“We are not here to lecture you,” proclaimed Monica Palmas, event founder and co-publisher of Hotel Management International, as she introduced a trio of renowned architects to the audience at Iris Ceramica Group’s London gallery. The chosen cohort – Dexter Moren, founding partner of his eponymous firm, Rob Steul, creative director at Edwardian Hotels Group, and Tina Norden of Conran & Partners – certainly got the brief.

Indeed, far from delivering a triptych of dreary PowerPoint presentations, all three speakers – and guests who chipped in with probing questions – drove an engaging and fluid two hour discussion on the varied and dynamic role hotels can play within mixed-use development spaces in urban centres.

Moderator Monica Palmas began the evening with a frank discussion of what ‘mixed-use developments’ (MUDs) actually are, with all three speakers admitting that despite being a popular catch phrase on pamphlets and press releases, the term means different things in different contexts.

In fact, the sheer versatility of the MUD concept is its ultimate USP. From a hospitality perspective it can be service driven, with hotels extending their lifestyle or food and beverage offerings into the surrounding communities to enhance revenue. Often this approach involves redeveloping existing facilities to make them more efficient or appealing, but increasingly the MUD strategy can be something altogether bolder.

As Dexter Moren argued, while all hotel owners should already be looking at their hotels as MUDs if they are to be successful in the long-term, architects are increasingly being tasked with creating impressive multi-use hospitality venues that envisage hotels as integral parts of self-sufficient urban communities. Moren cited the example of the Shard, with its cleverly integrated collation of offices, restaurants, hotels and suites as the “ultimate mixed-use building”.

Moren continued by drawing attention to his latest hospitality venture, The New Western Hotel, which sits on the Thames opposite the Tate Modern gallery, drawing attention to the role it was engineered to play within the local community. “We’re bringing the public on the St. Pauls side and we’re taking them through the building and out on the other side so the hotel [itself] becomes a kind of active, internalised street,” Moren explained. “Ultimately people can come and admire the view and sit out and look at the river and have a drink, which I think is fabulous.”

For Moren, the next generation of hotels have myriad roles to fulfil, from acting as meeting spaces, co-working areas, leisure spaces, all those kinds of activities that make life exciting.

“People don’t just work; they actually have more interesting lives [than that]. We actually like to do other things,” he added, arguing that too many projects, particularly in the city, have been built within a myopic and singular framework, well-suited to one type of person, community or business. The next generation of hotels, Moren argued, should be more multi-faceted and more imaginative.

In fact, this approach shouldn’t end with hotels. Citing the Stirling Prize-winning Kingston University building as an example, Moren said that it was a fantastic example of a piece of inclusive architecture that strove to bring people “into the building” by focusing what the site could offer the general public. “[Ultimately], I’m increasingly finding that everything we do is hospitality, whether it’s co-working, co-living, hospitals, hotels,” Moren concluded.

Echoing the merits of that versatile, multipronged approach, Rob Steul began talking about The Londoner, his latest £500m project in Leicester Square, which he described as a “poster child for a mixed-use hotel development in the urban centre of any major city, certainly London”. Steul described the ambitious hospitality venture as encompassing multi-levels of activities and public areas surrounded by guest bedrooms “blended together both internally and externally”. It is a substantial undertaking with a cinema, roof terrace and with eight floors below ground level, including a ballroom and swimming pool. Some have even labelled it London’s first “iceberg hotel”.

Speaking of the project’s driving mantra, Steul said it hinged on the question that all architects and hotel designers should ask themselves: “what contribution can this hotel or our group of properties make to the surrounding area?”

The 180º challenge

Next the discussion turned towards the process rather than the end product with each architect outlining how the pandemic had challenged and altered working patterns, invariably birthing new or different ways of collaborating and working. Describing the pandemic as initiating an “180º change”, Tina Norden talked about how Covid-19 had birthed a completely different way of working. “We’ve gone from everybody working in the studio to flexible working, which is something that I personally never thought would happen in design,” Norden said, describing the transition as “super exciting”.

“[Ultimately], I’m increasingly finding that everything we do is hospitality, whether it’s co-working, co-living, hospitals or hotels.”

Dexter Moren


The cost of Rob Steul’s latest project The Londoner, in Leicester Square.

The Financial Times

Another notable trend that the pandemic had accelerated, Norden noted, was the increasing prevalence of the Build-to-Rent (BtR) sector (formerly known as the Private Rented Sector, or PRS) which has grown substantially, particularly in Asia. While still technically residential enterprises, the communal or public-facing elements of these projects share many similarities with hotels and subsequently echo key facets of hotel design.

“Effectively these are like boutique hotels or massive public spaces and small apartments that are like motel rooms, but technically are [still] rented properties,” Norden said. “In Asia, you work on a number of residential developments that are big public areas, which feel like hotels even though they’re actually residential.”

Responding to my question on how architects were connecting with different places and cultures when travel was prohibited due to the pandemic, Norden reiterated that it had only enhanced the importance of liaising with local professionals who have a more intimate understanding of their environments.

“There’s always that [perception] of coming in as an international architect [where you] kind of impose yourself on where you’re working, but the way I see it is that it’s really about working together by collaborating and by immersing yourself into, or bringing an outsider’s view to it,” Norden said. “The important thing is not to come in there and dictate, but become part of team,” she added.

A question of inclusivity

Given the notable contributions hotels and hoteliers have made during the pandemic through sheltering homeless people, one audience member asked the speakers what role mixed-used properties might play in combating housing inequality and homelessness.

“We need staff in the hospitality industry and these guys are looking at training people who can’t get a job and are underprivileged… [enabling] them to become valued team members.”

Tina Norden

Moren responded by acknowledging and admitting that it remained an “awful” problem without a clear or obvious solution. One positive change he pointed towards, however, was the increasing variety of hotel or hospitality offerings that were becoming popular on the market, with brands now offering cheaper and more tailored accommodation such as dormitories, rooms, suits, kitchenettes. “That then satisfies the market from the very bottom to the top, and actually people like that,” he said.

Taking a different angle, Norden talked about the importance of diversifying the hospitality recruitment model, talking about the potential opportunities that could arise if disadvantaged people, such as refugees, were trained to work in hospitality roles. Afterall, as Norden added, such an approach would fulfil a dual-purpose: helping improve the lives of disadvantaged people while also tackling the staffing crisis plaguing the industry.

“We need staff in the hospitality industry and these guys are looking at training people who can’t get a job and are underprivileged… [enabling] them to become valued team members,” Norden said. “I think those kind of initiatives allow us to give something back and that’s where the future lies – in thinking about others.”

Another intriguing question that was put to Moren, Steul and Norden queried the real forces behind the increasing popularity of the MUD concept. Is it the result of changing social mores and an amenity obsessed culture, or is it purely incentivised by a thirst for greater revenue?

Norden argued it was probably a 50/50 split, with social changes being the catalyst first and then architects and developers looking to capitalise on those trends by building multifunctional buildings that serve those interests.

“What it does when you make those ground floors more active and more engaged, for instance, is that you contribute back to the environment around the hotels,” Steul added.

The discussion finished with a hypothetical flourish as all three architects were asked by Palmas what they would do if they had £500m to spend on a mixed-use architectural project. Hailing from South Africa, Moren argued that the money would be best spent helping impoverished African communities build better schools and housing. Rather than creating another lavish new build in the heart of London, Steul felt the money would be well spent on improving existing buildings in the capital. Norden, meanwhile, argued for the importance of investing in areas of London – or elsewhere – in dire need of regeneration by creating a residential hotel on the underused urban periphery.

Given these contrasting answers, all three proposals highlight the flexible, versatile philosophy that ultimately powers the MUD concept. With sustainable building approaches increasingly becoming an outright necessity to help combat climate change, and society becoming more polarised and hard to predict, there is no doubt that more thoughtfully made community-driven projects will be required in the future. On that note, all three guests were united in their parting message regarding the future of MUDs: the hospitality industry can and will do more.