lloyd hotel & cultural embassy
december 5, 2015
The Lloyd Hotel & Cultural Embassy lives in what used to be a jail. It’s a century-old historical building in the Eastern Docklands of Amsterdam, laced with history. After an intensive period of reconstruction, the hotel opened its doors in 2004, looking to bring in a diverse, global crowd and beyond that, to create real community.
words by: kim van beek
Globetrotter sat down with The Lloyd’s Artistic Director, Suzanne Oxenaar, a decade into the hotel’s reign of egalitarian cool.
GT: Converting a national monument, formerly a prison, into a hotel must have been a big challenge. Can you describe that period?
SO: You have to imagine it: the building still looking like a prison from the outside, with bars everywhere, dark from the smoke of the trains that used to pass by. Inside, it was like entering a prison. The basement floor was completely wet. I was standing in the tower [of the building] and a friend said,“ I think this building is going to be your death.” It was taking a lot of energy.
It is a heavy and very large building, and I started having dreams that I was sleeping in the middle of the building, busily cutting all the bars away, letting the light enter. So, one of the most important questions we asked the architects, MVRDV, was how to escape from the history of the building yet at the same time respect the architecture and the history. They opened up the building, from the bottom to the roof. And from that moment, light started to come in, and a change was made.
GT: There is no doubt the Lloyd Hotel distinguishes itself from any traditional hotel concept. How does that happen?
SO: Well to start with, Otto Nan (my business partner) and I are not hotel managers. Now we are, but we weren’t when we started. Our idea was to make a hotel with a cultural embassy, so we can focus on the cultural luggage that our guests are bringing. And to make that possible we thought there should be a hotel with rooms from one to five stars. Because in a way, we are not interested in how much money people have, but more in what are they bringing, so we have one-star rooms with a shared bathroom and we have five-star rooms. It is the same with our menu. You can eat a four course dinner, but you can also have a simple meal: pasta, or fries. Our focus is on connecting with our guests and their background. I think usually in a hotel, you focus on, sleeping, eating, not so much on who the guest actually is or what he or she is bringing.
GT: What is your background? How did you come to the idea to start a hotel?
SO: Originally I finished my studies as a theatre director. Later on I went to art school. But finally I started working together with my business partner at that time, making big art shows, focusing on contemporary art and art in public space. I did projects in prisons, psychiatric hospitals, hospitals for children, but also cities. I am [still] involved in a project called “The Fifth Season,” where we invite artists to stay as an artist in residence in a psychiatric hospital.
At the same time, I am one of the inventors of the “Supperclub,” the first lounge restaurant ever. So that was a little bit of restaurant expertise. When my business partner Otto Nan asked me, “didn’t you want to start a hotel one day?” - I thought, oh yeah of course, it slipped my mind. And when he told me which building he had in mind, we set down together and we made a plan.
GT: Do you think your experience with art projects in prisons influenced your decision to do this?
SO: No. [Those] art projects were often located in new buildings or buildings that were changing. I grew up as the daughter of museum director who was building a whole new museum in my youth. I have always been interested in where something comes from. So the history of this building, not only the period that it was a prison, but even more important, the period that is was a hotel for immigrants, gives an extra layer to this whole concept.
GT: What is your biggest motivation? What keeps you on track?
SO: Curiosity. It’s always curiosity.
GT: Has the Lloyd Hotel become the place you imagined after 10 years? Do you look back or are you faced toward the future?
SO: I face the future, but when we started we said the Lloyd Hotel [has existed for] 100 years, so we continue for another 100 years. That means that, everything you do or did, in this place, you see it in a larger scale, towards the future, but always aware of the history.
GT: What other projects are you working on at the moment?
SO: One of the projects is the Fifth Season, the project we discussed, the artist in residence project in the largest psychiatric hospital in the Netherlands. I am interested in the vision of an artist on a situation like that, on psychiatry. Another project is The Exchange Hotel, our second hotel in Amsterdam - a completely different concept. We asked fashion students to think of the rooms as if they were models. In 2010 we [created] a temporarily Love Hotel in Tokyo.
GT: What kind of experience do you wish to give the guests?
SO: I never think of giving them an experience. I think it is more my way to make sure that there is a lot of diversity in moments where they can start understanding where they are. We are not a design hotel, we are hotel with a lot of design. For me the design is like a communication medium. It is telling about Dutch culture, how Dutch culture is developing, about this hotel and its history, about Amsterdam. We have 7000 books here, so the books are also all entrances to explaining, to thinking. It could also be [through] food. We have a restaurant with food from the neighbourhood, cows from around, bakeries from around.
GT: Are there ways to get even more about making those connections with guests?
SO: [Our guests are] extremely diverse. One week you have Spanish flamenco dancers, the other week an undercover journalist from Africa, a group of Muslim lesbians. Usually what you try to do is to anticipate that, to give that as much space as possible, to make people feel open, to share whatever they are busy with. So it is not so much about making exhibitions or shows, it is more being very serious about who your guests are. And by doing that, I truly believe that then you will more easily connect.
GT: What phase are you in now?
SO: I think the Lloyd Hotel is almost a classic. Already. It has an extreme international cultural network, it has a network in the city, it has a network in the Netherlands, I am very proud of that.
The neighborhood surrounding the Lloyd Hotel used to be a harbor - it wasn’t a place to live. Now, it’s developed into an area with a lot interesting architecture, an interesting combination of social housing and owned homes. Guests have come from Hamburg to Madrid to see what happens if you something like the Lloyd in the centre of a new neighborhood, what it means. People come here to get inspiration. People have been coming with different backgrounds - from architects to families, backpackers, businessmen. A concept like this really opens people up. Apart from the 1 to 5 star concept, the hotel has a very large public space, the so-called “cultural embassy.” Every night, a certain amount of our profit goes to the cultural embassy. It’s an interesting combination: commercial business with a “non-profit” part. How do they come together internally? It’s a very important balance.