responsible for the hotel’s unique Cultural Embassy (more later), what the chances were that the hotel’s backyard might become another Pioneer Set complete with blissed-out hogs. ‘I certainly wouldn’t discount the possibility,’ she says, her eyes twinkling. ‘In fact, Joep [Van Lieshout] has already suggested it.’

I say bring on the manure. It may be just what this over-shiny ‘hood needs.

When they began transforming the Lloyd, there was still a lot of bad voodoo in the hotel’s history to transcend. Built in 1921, it began as a European emigrants’ hotel, and could accommodate up to 900 guests at a time — usually Eastern Europeans on route to becoming South Americans. They would be checked in at the ontsmettingsgebouw (‘decontamination building’) across the street, where now the excellent cafe/gallery Cantine is located. There, guests would be given a righteous hosing down before going, via an underground tunnel, to the hotel proper.

‘The concept of what a “guest” is has changed many time in this building,’ says Oxenaar. Obviously this is an understatement.

Later during the Occupation, the Germans re-zoned Lloyds as a jail, where people arrested during the February Strike were kept. After the war it retained this function, to ‘host’ collaborators and members of the NSB. But the Lloyd’s history was probably at its darkest between 1964 and 1989, when it served as Amsterdam’s premier youth prison. (The ‘New Lloyd’ in Amsterdam-Zuidoost has now taken over this function.) The old Lloyd began its healing process when it became a living/working space for artists in the early 1990s, which lasted until 2001.

The ‘old’ Lloyd isn’t just another ‘design hotel’, or an attempt to copy the success of New York’s Chelsea Hotel or even of Rotterdam’s Hotel New York (though the latter does share the Lloyd’s immigration-related past and designer present). The birth of the new Lloyd Hotel was in fact — yes, indeed — an organic, complex and slow process that has involved many movers and shakers. (Some of them will be mentioned below, but many won’t: there are a lot of them.)

Transforming the place from a youth prison into a hotel and ‘cultural embassy’ has, in fact, taken over eight years. It began with Oxenaar and a certain Otto Nan, both of whom have impeccable underground culture credentials. Oxenaar was a co-founder of the Supperclub (then a true vortex of artistic interaction, unlike the commercial operation it is today) and an organiser of international art exhibits. She has taken responsibility for the hotel’s Cultural Embassy and acts as the hotel’s most enthusiastic propagandist. Nan, the hotel’s general director studied art history and then made a name organising events and shows, including the Wild West roller disco and ‘cultureel pretpark‘ in Vrieshuis Amerika. He describes himself as a ‘financial autodidact’. (Cool business card!)

In 1996 Oxenaar and Nan took part in a city-sponsored competition for the development of the hotel, which was then a rotting hulk of a bad-vibed building and — to their own surprise — won. But the banks they approached were wimp-asses, and it took the duo a while to find the money needed for the redevelopment. Eventually Woonstichting de Key agreed to fund it, and is now the official owner.

‘It was never the idea to turn it into a hip hotel or a hip restaurant, like Supperclub.’ Oxenaar says. ‘We were interested in creating space and freedom — to create a space where people could do what they wanted. Only then did we think that it should be a hotel.’

As an organiser of international art exhibitions, Oxenaar has observed the internationalisation of the global arts scene and the ‘eternal emigration’, as she calls it, of its participants.

‘This new concept had to be even looser than the Supperclub, which was restricted by the hour when food began being served,’ she says. ‘That’s why everything is open 24/7 here. No deadlines. And once we embraced the idea of a hotel, we also realized that existing hotels don’t take advantage of guests with something to share. Hotels are generally just too formal for that.’

This is why they’re leaving as much space as possible in the rooms for work, she says. This includes empty walls, bathrooms that fold away out of view, and extra furnishings left in the hall that guests can take to use as they need them. There will also be a kitchen where guests can cook. ‘So they can be “hosts” to their own guests,’ says Oxenaar.


Cooking with Culture
The Cultural Embassy, which reflects the spirit of the new Lloyd concept, is located on four open balconies hanging above the 24-hour Snel restaurant. (The other, a non-24-hour, dinner restaurant, is posher and called Sloom. Both, local foodies might be interested to know, are in the very capable hands of Liesbeth Mijnlieff, a co-owner of Cafe-Restaurant Amsterdam.) These spaces are already buckling under the weight of donations: a whole library of art books from the Rietveld Academy, and some nice and bulky Berlage- and Bazel- era furniture from the Instituut voor Sociaal Geschiedenis that harkens back to the era when the Lloyd was originally built. Guests can wheel a selection of books to their room on a trolley especially designed by the artist Suchan Kinoshita. They can also make their own donations — whether it is a painting or a book.

While most hotels can point you to the canal cruises, few are hip enough to point you towards new artistic Muses. As a new Uitbureau point, Lloyds can arrange tickets 24/7 to any event which a guest may have discovered on the advice of a Lloyd employee (or, um, from the latest issue of Amsterdam Weekly). Guests can also get advice on how to make the best use of their time. Oxenaar recalls how staff helped a Shanghai gallery owner to find her way around the local arts scene. On another occasion, a convention of mystery writers ended up reading ghost stories to each other. She also recalls the unique bonding that occurred after a random public encounter between a group of African lawyers and a group of art students from the Sandberg Institute.

Indeed, variety is the spice of life. And at the Lloyd that variety also occurs on wallet level.

‘We quickly realized that money is very relative for the international- and culture- oriented traveller,’ says Oxenaar. ‘Not all talents have lots of money.’

I nod vigorously at this very valid observation.

‘That’s why we offer rooms covering the full range from one to five stars,’ she adds. This refreshing non-elitist attitude–a rarity in the arts world, if I may say so, my darlings–is also seen in the arrangement of the rooms, which has one-star rooms alongside five-star ones. The hotel offices are set up as an open ‘flexispace’.


Dancing around Architecture
MVRDV’s involvement from early on was also a good move. The design bureau is famous for creating interesting spaces where few others could, or dared to. Take their senior citizen home Oklahoma (1997) in Amsterdam, which ingeniously provided the required number of living units on a limited ground space by cantilevering rooms off the side of building — to wacky effect. Even wackier was the way the bureau helped to put Dutch architecture back on the map at the Hanover World Expo 2000 with their Dutch Big Mac, which had various entertaining (but still functional) elements like watermills and windmills on the roof for generating electricity, a theatre on the fourth floor, an oak forest on the third floor, flowers on the second floor, and a few dunes on the first floor, along with some cafes and shops. In essence it was just a very posh Vrieshuis Amerika.

MVRDV are so interesting that no one could possibly hold it against them that they are reputed to be Brad Pitt’s favourite architectural bureau. Like that other Dutch architecture biggie, Rem Koolhaas, they drape descriptions of their buildings in dense rhetoric. How about this gem from their state-of-the-art website, for instance? ‘A pragmatic transcription in a spatial matrix consisting of the superposition of the diagrams.’ Anyone know what that means?

But I can accept not knowing what it means. After all, recently graduated architecture students need something to talk about while awaiting their first real-life commissions. (By the way, Brad, if you have any tips on decoding the dense poetics of MVRDV’s ‘design philosophy’, as outlined on their website, please get in touch.)

Rhetoric aside, MVRDV are cool. You have to respect any band of merry builders who plan to construct a grassy mountain over London’s Serpentine Gallery this summer. That ‘pavilion’ might possibly even outdo the beautiful one built there last summer by Oscar Niemeyer, the great Brazilian architect and curve connoisseur. (Niemeyer claims that he picked up his own sense of organic shapes on the beaches of Rio.)

Back to Lloyds… MVRDV took over the Lloyd’s renovation, and they began by ripping off the roof to let in some much-needed light. Then they tore a hole right down to the floor to allow more light into the building — as well as the space for the 120 rooms, which cover the full democratic spectrum of possibility. The boundary between the private and the social is generally loosely defined in all the remaining nooks and crannies of the hotel, which allows guests to use them according to their own needs at a particular time. In general the architects appear to have realised the building’s karmic desire for release, so that visitors are drawn ever upward…

I’m starting to sound like a ‘design philosopher’ myself.   But anyway, a building that was once a claustrophobic hell-hole with a questionable history has been opened up. The non-grim elements of the original building — stained glass windows, tiled walls, exposed timbers, and raggedly pored concrete floors — have been retained. Some prison cells have been recycled for open-concept linen storage. The main idea, says Oxenaar, was to ‘use the past and make it visible and accessible for inspiration.’


A showcase of design
The Atelier van Lieshout — whose inspired career includes the creation of AVL-Ville, a ‘free state’ complete with shit-happy hogs and its own currency in the port of Rotterdam during 2001 — and other hotshot designers like Bureau Lakenvelder, Richard Hutten, Marcel Wanders and Hella Jongerius have taken on the hotel’s interiors. And the result is truly a party pack of rooms with plenty of examples of the functional yet witty style that has made Dutch Design so world famous within the Netherlands. During the official opening last week I enjoyed freaking out visitors by pretending to violently rip a Christoph Seyferth lamp out of the wall. It was actually attached by magnet. Teehee. That’s exactly the sort of interactive feature that I crave in my hotels.

Curiously, the different rooms are best described through their bathrooms. Some bathrooms are shared, some fold away behind doors, some have translucent walls that act as the hotel room’s ambient light, some are merely an open shower in the middle of the hotel room, and yet others are wholly customised from polyester resin (the smell of which still hangs in the air).

The big theory behind this hotel remains the idea that everything is for everybody. Guests will certainly love it. But will Amsterdammers? That remains to be seen. Personally, I think that Amsterdammers should hold back on the smart-ass commentaar for a while and see how things evolve. Let’s just give the folks behind Hotel Lloyd a couple of years to sort out all the unavoidable kinderziektes. After all, the Amsterdamse Bos didn’t grow in a day.

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