place in the sun

From white elephant to trendy, affordable tourism

The Brown Hotel Group is renewing crumbling, neglected buildings in Tel Aviv and turning them into stylish but affordable places to enable travelers to visit one of the world’s most expensive cities

Max Kovalsky

Brut Hotel

TEL AVIV – From the outside, the Tel Aviv Textile and Fashion Center looks like a standard Israeli office building. Built starting in the 1960s in the era’s Brutalist architectural style, the center boasts six high-rise towers and a common space with a sprinkling of cheap stores and workman’s cafés that serve basic Israeli fare.

Architecturally daring for its day, this hulking whitewashed structure – one of the most iconic landmarks along the city’s coastline – has long been in decline both as an industry hub and an office option for emerging companies. Much of the expansive, concrete complex now stands peeling and neglected.

Cue the arrival of the Brown Hotel Group. One of the country’s fastest-growing hotel chains, its motif is setting up shop in unlikely places and in the process regenerating and reimagining some of the more down-and-out locations as sustainable and affordable tourist hubs.

Among its latest offering is Brut – a play on Brutalist – a 224-room boutique hotel that sits interspersed throughout various floors in Gaon House, one of the Textile and Fashion Center’s towers. 

The hotel opened last April with just 182 rooms, but as business and companies ended their leases in the crumbling building, Brown took over the space, renovating and opening more rooms and facilities as travelers began to return to Israel amid relaxed COVID-19 restrictions.

It’s part of the hotel operator’s urban renewal philosophy, Shahaf Segal, PR manager and spokeswoman for the Brown Hotel Group, explained to The Circuit. She listed a similar process for the group’s 13 other hotels dotted around the city (there are also now Brown Hotels in Jerusalem, Eilat, Greece and Cyprus), as well as some now under construction in other iconic landmarks, including one slated to open in the historic former Histadrut worker’s union building.

Each hotel, some with just a handful of rooms and others more expansive like Brut, has a slightly different vibe, but the overall goal is to convert existing buildings, as well as the areas around them, into reasonably priced lodgings and tourist centers in expensive cities.

“We are taking unoccupied spaces and turning them into positive spaces,” Segal said, pointing to the reception desk, which still shares space with a security team servicing the remaining offices in the building, and to the hotel’s back office, which until recently was occupied by a hair clinic offering transplants in Turkey.

The intriguing and intricate process of renewal and replacement can be seen throughout the hotel. Brut’s rooms now occupy the first, second, third, seventh and 14th floors, and are still interspersed with a medical clinic, a car rental office, insurance brokers and accountants.

Brut Hotel lobby (Photo: Max Kovalsky)

And there is a range of different room styles, spanning from a basic “urban room” to an executive suite with a breathtaking sea view to a two-room family suite replete with a kitchenette. All the rooms are simple in design and practical, and all incorporate unique elements of the building’s original architecture with many of the signature features of a Brown Hotel: wire metal shelving, ecologically friendly soaps and a coffee maker.

In the executive suite on the 14th floor, unparalleled views of the Tel Aviv coastline and the sea beyond fill the purposely slanting windows, which the building’s designers hoped would be effective in deflecting the powerful rays of the Middle Eastern sun. Now they give guests the feeling they are floating above the earth or have been set adrift to sea.

On the seventh floor, the VIP lounge contains a modest conference center for business meetings or small gatherings. Its colorful decor captures the heart of the hotel’s urban renewal process, with re-upholstered and reconstructed ‘70s style furniture, couches, bookcases and even a collection of typically drab Israeli pottery from that era.  

A third-floor sun deck also boasts views of the Mediterranean and Brown’s signature hot tubs. On the ground floor, the center’s long-neglected communal areas have been spruced up and furnished with comfortable outdoor couches, hammocks and oversized plants for both guests and the remaining office workers to enjoy.

Also on the ground floor, Brown has taken over a long-forgotten restaurant, reopening it as the Kilometrage, with dishes created by celebrity chef Idan Bushari, winner of Israel’s “Next Restaurant” reality show. In the morning, the restaurant space doubles as the hotel’s breakfast buffet (which is a modest but delicious Israeli-style breakfast), but in the evening the music is turned up and the well-stocked bar and taboun-themed menu attract young Tel Avivians looking to be wined and dined.

And the Brut is not the only Brown group hotel to find a new home in this aging office complex. In an adjacent tower sits WOM, one of the group’s less expensive affiliates. Not exactly a hotel, at least not in the classic sense, and though it veers towards the communal lodging style of a hostel that is popular across Europe and in Israel, Segal calls it a “boutique pod hotel.”

Inside the converted space, more than 100 rooms line three long hallways. Stacked like a Tetris, the tiny rooms (which feel unexpectedly spacious inside) offer both single, two singles and king-size beds either low down or up on a bunk. Aside from the bed, there’s space to store luggage, a desk, a sink and a safe. Toilets and showers are shared, one per three rooms, and are cleaned by hotel staff between each use – a phone app governs access.

WOM Hotel (Photo: Max Kovalsky)

“We are maximizing the space to allow affordable beds in an expensive city,” said Lihi Gerstner, co-founder, designer and owner of the WOM, who describes the concept as similar to WeWorks — but for travelers.

An architect by trade, Gerstner, who opened Tel Aviv’s first pod hotel in 2019 on nearby Allenby Street, explained that after years of traveling for work, she recognized the need to create a hotel for people who wanted a place to rest their heads while traveling but one that would not detract from the overall experience of visiting a city.

And, she believes that such accommodation, with enhanced communal space, is really the way forward for adventure seekers of all ages determined to travel the world.

“I think people are realizing that they want to spend more money on experiences when they travel and less on accommodation,” concluded Gerstner, who is in the process of expanding WOM into other parts of the office tower.

The writer was a guest of the Brown Hotel Group. A stay in WOM ranges from  142NIS-300NIS ($40-$85) depending on room type and season. Brut rooms range from 315NIS-1,200NIS ($90-$342).

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