What Creative Agencies, Hotels and a Houston Park Teach Us about Turning Spaces into Destinations


Every time I drop down into New York’s Penn Station, I’m reminded that bad design is forever. The sun cuts away, the fast food chains rise before me, and into the labyrinth I go. It’s a real-life version of Escher’s Relativity, but teeming with frustrated travelers hunting for ticket booths, track numbers and cell service. When I finally get to my seat, I can’t tell whether I’m headed forward or backward, since the train’s suspended in darkness.

Meanwhile, just blocks away, I know that Grand Central is beautiful, tranquil, open and filled with a glorious, streaming light. It’s no surprise that Steve Jobs paid Charlie Palmer $5 million to cut his restaurant lease short so that Apple could take over the east balcony immediately. Or that 60,000 tourists stop by daily—not to take a train, but to pose for photos and revel in the historic space.

Creating Spaces That Reflect Brand Purpose

At Brand Union, we spend a lot of time thinking about space, and how space reflects brand purpose. Real estate isn’t just about square feet anymore. It isn’t about showing off an expensive piece of lobby art, either. Instead, industry leaders of the new economy are creating spaces we could live in, but that we happen to work in or visit during our free time. Real estate is a powerful way to create a kind of communal luxury that builds brand loyalty and drives community, culture and commerce.

The architect Clive Wilkinson has done it with just tables. Wilkinson’s firm, CWa, helped Google evolve from cubicle farms to their playful campuses, but what they did for Barbarian Group and Mother London really made us think. Take a look…

Barbarian Group

Barbarian Group offices in New York City.

Mother London offices.

Mother London offices.

What CWa did for Barbarian is fantastic, isn’t it? They took a rather unremarkable space, an everyday material (wood) and a fundamental medium (desk) to create a playful, interconnected wonderland. The 330-meter, Mobius-style strip provides both meeting space and workspace while keeping the entire team together. At Mother, CWa built off that famous creative agency legacy of working around communal tables by designing a poured concrete centerpiece for 200 people.

Would Mother and Barbarian have saved on furniture and G&A costs by filling their offices with rows of off-the-rack desks and chairs and filing cabinets? Sure, but they wouldn’t generate the goodwill, press coverage, social media love, office envy and—ultimately—the employer-brand strength they have now. Both agencies decided to invest in beautiful design that’s shared by everyone rather than just, say, the bosses.

As the late Ace Hotel founder Alex Calderwood liked to say (and inscribe throughout his properties): “We’re all in this together.” It’s a mindshift that John Boiler, the founder and CEO of ad agency 72andSunny, has described as the move from building spaces that instill fear to those that create optimism.

“A Friendly Place”

Ace Hotel

Ace Hotel.

Calderwood built his empire by creating social North Stars out of less-than-prime real estate. Ace Seattle is a former Salvation Army halfway house. Ace Palm Springs? An old Howard Johnson motel. Ace New York is really in no-man’s land, surrounded by split-level retail fronts and warehouse-style shops hawking budget jewelry.

Not exactly a destination, right?

Except that Calderwood specialized in creating destinations. So now that no-man’s land is NoMad. He grew up booking talent at Pacific Northwest clubs. (Sticky floors? No problem; we’re here for the music.) And then he expanded into barbershops, building a national chain with 17 locations. Rudy’s is positioned as a stylish community center first and a place to “cut heads” second.

The Ace treats real estate the same way: “Sure, you can sleep and shower here, but come hang out, too. We’ve created something beautiful for you.” The lobby isn’t protected by starchy staff asking to see your room key. It’s thoroughly public—free Wi-Fi and marble tables for entrepreneurs, leather couches for meetings, a DJ booth for a cycle of musicians.

Ace uses its valuable ground-floor real estate as a free-culture hub, attracting an endless stream of people who then spend on Stumptown coffee, the Breslin and John Dory restaurants, the Opening Ceremony and Project No. 8 stores, Liberty Hall event space, the lobby bar, the concierge retail parlor, Rudy’s and, of course, hotel rooms.

A Sweet “Living Room”

The Standard at sunset.

The Standard rooftop.

Calderwood’s idea of lobby as luxurious urban common fueled Ace’s expansion into eight cities (Pittsburgh is next) and three continents. His model also helped André Balazs, whose hotel The Standard turned an entire city block into our playground. The Standard, which straddles New York’s newly iconic High Line park, isn’t an especially pretty building, but the come-one-come-all attitude and well-curated leisure spaces are a draw for the entire city.

While the hotel is designed to be a “living room for the neighborhood,” Balazs offers up much more: a biergarten, two restaurants, an ice skating rink, event spaces, a pair of rooftop clubs, a late-night crêperie and a lounge pool. And, in a nice personal touch, a telescope so powerful I could see Neil Armstrong’s footprint. Along with the High Line, and now The Whitney, The Standard is driving New York’s Meatpacking District’s evolution into a major cultural center.

Everyone’s Backyard

Discovery Green Park

Houston’s Discovery Green park.

What’s exciting about creative place-making is that what works for offices, hotels and city blocks also applies to entire cities. When we create free, beautiful communal space, commerce, culture and community follow. My favorite example is Houston’s first downtown park. If The Standard is our dream house, Discovery Green is our dream backyard—with plush lawns, playful fountains, a farmers market, tree houses, dog runs, movie nights and concerts. The park quickly became a major destination not only for locals but also for business, sparking growth in the convention, hotel, restaurant, residential, office and retail industries.

Like CWa’s tables, Calderwood’s lobby and The Standard’s block, Discovery Green is at its core—as Ace’s tag line puts it—“a friendly place” that attracts and keeps our attention.

Toby Southgate is Worldwide CEO at Brand Union, a global brand agency delivering expertise in brand strategy, design, interaction, brand management and employee engagement to a roster of global clients. He is based in New York City.


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