The names of world-renowned architects Alon Baranowitz and Irene Kronenberg have been synonymous with successful urban projects for over 20 years. In their modest office, located in a restored Bauhaus edifice in Tel Aviv, I met with the couple to talk about how design impacts our lives, from leveraging a city’s cultural heritage within a historic space to the art of transforming a former bank into a wellness masterpiece.
In November 2017, they received the award for ‘Best International Interior Design Studio’ by Build Awards, and were the recipients of the entrée hospitality & style awards for their projects, Mr. Porter and the W Amsterdam in January 2017. What does award-winning design feel like? “You can’t create anything good if you don’t take risks; you have to put your hands in the fire, even if it’s sometimes unpleasant. We dare a lot,” affirms Kronenberg. Baranowitz adds, “99% of the time we don’t really know where we’re going with a new project, but since we have such a strong methodology backing our creative process we go with it.”
Indeed, there is a striking balance between methodology and creative heed that oozes from their projects. Their strategy is to work with a space, uncovering its DNA to tell a unique story. In fact, the first time Kronenberg understood the importance of design storytelling was almost 20 years ago, during a brief for a new restaurant, Zozobra. The defining moment came when she was suddenly compelled to put her pen down and exclaimed, “Let’s talk.” Since then, the design firm has created award-winning venues – among them The Duchess and Mr. Porter – and when I ask what their favourite room is at home, the answer comes in unison, “...the kitchen table”.
The team only has a raw breakdown of the property to work with. The rest is a creative journey through the building’s interiors, its history (who walked down the swirling marble stairs) to a city’s cultural legends. This search boils down to one title, in one or two words. As they walk through the space and contemplate any modification they ask ‘does this strengthen or weaken the title?’ What doesn’t work must be left behind. As Baranowitz puts it, “We find the heart of an old building and allow the design to resuscitate its soul.”
How do you choose that one story to focus on in a project?
"We break it down to one title, in one or two words. It is the spine in the story, and each movement you make in the building you must ask does this strengthen or weaken the title What doesn’t work, you must leave behind." says Baranowitz. "And at the end of the day, you need to know how to tell a story. We discover a lot of things on the way." Kronberg assers, "Our goal is to understand where all these pieces lead us. When the puzzle starts forming, we understand the strategy we are building – through feeling, not through the common definition of strategy."
Irene, how would you design a sanctuary space?
"I’ve got an itch but it’s because I am curious to design a space that allows a connection between you and yourself. I’d be curious to explore that journey – because the movement here is vertical, between man and the hidden world above – whereas a space with people is more horizontal. I don’t know how I would envision a space but what attracts me is the movement in this particular journey." Baranowits adds that there would be no particular location for such a space. "Even if it was in the heart of Times Square, it would not matter”, he says.
They’ll pass on blank canvases; B+K Architecture is known for its yin-yang with hotels, always working with existing structures, pushing the boundaries and allowing new realities to form. In this way, the space is moulded both by the designer’s mind and the building’s impermeable characteristics. This approach is backed by the XBANK project, dubbed one of their most ambitious and well-recognized projects to date. The brief included a hotel, spa, shop, restaurant, events hall, and art gallery – all in a historic building that once housed a private bank. For the Sir Joan Hotel in Ibiza, a property with a promiscuous reputation from the 1980s, they interacted with the island’s history to reel in the narrative.
The Sir Joan hotel in Ibiza is quite contemporary for the bohemian island – you pushed the boundaries here, didn’t you?
"Yes", confirms Kronenberg, "what happened in Ibiza was interesting. We did challenge common notion. Our point of view was not taken from the locals who live on the island, but we looked at the influence of pirates, and the design code relied on the understanding that they were, in essence, sole protectors of the island. The island has a few months during which she surrenders herself to ‘conquerors’ – past and present. What she absorbs during that exposure, she then lives off until she is refilled. Come, take and go, but it is a constant and palpable energy. The building was previously standing and we completed the works within 18 months. We had a deep understanding of the client, the brief and the nature of the space immediately."
What’s important to you in a guestroom when you're on holiday?
Reflecting on experiences, they laugh at the frustrations but also point out valid points. "If you ask a hotelier", Kronenberg smiles, "the most important things are the towels and bed quality. It’s the element of touch with your body. There is a big difference between designing a room and a public space, and you need to design a space that is high on style but not challenging to navigate. At first glance, you might be impressed but after a few minutes you will understand if you’re enjoying the experience. No one wants a read a manual to understand how to close the curtains." Baranowitz adds, "The experience must be intuitive, that the moment you enter the room everything is clear and you feel good. I shouldn’t have to bend down or move furniture to access plugs. It’s about having enough space to put your necessaire in the ensuite. A good hotel room should be generous in hospitality and approach."
Are there any challenges when working with a historic space?
There were many! We actually engaged in verbal dialogue with the building in order to reach a modus vivendi,” recalls Baranowitz. Whereas urban spas invite you to ‘reset and go’ in 60 minutes, W Away Spa encourages you to linger, from the spa to the gallery to the bar – all in a robe. When I ask them if this all-in-one concept was overwhelming to tackle, they replied, “Absolutely not, the more the merrier. these cases, if you join them instead of beating them, you’ll find new opportunities.
Indeed, the shift to repurposed buildings is gaining traction, particularly here in Milan during Salone del Mobile. “There are a lot of buildings that are part of the collective memory and these buildings are important because they help us to understand a city. There is no reason for new functions to take their place; it is better to give new life to existing spaces,” asserts Baranowitz.
Do you have any projects in Milan?
"We are working on two restaurants in a building that was constructed in 1868, which initially served as the police headquarters and later it became a school. The building will be home to The Milan Edition Hotel, a project co-designed by BK and Italian fashion house, Missoni. We're also working on the new W Prague in a brilliant historic property, as well as the renovation of Tel Aviv's first hotel, The Elkonin, built in 1903. Anyone who was someone convened there."
The duo will be in Milan for Salone del Mobile.
Baranowitz & Kronenberg
Jan Luijkenstraat 42
1071 CR, Amsterdam
Baranowitz & Kronenberg
39 Ahad Ha'am Street
Tel Aviv 65205