Air quality: A key element
for creating spaces that
make you feel at home
Producing good airflow isn’t just about making the air in a space more breathable; it’s also about imbuing visitors with a sense of relaxation and contentment.
Text by Danielle Demetriou
Photography by Malcolm Griffiths, Andrew Urwin
and Jack Williams
The art of creating beautiful spaces is essentially about one thing – the ability to make people feel relaxed and at home, be it in a hotel guest room, a chic cocktail bar, or a design store. This is the foundational belief of Barry Hirst, a top UK hospitality entrepreneur and property developer who has applied his philosophy to an expansive portfolio of projects. Among them is a handful of popular contemporary pubs in London, including The Broadcaster and The Lighterman. Each has become a key social space within their respective locations in White City and King’s Cross, urban hubs that have recently been redeveloped.
In September 2020, he turned heads with the opening of Pantechnicon, an ambitious – and expertly crafted – commercial complex showcasing Japanese and Nordic creativity in everything from design and culture to food and cocktails. Spanning six floors of a historic 19th century building on Motcomb Street in London’s Belgravia district, it was renovated by the London architecture firm Farrells. Its Roof Garden, a sunlight-flooded dining space with a retractable roof, has become quite popular. In this interview, Hirst shares his thoughts on beauty, design, and the importance of good airflow.
What are your key inspirations as a hospitality entrepreneur and property developer?
My main drive is wanting to create beautiful spaces that encourage guests to feel relaxed and at home. It has always delighted me to see guests in our venues laughing with their friends and sharing special moments. As an entrepreneur, it is my duty to give something back. Hopefully, that will be my legacy.
What common threads run through all your projects – be it a bar, pub, restaurant, or hotel?
The common thread is our wish for our guests to feel that they are in an authentic space and not a forced setting. Our hope is that our guests barely think about the space because they feel instantly at ease when they enter the room. This is also how our team must make our guests feel. We work according to the principle that “our house is your house.”
What three words do you think best sum up Pantechnicon, a project you launched in the height of the Covid pandemic?
Intriguing, bold, and evolving.
What inspired you to mix Japanese and Nordic cultures in an historic building refurbishment? Where do these two worlds overlap?
The main reason for bringing these cultures together is my personal love of Japan and the Nordic countries, their culture, minimal design aesthetic, and most of all their people. Copenhagen Design Museum hosted an exhibition called Learning from Japan back in 2018, celebrating 150 years of knowledge-sharing, diplomatic relations, and the cross-pollination of ideas and values between Denmark and Japan. The two countries have what is considered one the longest positive relationships between two nations on different continents. It’s no coincidence that they share a passion for clean lines and natural materials, and a disdain for unnecessary decoration.
At Pantechnicon, we chose classic Nordic pieces by Børge Mogensen, Eikund, and DK3 alongside newer Japanese furniture by Time and Style and Karimoku –the calmness and simplicity of design in these items is obvious. There is most definitely a less-is-more approach to most facets of life in these two countries – and less chaos.
How did you apply these ideas to Pantechnicon?
For Pantechnicon, we researched the commonality of earth tones between the Nordics and Japan, which led to a cohesive palette throughout the building. We also deployed multiple light sources throughout the building to produce a wide variety of ambiences, which allowed us to create spaces that encourage lingering and produce a sense of calm contentment.
In terms of the physical space, what was the key design concept?
I was inspired by my travels across Japan, Denmark, and Finland. I was also seduced and fascinated by such architects as Kengo Kuma and Tadao Ando, who bring together the calm tones of concrete and wood to create individualistic backdrops to retail, art, culture, and hospitality experiences.
From the start, we decided to think outside the box by assembling a timeless collection of unique finishes, which elevates Pantechnicon into something inviting and intriguing. We wanted to create what we like to think of as “expect the unexpected.”
The building itself has a truly imposing nature and is probably one of the strongest facades to house a hospitality venture. Our challenge, therefore, was to create an interior that was not daunting to our guests, as we wanted to create a democratic experience. The objective of our design was to create a space that takes one away from the ordinary and leads them to an unexpected discovery. Nothing in our design shouts for attention. Without being too serious, our design challenges the senses and elicits a child-like excitement, a wish to explore the space.
Filling a Space with Air and Nature
How important an element was air quality when planning and designing the space?
I believe natural airflow is very important. Pantechnicon and our Open House pubs – The Broadcaster, The Lighterman, The Arber Garden – all have outdoor spaces. Our newest opening is Aerial Rooftop, a huge 2,000-square-foot rooftop bar that we opened above The Broadcaster in June 2022.
It is a sun-soaked place to drink, eat, and relax by day and a party venue at night, with panoramic views over White City and Television Centre. Following the pandemic, we sensed our guests wanted to spend more time in the open air, but also have more meaningful experiences when they socialize. At Aerial Rooftop, we offer a range of experiences, including yoga and a kid’s table for arts and crafts during the day, and live gigs and DJs at night.
What role does nature play in your ventures?
Nature is essential for air quality and people’s well-being. Our love of nature means our Open House spaces are filled with plants. An appreciation for plants is another thing we feel has grown following the pandemic.
What were the biggest challenges at Pantechnicon, in terms of creating high quality airflow within a historic building?
We were working with a heritage building, so we had to find creative routes to create good airflow throughout the building. Fortunately, the Pantechnicon building was already blessed with large entrance doors and sweeping staircases that lead all the way up to the roof – elements that are conducive to good airflow.
When the building originally opened in 1830, it was designed to be a fully enclosed space. Part of our transformation of the building was to add a Roof Garden with a retractable roof and an outdoor dining terrace in front of the building, giving guests the option to eat in or outdoors, something that was greatly valued by our guests during the coronavirus pandemic. Food safety and hygiene have always been essential aspects of the hospitality industry, airflow is now another factor given greater consideration when planning public social spaces.
And finally, what are your hopes for the future – both for your existing pubs, restaurants, and cafes, and in terms of new projects?
To keep pushing the boundaries of hospitality and culture.
Barry Hirst, Founder & Director, Open House
Barry’s experience in property development dates back to 1991 when he joined a Mayfair Property Developer. He established his own residential development company in the mid-nineties and moved into the hospitality sector in 2004 when he developed his first pub and founded Cubitt House Limited. Cubitt House was successfully sold in 2015.
Barry went on to launch Open House, a multi-site hospitality business with pubs across London including The Arber Garden, The Lighterman and The Broadcaster. In London’s central neighbourhood of Marylebone, Barry extensively refurbished existing buildings to create Boxcar Baker & Deli, Boxcar Bar & Grill, and The Italian Greyhound, a modern Italian bar and dining room.
Barry is passionate about design and customer experience, which was strongly reflected in his transformation of the Pantechnicon building. He brings valuable experience and a keen eye for detail to the Leadership Team of every project he works on.