Q&A - Harry Handelsman, CEO of Manhattan Loft Corporation and RIBA fellow

Harry Handelsman, CEO of Manhattan Loft Corporation and RIBA fellow talks about east London’s Manhattan Loft Gardens and the importance of flexibility and community in its design

Words by Toby Maxwell

What are some of the key elements in creating spaces that move beyond being purely functional to become more ‘experiential’ for the user?

My inspiration for Manhattan Loft Gardens and the Stratford came shortly after I had completed, at the time, the largest high-rise building in London: the 33-storey high West India Quay in Canary Wharf. I began to notice that since 2000, many high rises were being built in the city of London, most of which with the intention to firstly provide accommodation and secondly as investment opportunities for buyers overseas. These were all very much ‘functional’ buildings. With Manhattan Loft Gardens I wanted to change that and create a space that combined apartment living with a hotel as well as restaurants, bars, communal gardens and space for locals, residents and hotel guests to work, eat, drink or catch up. For me, London is all about community and this was one of the key elements I wanted to be reflected in the building and how it would stand out to any other high rise.

One of the key elements in creating an experiential space was the design of the lobby. This is the first thing anyone stepping into the building sees and experiences so I wanted to create something that was full of life and an integrated space for outside guests and residential guests. The lobby combines a lounge area, Kitchen E20, a bar, hotel check-in as well as access to the lofts to create a social hub in the heart of Stratford.

Being an art collector, art also plays a huge part in making a space more attractive and creating different viewpoints. Each piece of art in the lobby I carefully chose to create interesting viewpoints from whatever angle you are looking. Sky gardens have been incorporated into the building’s seventh, 25th and 36th floors, designed by landscape architects Randle Siddeley, and we also have a cultural programme of events that allow people to connect and really get to know their neighbours.

How does the creative process typically work between you and your designers/design team? Has the relationship become more collaborative over time?

It’s very important for me to be part of the creative process from start to finish, so it’s very much a collaborative effort. Having been a property developer for the past 30 years I have worked with some of the fi nest architects and designers in the world and as part of the careful selection process when choosing who to work with, it’s important that the architects and interior designers are not only inspiring and committed, but that there has to also be a mutual understanding of each other’s vision.

For this project, I specifically chose to work with SOM [Skidmore, Owings & Merrill] who have a reputation for producing some of the world’s most iconic skyscrapers, including the Burj Khalifa. I wanted to create an incredibly beautiful structure that redefined Stratford and they helped me make that vision a reality. The building has in fact recently been recognised for its regional importance as a piece of architecture after being awarded an RIBA London Award 2021.

I worked with Studio KO on the Chiltern Firehouse and having built a great relationship with them we also worked together on the interiors of The Lofts. For the rooms and suites of the Stratford Hotel as well as Kitchen E20, the Mezzanine and Allegra, I had a very particular vision and after visiting New York’s 11 Howard – with interiors by the award-winning Space Copenhagen – I knew they would be the perfect fit.

In what ways have the events of the past 18 months moved the goalposts for some of the fundamental principles of hotel design? What will hotel design look like post-Covid?

The past 18 months especially have shown how important community is. High-rise living can be quite lonely, people spend a lot of time at home in their apartment, and even more so over the past few months. Where someone lives plays a huge part in their life and London especially is a city full of different communities that make up each borough. Even before Covid, I wanted Manhattan Loft Gardens to be different and to be able to bring a sense of community into a building rather than it being at street level, giving people the opportunity to be a part of something.

Covid has already shifted the way people live, which is going to have a huge impact on the future of hotel design. People are working from home a lot more and integrated spaces where individuals can eat, drink, work, socialise and stay are going to be more important than ever to adapt to a new way of life.

Flexibility will also play a key part of hotel design. The need to be flexible has always been part of our vision with Manhattan Loft Gardens since opening. The Lofts can be rented to suit individual needs, whether it be for one month, two months or longer depending on schedules. No matter on the length of time people stay or visit, we want to give everyone the opportunity to be able to experience the building as they wish.

Please tell us about a recent project that has utilised new ideas, new technology or innovative creative thinking.

Manhattan Loft Gardens itself I consider an example of innovative thinking; it’s an outstanding building that brings together all different spaces under one roof. I recognise people have different lifestyles and I didn’t want the building to be like any other high rise. We have 25 different varieties of apartments and many different aspects for locals, guests and residents to experience, which makes it unique.

Like with Kings Cross, I saw great potential in Stratford as a destination and with MLG, I wanted to create somewhere that I knew would make a meaningful contribution while changing people’s perspective of the area. We’re in quite a unique location being near the Olympic Park, plenty of outdoor space, high-speed rail links while also being minutes from central London. There’s a number of exciting developments that are due to open in the next few years and I want MLG to lead by example.

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