Beauty, light and hostel design

Today designer hostels create a stir. CN Traveller has picked up on them. Wallpaper, the magazine with the latest news on architecture, design, and lifestyle, has too, along with many other newspapers and magazines. Hilton hotels have launched their concepts for a new brand they call Motto based on the hostel concept.

If the idea of design in hostels and good facilities comes as a surprise it shouldn’t.

Soon after youth hostels started in 1909 design got into hostels. The idea is almost as old as hostels themselves. They faced special demands and required special features.

The story of architects and design is a part of the heritage of hostels that I love and some of the architects themselves are inspiring people. They wanted to create the best spaces for hostels, full of colour, to make them welcoming, light and airy places to stay, the best they could possibly be for young people.

It’s a story full of ups and downs, and twists and turns. Design wins and loses. Sometimes hostels fail their dream of being the best spaces they could possibly be for young people and sometimes they succeed with brilliance.

1935 Oberammergau, Germany w RS (1) 300-8WG
Richard Schirrmann (standing far right) 1935.

Simple ideas change the world.

Richard Schirrmann’s idea was simple. Youth hostels would be in school classrooms during the holiday season. “Two classrooms will suffice,” he wrote. “One for boys and one for girls. Some of the benches will be stacked up. That will make room for fifteen beds. Each bed will consist of a tightly stuffed straw sack and pillow, two sheets and a blanket. Each child will be required to keep his own sleeping place clean and tidy.”

His design for a hostel was rudimentary, nothing special and with no ornamentation. His idea was practical and inexpensive using buildings and rooms already in every city, town and village: schools.

Schirrmann never anticipated how demand for his idea would explode. Using schools and taking groups in holidays wasn’t enough. His idea required a more permanent solution, a building open all year round, with staff doing no other work, dedicated to the welfare of their young guests.

In 1912, in the castle in Altena, in what is now North Rhine-Westphalia, the first permanent youth hostel opened with two dormitories, a kitchen and washrooms.

At first Schirrmann and his colleagues adapted buildings as youth hostels. They equipped dormitories with bunks, double or triple tiered in wood or metal. They created a kitchen, separate washing and toilet facilities for the two sexes and a common room. Youth hostels won support from the army in Germany and the army made barracks available for hostels while youth hostels in fairy tale castles, like the one at Altena, stirred and caught the imagination of visitors from abroad. They became the best kind of advertising for Schirrmann’s idea.

Buildings must be constructed to accommodate youth, the rising generation; simple and functional, light, easily ventilated, yet retaining the warmth, pleasant to live in, beautiful…

But the reality of converted castles and barracks was impractical. Putting youth hostels in buildings never meant to be accommodation made youth hostels difficult to run and expensive to keep. By 1926 Schirrmann and others realised that they needed youth hostels built for purpose. Youth hostels should be dedicated to being one thing, not a classroom with add-ons, not a castle.

By then, Schirrmann was adamant. “We don’t want to build any gloomy medieval fortress, any miniature castles from an over-romantic age with mock turrets and lighthouse-like towers, any barracks, any sheep-pens. Buildings must be constructed to accommodate youth, the rising generation; simple and functional, light, easily ventilated, yet retaining the warmth, pleasant to live in, beautiful…”

Schirrmann and his colleagues began building youth hostels from scratch. Public authorities supported them with funds and sites.

Such hostels were a completely new field of architecture. Big numbers of lively children and young people required heavy, robust equipment.

A hostel in Munich opened in 1927 for up to 300 guests with a classroom attached to each dormitory and a kitchen where groups and classes could cook their own food and another where they could buy meals. The hostel recorded 45,000 overnight stays in its first year.

In less than twenty years the concept of youth hostels had leaped from ad-hoc and temporary accommodation in classrooms to purpose built, architect-designed youth hostels with a single, simple purpose of accommodating large numbers of young people.

You can read the full story of German founder of youth hostels in Richard Schirrmann – the man who invented youth hostels.

And if you haven’t already take a look at Hilton’s fly through of concepts for Motto.

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