Talkin’ ’bout my Generator

GenParis_DesignAgency_04New millennium, new rules. For those of us who remember making our way across Europe one grotty hostel at a time, living in cramped, single-sex dorms under strict curfews, and schlepping down the hall to shower in dingy, mildewed stalls, the change couldn’t happen soon enough.

Seven years ago, Josh Wyatt, an American working for the New York private equity arm of the global real estate firm Patron Capital Partners, came up with the concept of investing in affordable, temporary living spaces in the heart of the world’s major centres. The twist? Bringing in great design. Creating a cool space to take a hot shower. Making it a hang worthy of its mainly millennial customers, a group well known for its sense of entitlement.

Wyatt shared his idea with Anwar Mekhayech at a party they both attended in New York. “We stayed in touch,” Mekhayech says. “When Patron acquired the Generator brand and bought the Dublin Hotel, Josh asked if we wanted to redesign it.” That “we” includes Allen Chan and Matt Davis, co-partners with Mekhayech in the Toronto-based DesignAgency, a multi-purpose studio that merges architecture, interior and industrial design with digital design and holistic branding.

After accepting the gig, Mekhayech’s ensuing discussions with the client helped hone future intentions concerning the Generator chain. They decided each hostel should be its own space, leading customers on a cross-continental journey of spaces and building word of mouth for each site (“Have you seen the lobby in Venice?”). A core esthetic soon emerged, centred on “trendy, cool, warm, raw industrial, found objects, area artists, and layering in a level of design that speaks to each locality.” Youth is at is centre – thus the ready accessibility of WiFi; snack vending machines plus built-in cafés and nightclubs; as well as 24/7 lounges, laundry and reception – yet clientele of all ages are encouraged to visit, both for economic reasons and diversity’s sake.

DesignAgency is currently working on its 12th hostel, in Amsterdam, with more European sites to come. An extension into the U.S. (and possibly Canada) is also planned. At this point, though, the brand showpiece has to be its recently completed Paris locale. This six-storey building, a decommissioned 1985 office block, features 199 rooms and 916 beds, making it the largest Generator project to date. Situated in the 10th arrondissement in the city’s hip northeast sector, it looks across the street at the curved glass curtain of the French Communist Headquarters, built in the early ’70s by Oscar Niemeyer.

The city’s rigid control of its external built environment meant underplaying Gen Paris’s exterior and saving any real showiness for the inside. Mekhayech more than compensated for this stricture, however, with his concept of a “bright lights, big city” electric marquee overhanging a reception desk picked out in bold, Mondrian-inspired colours. The you-are-star-of-your-own-film feeling is further enhanced by the lobby’s sound-stage-like industrial setting, with its large overhead spotlights and occasional hanging grid, Deco chalkboard graphics surrounding the travel desk, and rich Technicolor shots of strong-hued glass set into the foyer’s window panes. Aside from “generating” excitement, these decorative elements fit the chain’s design mandate of exemplifying their surroundings. Those in the know, including film buff Mekhayech, will tell you that Paris is the world mecca for fans of old movies.

But there is much more at work here than a single theme, as each of Gen Paris’s public spaces touches upon multiple associations. Past the ground-floor elevator bay lies Café Fabian, its name picked out in blue tiles against white, just like the nearby Metro stop it references. The dining area overlooks a swath of green garden planted with vegetables and herbs, and a private alcove features both a floral mural and rolling barn doors – all hinting at the farm-to-table sensibility so cherished by the French. In another filmic flourish, a large electric arrow points the way downstairs to a two-tier bar/nightclub. Its lower level, created by reclaiming 10 parking garage spots, is now a tiled tunnel filled with banquettes upholstered in cheesy 1980s transit fabric. The back wall shows a super-graphic of a subway train pulling out of a platform, imparting the dangerous impression of partying on the Métro tracks.

Upstairs, on the premier étage, yet another world opens with the Moroccan-inspired chill-out lounge. In a nod to the North African artistry and immigration which has long impacted the city, this large room is filled with circular leather ottomans and low-rise couscous tables, in addition to couches in traditional tapestry fabrics whose pallet-wood  bases hint at imported origins. It was crafted, says Mekhayech, to “look like somebody’s rec room. A home away from home, where you can hang out, move stuff around, and put your feet up on the furniture.”

All these public areas, plus the accessible rooftop terrace, are meant to give extra dimension to a Parisian stopover. The bedrooms themselves are basic: well designed yet stripped down to essentials, a place simply for recharging. In the city at large and at Gen Paris itself, real life happens elsewhere. •