Architecture Has An Impact!

An interview with Stephen Williams and Julia Erdmann of Stephen Williams Associates, Hamburg, about urban hotels, livable spaces and creating identity

Mr Williams, Ms Erdmann, many of your firm’s projects are in the hotel sector – especially in urban contexts. How would you describe the expectations in this field today?
Stephen Williams: A hotel is no longer just a place of transit. Multifunctionality was yesterday, today its multiple uses that matter. The hotel is becoming a miniature world: you can work there, relax, go out, eat, meet nice people or go to concerts. Everyone is welcome. Not just guests. As a result, hotels are becoming a source of impetus for urban culture. They influence and invigorate an entire city district, like the “Michelberger Hotel” in Berlin-Kreuzberg or the “25hours Hotel” in Hamburg’s Hafencity quarter.

Julia Erdmann: It used to be a 5-star interior that counted, now it’s 5-star experiences. A hotel provides lots of good reasons for staying in it. Good food, good conversation, a good time. A bed for the night is only one of those reasons.

Your firm’s claim is “Architecture Design Identity”. How do you generate identity in collaboration with your clients?
Erdmann: We believe it’s really important to collaborate on an equal footing. Exploring lots of different ideas doesn’t lead to compromises, it leads to better insight and understanding. And to results that are inspired by real life, not by the drawing board. The more expectations are satisfied, the more likely a place is to be taken for granted as part of its surroundings later on. And in this case, being taken for granted is a compliment! Rather than joining the insatiable hunt for something new, our design aims to satisfy the longing for something that is new yet familiar.

Williams: Exactly. Building identity means recognising what is there. Not designing what has never been but looks fancy. We work with our clients to find that out and then translate the values and emotions we’ve identified into space. At the same time, our architecture is always a subtle comment on developments in society as well, and that enables people to see things from a different perspective. That’s how we familiarise people with the ambivalence and process-like character of identity.

You’re also active in other fields such as restaurants and office environments. Can any comparisons be drawn? To what extent does the growing fusion between life and work play a role?
Erdmann: Architecture has an impact! Spaces shape us. If the worst comes to the worst, they make us ill. The more the boundaries between our working and private lives disappear, the more important it is to have spaces we feel good in. Places that aren’t just for being in, but for “well-being”. And if you look at things from that perspective, how inspiring is a white wall, an open-plan office, yet another glass facade or places without light or shade? Livable spaces don’t see people as extras or human capital but as active players with their own needs.

Williams: Ultimately, it’s all about communication. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an urban space or an interior: we create spaces where communication can develop naturally, spaces that overcome invisible thresholds and are thus democratic in themselves, right down to the last detail. When two people come together, it leads to creativity, exchange, inspiration and, with time, a culture. That’s why we always strive to make sure people get talking quickly.

What projects are you working on right now? Where do you see the most exciting challenges?
Williams: We’ve just completed a house for a famous rock star. It’s full of musical reminiscences. Next, after drawing up a master plan for the area, we’ll be designing a new hotel in Hamburg’s Stadthöfe district. We live in an age of sharing and networking. That’s why we ought to do away with an understanding of architecture that only makes people gape in amazement rather than involving them. Because at the end of the day, our built environment isn’t only there to be looked at, it’s for using and experiencing. Ultimately, dancing people are a good alternative to dancing towers, don’t you think?

Stephen Williams was born in Port Talbot (Wales) and studied architecture in Birmingham and Canterbury. He started his career in London, where he worked for architects such as Piers Gough and Elia Zenghelis of OMA before settling in Hamburg in 1994. Julia Erdmann has been working with Stephen Williams since 2004. She joined the firm as an associate partner in 2009. Julia Erdmann studied architecture and urban planning at the School of Fine Arts in Hamburg. Both advocate an inclusive understanding of architecture that brings people together in order to create vigorous and sustainable communities. The firm’s main areas of activity are hotels, restaurants and office environments, especially in Europe and Asia.

Source: Koelnmesse, reprint free of charge.