Last year, three young Viennese architects — Theresia Kohlmayr, Jonathan Lutter, and Christian Knapp — decided to take the concept of "boutique hotels" literally when they seized on the idea of turning empty storefronts in the city's 4th District into standalone guestrooms.
They've dubbed the project "Urbanauts," they say because the geography of the "hotel" encourages visitors to get out and explore the neighborhood. "Our 'breakfast room' is a traditional cafe around the corner, our 'spa' is the Moroccan hammam two streets away," says Kholmayr. "We've taken the hotel concept and made it horizontal, so the whole infrastructure of a four-star hotel is spread over the surrounding area."
So far, some 300 guests have bought into the idea — at about $120 Euros per night — and buffeted by their success, the group plans to open another 10 rooms in 10 other abandoned shops later this fall. Atlantic Cities talked with Knapp to learn more about the idea.
What exactly is an Urbanaut?
Nauts means to navigate — so the project is to encourage navigating through the urban space by using the entire neighborhood. We are the gap between the real local and the mainstream tourism. Walking and exploring is important, and so is bicycling, which is why two bikes will be included with every room stay.
What prompted the idea?
We wanted to get behind the empty storefronts, to think about how we could use them. Theresia's family runs a big hotel in Salzburg and she knows how to sell beds, so she said why don't we just work around the idea of some sort of a hotel, it will be more easy and direct.
So, then what?
There were basically three phases. The concept came first and we decided that we didn't want the project to just be temporary, not like a pop-up, but to be a real business. Then, we tested the prototype ourselves, to see if we felt safe sleeping there and so on. Then came the third part when it really became a hotel, when the tourism board discovered us and said it was the equivalent of a four-star property and started marketing us.
But what about working with the other businesses — was that complicated to arrange?
It was absolutely easy. We know these small business guys, we have our office in this neighborhood. We gave each of them a little sticker, and we offer a map online and in the room, which describes the whole infrastructure for the guests. We don't have any arrangement with these neighbors other than that, we just want their service.
What's been the guest response?
They really love their experience exploring the area. Many of them have left messages for us on the old typewriter in the room, like "you have to try this great cake at the Cafe Goldegg." Another time these two guys came from Rome and were hungry, so they checked out the map and went to one of the restaurants. It turned out that it was closed for a private party — but when the owners learned they were from Urbanuats, they were invited to join the party!
Why were you so bothered by empty storefronts?
There are lots and lots of empty storefronts throughout Vienna. The trend started here later than in other places, and it wasn't until the late 1980s when the first shopping malls came to the suburbs and the little stores in town started to die. Things are okay in what you might call the A area, the main streets, but in the B streets, off of the main ones, and the C ones, further off the beaten track, it's been tough. So we're focusing on the B and C streets that are just a short bike ride or walk into the city center.
Tell us a little more about the neighborhood you chose.
It's super central and it's filled with the kind of four- and five-story buildings where on the lower floors you can work, on the upper floors you can live. If you wanted to open a hotel in this area, you'd need to buy a whole building or two, and then try to change the zoning, which can take the years because we are in a UNESCO World Heritage area. It's very close to the new main train station which will open next year. It's basically a residential neighborhood, but there are a lot of foreign embassies here, too.
What are the plans to expand the idea?
The first shop had belonged to a tailor who had been there for 50 years, and then retired at age 87. But now we've really begun the program of identifying the rest of the empty spaces we can use, of the 40 or 50 that are empty. So in November, 10 more guest rooms will open — we think we need 10 to 12 rooms in one neighborhood to create the whole hotel infrastructure.
We're looking into which of the ten make sense to buy, which to rent. We will renovate them and play with the former use again, like we did with the first one, which has a tailor's theme in the artwork. Local artists will work with us to reactivate the old use, which this time range from a coffee roaster to a tool maker.
Any refinements of the idea?
Yes! We've discovered that guests really want a shared public space, a lounge where they can meet other guests and us. We've found an old metalworking space that we'll transform, and we will staff it with our architect friends.
What do you think you've achieved so far?
Our two main goals have been to get the spaces used and to get visitors into the neighborhoods, so we've done that. We know we
can't save the city from emptiness, but we think we can set an impetus for the city and increase awareness that, hey, you can run a small business here.
We've actually been invited by the city council to talk about the development, they want to put the topic of the empty stores on their agenda. We want to emphasize the importance of mixed use. If we are bringing hotel guests into this residential area, then a bar might open at the square,. When we have our first bar, then maybe we get a second one. If a dentist wants to open an office, that's okay, too If all the shops became hotel rooms, that would be boring. The mixture is the solution to the problem.