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How New York’s hippest architects are reimagining communal space for the post-Covid era

For Roman and Williams, the design team behind Ace Brooklyn, being original means looking both to the past and the future.

How New York’s hippest architects are reimagining communal space for the post-Covid era
NoMad London. [Photo: Simon Upton/courtesy Roman and Williams]

It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what makes Roman and Williams so special—and that’s the point. Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, the husband-and-wife team behind design firm Roman and Williams, seem to revel in this hard-to-pin-down realm, where ethos wins over style and traditions matter more than exact historical references.

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Ace Brooklyn. [Photo: Stephen Kent Johnson/courtesy Roman and Williams]
Ace Brooklyn, the duo’s latest masterpiece, lives in this elusive realm, too. The hip hotel, which opened to the public last month, is the third collaboration between the hospitality brand and Roman and Williams. It’s a welcome addition to the pair’s portfolio, already brimming with bars, restaurants, and hotels in cities from New York to London to L.A. With its sprawling public lobby, multiple bars, and coworking space, it also suggests that communal spaces will continue to play a vital role for people, as long as they can support our newly flexible needs.

Ace Brooklyn. [Photo: Stephen Alesch/courtesy Roman and Williams]
Standing at the corner of Schermerhorn and Bond Street, Ace Brooklyn is a striking 13-story concrete and glass structure. Unlike other Ace hotels designed by the duo, it was built from the ground up. The hotel’s first New York City outpost, in midtown Manhattan, is in a historic, turn-of-the-century building. Meanwhile, Ace Hotel New Orleans is split across a 1928 art deco building and a new extension to the side, courtesy of local architecture firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple.

Ace New Orleans [Photo: Simon Watson/courtesy Roman and Williams]
“Ace was always more about finding an old building and repurposing it, deconstructing it. That was the way Aces were created, with this kind of punk intervention of an old building,” says Standefer, as she and Alesch join me on Zoom from their home in Montauk. “Creating something that has that kind of soul these old buildings have is a tricky thing to do.”

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Ace New Orleans [Photo: Simon Watson/courtesy Roman and Williams]
Designed by Roman and Williams, with architecture firm Stonehill Taylor acting as the architect of record, the new building draws from its location at the intersection of boutique-lined Boerum Hill and downtown Brooklyn. “The building is a combination of a few different influences,” says Alesch. He describes it as “blend of an industrial warehouse with a PS1 feeling,” referencing MoMA PS1, the public school-turned-gallery that set a benchmark for adaptive reuse projects in the ’90s.

The end result features raw concrete, stripped ceilings, and wooden surfaces. It’s a slice of Brutalism with a dose of Brooklyn grit. “Boerum Hill always reinvents itself,” says Standefer, of a neighborhood that has come to be known for its small stores and cultural cachet with art galleries like the iconic Invisible Dog Arts Center. “To make something that was too refined felt like the wrong intervention.”

Ace Brooklyn. [Photo: Stephen Kent Johnson/courtesy Roman and Williams]
Much of the architects’ work is imbued with an eye toward the past. “Invariably with us, it becomes a historical reference,” says Alesch. The pair’s style has been called eclectic and nostalgic. At the Ace Brooklyn, the lobby has an air of mid-century modern, and the guest rooms, with their handcrafted furniture and Douglas fir paneling, have been compared to Le Corbusier’s beloved retreat Le Cabanon, in southeastern France. The duo doesn’t disagree with the comparisons, but they’re not wedded to them, either. “People need a reference. If it looks at all familiar, they make a reference,” says Alesch.

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For Robin, every space needs a moment that pulls you in, “like a moth to a flame.” In the Ace Brooklyn, it’s the negative space left by a cutout that beckons visitors in from the sidewalk. Once inside the lobby, it’s a pair of moon-shaped windows glowing from behind the bar. In the Boom Boom room—a glamorous nightclub on the 18th floor of The Standard Hotel—it’s a dramatic, tree-shaped column that rises and flares over the bar. And in La Mercerie—a French restaurant in SoHo that is housed inside the duo’s retail store, Roman and Williams Guild—it’s the arched tunnel that leads to the main dining room. As Alesch points out, even reverse geometry matters: “As you’re walking away, you should have a beautiful exit.”

The Boom Boom Room [Photo: Adrian Gaut/courtesy Roman and Williams]
Roman and Williams thrives in a world away from labels; they like to “wing it” and eschew all references. At Ace New Orleans, the pair designed a lobby replete with vintage furniture and a southern gothic aesthetic that’s woven throughout the neighborhood. And at Upland, a California-inspired brasserie off of Park Avenue, they evoked the Californian spirit and aesthetic—warm woods and bright palette—while peppering the space with copper touches. “We do what we want, people are confused, we can’t quite articulate it,” says Alesch. “We want to evoke an emotion,” says Standefer.

The Boom Boom Room [Photo: Adrian Gaut/courtesy Roman and Williams]

La Mercerie inside of Roman and Williams Guild [Photo: courtesy Roman and Williams]
Roman and Williams founded their studio in 2002 and have since designed bars, restaurants, and hotel lobbies in cities across the world. Many of these projects are built around communal spaces – a category that has been dealt a big blow over the past two years – but the duo isn’t worried about the future of shared space.

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NoMad London [Photo: Simon Upton/courtesy Roman and Williams]
For them, the pandemic has accelerated trends they’ve been promoting for years. For example, the importance of good airflow has revived the idea of openable windows. “For last 10 years, it’s been hard to work on hotels that have windows that can open,” says Alesch, “but not anymore.”

Another win is the long-awaited embracing of flexibility, something clients were always nervous about. The key, however, is reimagining what flexibility can be—it doesn’t have to mean stackable furniture made of plastic. “You ask 20 people what flexible means and they will say it’s really light,” she says. “Flexible doesn’t have to be that. Let’s redefine it.” At La Mercerie, for example, everything looks permanent, but nothing, including the booths, is actually built in.

Roman and Williams Guild [Photo: Zeph Colombatto/courtesy Roman and Williams]
Ultimately, it’s about designing flexible spaces that cater to our flexible needs. “When working on furniture, I always try to think of somebody who’s in an anti-social mood,” says Alesch. “Most places are designed for couples. It’s very rare and hard to convince anyone to design a space for one person.” Now more than ever, when people may still feel wary of sitting close to others, designing for singles feels particularly important.

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Ace Brooklyn. [Photo: Stephen Kent Johnson/courtesy Roman and Williams]
Over the last few years, the pair has made over 12 trips to Tokyo, where they have designed a zen membership club, the AoyamaTreehouse. Alesch says every public space they’ve visited there featured places for individuals to sit alone, with “eye protection.”

“The Japanese have understood this social space and privacy in the company of others,” says Standefer, who expects that “protected seating,” with some form of a glass divider, will become a regular occurrence in public spaces. “Stephen and I are interested in how you still keep this sense of energy and community but give people some privacy,” says Standefer.

The pandemic may have redefined the way we think about communal spaces, but for Alesch, the essence of these spaces isn’t lost. “In terms of a big room with a lot of energy and a lot of people,” he says, “I don’t think that’s going anywhere but to the place it’s always been.”

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