Hotel Hotel

Published in Smith Journal, 2013.

 

You’d think that, after planning and building an entire hotel, hanging a door would be a fairly simple process; the icing, or the cherry on top. For Nectar Efkarpidis, it was more like taking a sledgehammer to the cake itself.

 “We had to go through the concrete around the doorframe to hang it and we burst the hydronic heating system,” he explains. “It’s messy, and it has to be messy… In some ways you've got to be crazy about wanting to undertake something like this.”

That the door in question weighs 600kgs—that’s three or four professional footballers, depending on what code you follow—certainly contributes to the madness. So does the fact that Nectar, though incredibly precise about his vision and savvy about how to accomplish it, has no formal training in building, development, or architecture.

Instead, he’s relying on gut feeling, an impeccably assembled team, and pure chutzpah to put together Hotel Hotel, a new space in Canberra that he hopes will be “filled with people all going about their daily lives and interacting in honest ways”. Less 4000-thread count Egyptian cotton and more sitting at the bar with a total stranger, drinking craft beer from handmade, sustainable glasses, it’s a ambitious project that may see Nectar emerge as on of Australia’s most forward-thinking hoteliers. That’s if he isn’t crushed to death by a giant concrete door first.  

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Sitting in the lounge room of his Melbourne home in battered suit pants and a t-shirt, 40-year-old Nectar is waxing lyrical about how hotels, usually seen as rest stops for the wealthy or transient, can function as part of the community. “We see the opportunity for hotels to be places where people come to and talk, to hang out. Not necessarily to buy an eight-dollar coffee or spend lots of money on a drink,” he says. It’s an idea and a project that’s ballooned out to take over his life; unexpectedly, but in a way that somehow makes a lot of sense.

Born in Melbourne to Greek migrant parents, Nectar didn’t set out to be a hotelier, or a property tycoon, or a tycoon of any stripe. He seems more like a philosophy graduate (which he is) than a bachelor of economics (he’s one of those too). He attributes his involvement in the world of development to “mistake”, though he’s fantasised about building a hotel for years. The turning point came when he was working as an investment banker with Macquarie Bank in London, and his brother Johnathan called from Canberra.

“He said, ‘Come on, I need your bloody help, I’m sick of doing this all myself,’” Nectar says with a laugh. Only 14 months apart in age, Nectar and Johnathan grew up “hating and loving each other”, but the brothers didn’t hesitate to work together. “There’s nothing like having someone that you totally, totally trust,” Nectar says. “If you don’t trust someone, you spend all your time thinking about how to mitigate getting fucked over. And not just him, everyone in our organisation, we’re all family.”

That family is the Molonglo Group, and the Molonglo Group are developers. Big ones. They used to run an independent chain of supermarkets, before selling them to Woolworths in 1996, and they’re currently focused on developing numerous sites in and around Canberra. Hotel Hotel occupies three floors and 99-rooms in the ‘pineapple-shaped’ Nishi building, which the company has been working on for seven years. “I'm not going to sit here and tell you that this is some social enterprise. It's not,” Nectar says. “This is a commercial activity; we just care about doing it well. We believe that it can provide as an economic model, but we also believe in development as a vehicle to help address some of the issues we're all facing around cultural, social, environmental and economic sustainability. We want this to be a national and hopefully international prototyping model of how you build great places.”

So when you want to build a hotel, where do you start? “It’s an enormous question,” Nectar admits. “After you conceive of it, say, ‘I want to build a hotel’, you've got to work out whether there's a viable business model that a financier believes in. If there is, you need to convince people that you can run one.” That’s been the biggest challenge for the brothers, because this is their first hotel; it’s a risk. “So many times people have looked at us and said, ‘You do property development. Why the hell do you want to do a hotel?’” Nectar says. “If there’s a secret to making this happen, it’s to go get the best possible people to work with you. People with a lot of hotel experience, but who are prepared to think differently.”

Hotel Hotel’s wider team is made up of experts in their field. Its shell was overseen by Australian architecture firm Fender Katsalidis, which recently designed Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art. The rough-formed concrete lintels in the foyer and lobby were devised by Melbourne designers March Studio in collaboration with landscape architect Bob Earl. The functional objects--tables, lights and the 600-kilogram door--were hammered out by blacksmith David Aarons, who spent weeks drilling, welding and testing from his nearby workshop in Mitchell, and the rooms--built from recycled timber and off-form concrete--were created in partnership with Japan’s Suppose Design Office. And there are people whose roles are less obvious, like Herbie the metal polisher, or filmmaker Don Cameron, who spent hours testing the look and feel of each room.

Nectar stresses that Hotel Hotel, rather than being the vision of “one crazy person”, is the result of three years of intense collaboration. “To do a development is extremely difficult: it’s high-risk; it’s coordinating hundreds or thousands of people in a very compressed period of time,” he says. “And it doesn’t generally allow people to mess that process up.” Nectar, to the frustration of his building managers, is trying to build in space for evolution and experiments and mess. “What we’ve tried to do is leave enough room, enough hooks for people to go in and fill the spaces, colour the space in ways we hadn’t imagined… Hopefully when the hotel opens it'll be owned and adopted by those who work there, and those who visit.”

In Canberra, that doesn’t initially sound like such an exiting prospect; the nation’s capital, after all, has a fairly dry reputation, with ‘those who work there’ politicians and ‘those who visit’ lobbyists. But some of the country’s largest cultural institutions are found in the city, and a surprisingly large number of artisans and makers exist on its fringe. And art, and the handmade, and the beauty of Canberra’s scrubby bush all form a large part of the project’s DNA. Nectar’s particularly excited about the hotel’s commissioned sculptures by environmental artists Alfio Bonnano and Steven Siegel, the latter a piece made from a year’s worth of the Canberra Times that will decompose over 25 years. “There isn’t a need for a bronze sculpture that will last for the next 3000 years,” he says. “I mean, there’s something lovely about a bronze sculpture, but there’s something lovely about the narrative of the wasted newspapers that end up being compost.”

Sustainability is a big concern for Nectar—the narrative of re-use as well as the environmental pay-off. “Marketing campaigns about being green, being ethical, they’re not interesting,” Nectar says. “Things that are made with a level of care and the stories they tell, those are rich.” The commercial area of the Nishi complex has the largest solar panel installation on an office building in Australia; it's now occupied by the Department of Climate Change. On a smaller scale, artist-makers have been engaged to develop new and sustainable pieces for every aspect – lighting, furnishing, uniforms and art. “When someone spends six years, every day, doing something you can’t look at it and not be moved by it,” he says. But this intention and investment comes with its own set of challenges. Because what’s the point of ordering 3000 hand-made glasses if they make the hotel too pricey for the glassblower to stay in? From the beginning we’ve been conscious of ensuring that what we do, and the way we want to do it, doesn’t translate into an end result that’s inaccessible to the average person,” Nectar says. “Yes, sure, you can get artisanal makers handcrafting everything, but if that means it’s not accessible, it’s not really a model that works.

Because if Nectar’s putting all his faith in the idea that a hotel can function as a genuine cortex of public life, it’s going to need to work. “What matters most,” he says, “not only in hotels but in all of the third spaces we occupy as citizens, is the content and the resonance of the place. You hope to design a place immediately that says, ‘We’re open and tolerant’. Ultimately, you want the business guest and a student, the locals and someone travelling from the outskirts of Canberra staying with family and friends, to sit down beside each other and have a conversation.”

It’s a seemingly modest goal that requires a phenomenal amount of planning, coordination, money, time, and vision, but Nectar remains undaunted.  “Someone once said to me, ‘Good luck with your ill-conceived, mismanaged pipe dream’.” He laughs. “I think we’re going to emblazon that in front of the door.”