Dajiang Tai is a principal at Cheshire Architects, and one of the leaders of the team that designed The Hotel Britomart. Here, he talks about why the hotel looks like it does, how it will feel inside, and the way it stitches into its neighbourhood.
The word “craft” usually brings some kind of object to mind, says Dajiang (DJ) Tai, principal at Cheshire Architects, and co-designer of The Hotel Britomart. “People imagine something tangible, that looks like it has a lot of work done to it. In particular, a lot of human effort.”
That sort of craft is increasingly invisible in the modern, mechanised age, he says, but alongside fellow principal Nat Cheshire, DJ aimed to bring craft into every aspect of the design of the 10-storey hotel – from the brick-clad exterior that nods to the history of the city, to the ceramics hand-made by local artisans in each guest room.
Even more than that, he aimed to craft a unique experience for guests. “It’s slightly unusual to talk about craft in terms of an experience,” he says. “Crafting an experience is almost like being a movie director. It’s not just creating the scenery, it’s the whole experience of the movie.”
For DJ, that experience begins when guests first set foot in the nine-block city neighbourhood of Britomart, where the Cheshire Architects team have designed plant-filled public spaces and laneways, and transformed abandoned century-old brick warehouse buildings into modern spaces for shops, restaurants, bars and businesses over more than a decade.
The hotel entrance, in a vibrant city laneway full of lush plants, ushers guests between two worlds, with a lobby paved in the style of the city streets, but filled with welcoming soft furniture elements. As guests take the lift to the naturally-lit corridor that leads to their timber-lined room, the design steps away from the buzz of Britomart to the feel of a cabin retreat.
It’s an experience that may only have been able to have been created in Britomart, he says. “We’ve been working with Britomart for over a decade and the hotel has emerged from the build-up of those years. The building is the right scale to be able to craft it – not too big. And Auckland is a small city with a small construction industry. Working with people we’re familiar with allowed us to push ideas as far as possible.”
Collaborating with hundreds of people dedicated to their own aspect of craft, in order to create a very special hotel experience for visitors to Britomart, Auckland and New Zealand, was a great joy, says DJ.
“There has been no one person saying, “This is my vision, let’s do this.” Everything is broken down to details. That is the level of craft that interests me, that got me out of bed at 6 o’clock in the morning every day for three years.”
JEREMY HANSEN: You and the team at Cheshire Architects have been so close to the building for so long. So I wondered if you could pull back for a minute and describe the building in your own words.
DAJIANG TAI: I think as an object it looks like an art piece. It’s appears as a solid object with very fine handmade bricks with flush glazed windows like little diamonds scattered over the facade. It’s very rare to have a heavy building in the 21st century – almost everything is made of glass now. So it’s almost inverting that. And if I go to Manhattan, the big heavy buildings are all sitting on a heavy plinth. The hotel seems to float on a base made of glass, which is very interesting.
Why did you choose brick for the building’s exterior?
DT: Brick is not an uncommon thing in Britomart. The area has a lot of the city’s original brick warehouses. These are very rare in other parts of the city, but because we’ve already worked on other projects in the neighbourhood for a decade, we’re very familiar with the material, and we wanted to keep that connection with Britomart’s history. We deliberately steered away from commercial, perfectly cut bricks and chose hand-made, so every brick is a little different for that reason too. When you stand far away looking back at it, the surface is almost perfect. But if you look closely you’ll see the bricks are imperfect. They all vary in colour and module size, but they all line up perfectly somehow. That somehow is not a fluke – someone has drawn every brick and made sure it aligns perfectly.
How did you want the The Hotel Britomart to feel?
DT: I think a hotel is the best way of fully experiencing a piece of architecture. The true intimate experience of a piece of architecture is by staying in it, and a hotel is a perfect example of that. It feels like the guests are having a date with the city. The rooms are like a timber cabin, the slight imperfections of the timber, the bed fabric, the pillows, even the towels in the bathroom have layers and layers of texture in them. The room is very, very calm, very, very soft. It feels like you’ve arrived at your best friend’s house and your best friend has very good taste.
You and Nat have both talked about how you’re as excited about the new public laneway that skirts the hotel as you are the new hotel building itself. Can you talk a little bit about what the laneway experience will be like?
DT: The laneway has many elements to it. It’s a passage through an urban oasis, full of beautiful plants and providing the link to new restaurants in the neighbouring old heritage buildings. You’re getting a very intense urban environment that’s slightly unfamiliar to Auckland people. The semi-enclosed part of the laneway where you’re right inside the heritage building. It has a bar, a little eatery, and the beauty of that is that those things could be merged into one restaurant but they’ve been scattered into different objects – it’s a very modern but slightly unusual way of looking at hotel amenities. Britomart is one of my favourite places in Auckland and I know it really well, but every time I visit I discover something slightly new, I think it’s because Britomart has so much history and layers and is constantly changing format. This laneway will be one of the most exciting additions and create a lot more fascinating complexity.
What are you most proud of about the hotel?
The part I’m most proud of is crafting the complexity of an experience. I think in the time that we’re living now, just making a good peice of architecture is not enough. This will be New Zealand’s first 5 Green Star hotel. Every single element in the hotel has been selected to meet the particular criteria, from taps with certain flow rates to fabrics that will last longer. The architecture extends into the laneway and the amenities of Britomart and the surrounding city – it’s intertwined with this super-complex urban block around it.