The Open Data Monastery
The noisy swarm of tourists suddenly seems to evaporate as one leaves Ponte Vecchio and turns left into the narrow Costa San Giorgio, a steep uphill incline unsurprisingly unpopular among the 48.6 million tourists who visit Florence every year.
Perhaps, if tourists knew what hides behind the historical walls of Costa San Giorgio, the unexpected urban trek may seem little effort compared to the rare experience of a secret urban gem.
Built in 14th and 15th century the monastery of San Gerolamo and the convent of Giorgio were handed over by the Church to the newly born Italian Kingdom in 1866 . Similarly to many other monasteries in Italy, their use changed from religious to military and the monastic cells became the rooms of the School of Military Medicine, which continued to function until 1980s.
Two years ago the entire asset was sold to the private sector as part of nation wide plan of sale and conversion managed by Cassa Depositi e Prestiti. Alfredo Lowenstein, an Argentinian Tycoon with luxury hotels around the world, became the new owner. As part of the sale terms, Mr Lowenstein agreed to fund an international masterplanning competition to seek innovative solutions to the change of use and urban regeneration of the area so to allow the local community to be part of the future life of Costa San Giorgio monasteries whilst preserving the business viability of the luxury hotel. First monastery, then military area and soon to become a exclusive luxury hotel the site did not feel immediately the most obvious venue for public use.
Marcel Mauer led the team that included CAIRE Consorzio, CooProgetti, LAND, EVA Art Consultancy and PlanetHotel. On the basis of our previous successful work in urban regeneration and masterplanning our team was shortlisted among the best three tenderers and were invited to a closed competition, which we won.
Accuracy, evidence and systemic thinking were among the basic ingredients of our winning recipe, at the same time we kept away from grand architectural gestures, iconic styles and start-architect vanity.
Before focusing of the building’s risks and opportunities we used open data and looked at global economic trends affecting the main investor’s business case, substantiating forecast demand and sales.
The world population is set bound to increase and, at the same time, the trend in the GINI index, which measures wealth distribution detects a clear increase in the number of HNWI (high net worth individuals).
If from a social point of view the GINI index does not depict a positive picture in terms of equality and wealth distribution, from the very subjective point of view of a luxury hospitality operator, our outcome of our analysis increased the reliability of our model in terms of forecast guest rooms occupancy level, number of new guests and average duration of their stay.
From world data analysis we drilled down to the city, highlighting serious accessibility constraints to the site for both guests and deliveries. Looking at the entire city’s mobility management system rather than limiting the study to the specific needs of the future hotel, we were able to spot the opportunity for collaboration between private developer and local authority and specifically the case for a joint investment in underground parking only 2km away from the site.
The multi modal accessibility strategy proved to be a win-win-win solution. On the one hand, the luxury hotel will be able to enhance guests’ experience with top quality landscape and building design wasting not an inch of space towards car parking. On the other hand, the municipality and local community will gain access to private financing to increasing parking capacity just outside the historical centre improving one of the key traffic bottlenecks of the city. Also the environment wins because, as part of our strategy, the luxury hotel will limit traffic to the already congested city center and will invest in a fleet of electric, clean and agile vehicles that will provide exclusive transport to the guests (whilst creating communication and marketing value for the hotel brand).
From the world, to the city to the building, our analysis left the dimension of space and focused on time, digging deep into the 700 years of history through a detailed archive research. Sustainability, privacy and arts patronage emerged as fundamental values to be preserved and enhanced. The monasteries survived unscathed through centuries of social and environmental shocks among wars, famines, pestilences and floods and rested strong on their resilient self catering micro economy.
Like the monasteries produced food, labour and culture and guaranteed a safe, quiet and privileged life to their inhabitants equally we wanted the new complex to provide guests and visitors an exclusive experience of Florence, at once connected yet independent, isolated yet central, private yet communal. In collaboration with LAND we defined a landscape design strategy inspired by the historical harvesting calendar and with art consultant EVA we interwoven art and food in a rich experience of sculpture gardens and orchards.
Mining open data allowed us to understand the various phenomena affecting the hotel as a system. We de-risked the most immediate externalities, such as access and mobility, in order to increase feasibility of the model and created long term value by building on the asset’s exclusive historical identity.
Working with data, we were able to abstract from the complexity of human experience of space thus defining fundamental measuring categories. The outcome of the data analysis has proven a valuable augmentation to our skills and allowed us to translate the monasteries spaces into a database of linked quantities.
We had little time to test various rooms’ layout and decided to deliberately avoid the top-down approach of traditional layout concepts. The measurable model of the asset allowed us to break down over 12,000 sqm of internal areas into room area, room perimeter, room height, window area, light ratio, vertical distance from the access point, horizontal distance from stair cores, acoustic pollution, quality of the view out, refurbishment cost to 5 star standards and many others. Running some simple filtering routines we quickly came up to some surprising considerations. In fact, maximising the number of guest bedrooms was not the most intelligent use of the available space. Of the two monasteries, it was actually more efficient to accommodate the new 5 star hotel in San Giorgio alone. In terms of cost vs. revenues and long term operational expenditure, thinking small made sense. The strategic choice of relocating all parking requirements outside the site made the trick as we guaranteed a solid business case by creating additional guest bedrooms in a proposed newly built state of the art hospitality extension, which will take the place of a more recent and not listed military construction. Suddenly, having resolved 100% of the business requirements in 60% of the built volume, we had a spare monastery to play with. The issue of public accessibility started to look more and more plausible. The question then became: what to do with the Convent of San Girolamo?
The answer came once again through selective data mining.
Since our first visit to the site, we had been overwhelmed by the richness of space and artworks found on site and were keen to open up this stupendous place to fellow art lovers. Obviously, the scheme had to make financial sense as adding a cost or relying on third party funders meant questionable feasibility.
Was there space in Florence’s crowded art offer for new venues and new curatorial voices? We decided to ‘scrape’ the entire Florence’s cultural events website and created a categorised visual representation of the yearly offer.
The data visualisation highlighted a soft spot in the calendar. That was the window a contemporary art programme needed to secure adequate visibility and footfall. The art programme was engineered to ignite a creative cluster with small artisans workshops and boutiques, art galleries and ateliers accessible by the public upon requests. Figures stacked up. The two monasteries had found their new life.
The monastery of San Giorgio will be an exclusive luxury hotel, San Girolamo will provide a vibrant new contemporary art cluster, the grounds around the monasteries once cultivated by the monks shall be brought back to new splendour and the gates of Costa San Giorgio will open up to welcome local residents and visitors, for the first time in 700 years.
It will be definitively worth the trek.