Canberra has always been a fascinating place to visit – with an original city plan by Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin, great post-war architecture, heaps of trees and a string of major cultural and arts events. But also boring – not much to do ‘at night’, not much of a sense of ‘city’ in the bustling sense of the word. The New Acton precinct has changed that somewhat, a new piece of city that offers some of the diverse activity that makes a city a city. It’s just to the south-west of ‘Civic’, the notional centre of Canberra. Within this precinct, master-planned by OCULUS and Fender Katsalidis, is the Nishi Building (housing Hotel Hotel over 3 levels), the last and best piece in the New Acton jigsaw. The precinct has been developed by Molonglo Group, with Nishi as the sustainable showcase.
Sitting just across the road from Roy Grounds’ fantastic Academy of Sciences building (1957), the Nishi Building is the very definition of ‘mixed-use’ – with a range of different functions inside, and this is central to its success. Hotel Hotel is the signature tenant – a 68 room big boutique hotel – in the same building is a good cinema, office space, shops, carparking and heaps of apartments that share lobby and foyer spaces with the hotel. It’s this mix of functions AND good design that has led to the success of this building and precinct. The building fronts onto perhaps Canberra’s first street (as opposed to road or highway) – Phillip Law Street, awash with people, bikes and cars together, not separated out as was often the case with 20th century planning.
The Nishi building’s primary entry is from this street. Get ready – within is March Studio’s GREAT foyer space – thousands of pieces of recycled timber form a rich tunnel of wood pushing you up the grand stair. Atop is the multi-directional hotel foyer, also designed by March Studio. This space is a regular hotel foyer turned inside out – the kitchen on display, people eating and drinking in the central space, the reception to one side, multiple entries, giant fireplace – it’s moody lounge room crossed with train station. In this space, March turn to concrete – precast planks are stacked, woven together to form walls and screening. This treatment extends outside to the more traditional hotel porte-cochere type entry on the west façade.
The warm hotel rooms are almost rustic – heavily textured materials with great depth – not a piece of plasterboard in sight. OSB (Oriented Strand Board) lines the back walls of the generous rooms, creating hanging display and desk space, and freeing up the rest of the room for custom tables and designers chairs toward the fully glazed wall. Melbourne-based Broached Commissions has curated a range of crafted furniture and art commissions throughout the hotel, including fantastic diamond ‘feasting tables’ designed by Adam Goodrum that pick up on the original ideas of diverse forests the Griffins envisaged for Canberra’s outskirts.
Nishi is made up of two parts – a more conventional glass box with timber screening on the street side (with office space in the upper levels); and a grand curving concrete block containing the hotel rooms and apartments on the west side. This façade follows the roadways that form the edge of the site, and uses angle-ended concrete walls to create a shifting robust framework, timber windows within. The curved form of the hotel and apartment block results in a curving corridor inside, lined with Japanese gate-like timber frames that turn the typical ordinary hotel corridor into pleasurable trip between the lift and your room.
Hotels are pseudo public buildings – particularly the foyer and function spaces, and in a town with lots of state architecture it’s interesting that a privately owned one has this sense of a community, interaction and permeability. Hotels like this one are catalysts and trend setters – and Hotel Hotel embraces this role as a guide to the wider city. New eateries and renovated hotels are clustering around the new precinct. Both Hotel Hotel and the Nishi Building it sits within are the result of many authors – and like the spaces inside, the lines are blurred between them, all operating under the same game plan of craft, richness and design abundance.