Reinventing an icon

Having worked on numerous projects around the world, London-based Maltese interior architect Simon Abela has now completed his first hospitality project back home and he’s “over the moon” with the award-winning results.
Photos: Brian Grech

How do you reinvent an icon? When the Suncrest Hotel first opened in Qawra in 1987, it was already one of the largest tourist resorts in Malta at the time. It’s safe to say that most of us have made memories there in one way or another, not to mention the countless tourists it has welcomed.

So, when interior architect Simon Abela was asked to pitch his design ideas for the interior architecture of the refurbishment and extension of the new resort, it was not the size of the project that he and the rest of the team found daunting, rather the reinvention of the hotel’s iconic status.

“One of our challenges was working in the existing building and giving that building a completely new lease of life from the Suncrest. It was iconic. Everyone has had an interaction with the Suncrest and that was one of the biggest challenges we faced: to keep that iconic status but at the same time bringing such an amazing hotel building ready for the next 20 years.”

Since it opened its doors in May last year, the 600-room hotel, now rechristened AX Odycy – in a nod to Homer’s Odyssey and its legendary link to Calpyso’s cave – has already garnered two key awards. The first came from its own guests when it won the Traveller Review Award by booking.com. The second, more recently, was the Interior Architecture Award for Hospitality and Tourism Projects at the 2023 MASP Awards.

“The award was the cherry on the cake,” thrills Simon when I catch up with him during a recent brief visit to Malta. “I can’t begin to tell you how happy and delighted we all were. The level of competition in the awards was extraordinary. It’s an honour to be there with all your peers and then to win it. We were just overjoyed. It was recognition for all those years of hard work, not just for this project but in general.”

The “humungous” project was led by architecture studio Box Concept, which was founded by Simon’s old university mate Peter Brincat and Jing Yao Xu. Simon worked hand in hand with interior designer and FFE specialist Sara Brincat to design the public areas of the resort, including the lobby, two all-day dining restaurants, the bar, lounge, nightclub, retail outlet and another restaurant.

“We were extremely grateful that AX took a semi-risk in hiring me and Sara because they didn’t know us. They knew part of the team. They gave us a shot. It’s great they trusted us with such an important project,” continues Simon.

Simon left Malta in 2003 straight after university to pursue his career abroad, and over the years, he has carved a name for himself in the industry working on prestigious projects around the world, with award-winning companies such as GA Design and Anouska Hempel. Three years ago, he launched his own design practice – Studio Abela in London (www.studioabela.com).

Simon regularly collaborates with some of the industry’s foremost operators, hotel groups and entrepreneurs on interior architecture and design projects of a certain magnitude.

For his first completed hospitality project in Malta, Simon took inspiration from the resort’s own lido as designed by Box Concept, “working within the landscape and taking on board the erosion of the rocks by the sea and the natural process that is brought about by it”.

The history of the area also played a part as Simon took into consideration the salt pans that date back to Roman times and “tried to translate that into the interiors”.

“We started by looking at neighbouring architecture. I hadn’t been in Qawra in many years, and I wasn’t familiar with how interesting the architecture nearby is. The villas and bungalows are incredible examples of architecture of the era, so we took inspiration from that.

“The shore has different shades of colour, which tied into our palette, while the salt pans, with the curving rocks, are used in the shape of the lobby. We tried to combine that industrial feel while acknowledging the location of the resort as a hotel by the sea on a Mediterranean island by using natural elements.”

The brief was to create a different identity for each space within the vast resort with “a bit of an industrial feel”. Simon conceded this was very different from what one expects in a resort hotel.

“One of the key things was to ensure a continuous flow in the design while delivering a unique feel to each different area, so that guests who are there for a week or 10 days can keep discovering new areas and spaces.”

All this while maintaining an operationally smooth flow of the large numbers of people passing through those areas.

“We tried to bring in areas of daylight, connecting the inside and outside, which was very different from the original building. We opened it up as much as possible to the outside for that visual connection,” Simon explains.

Longevity was also key and that was reflected in the type of materials used for the furnishings and the practical nature of the furniture while delivering on that unique design brief. Marble was used in the public area floors, but this was softened up with warm timber. Furniture textiles in linen and leather give that natural feel, but at the same time, are of hard-wearing commercial grade.

The double-height lobby revolves around a 7.5m-high light installation, inspired by Homer’s Odyssey and Ulysses’ journey home. Created by Czech specialist company Preciosa Lighting, the 36 hand-blown emerald and amber mottled spheres projecting from the main masts represent the constellations and are a nod to seafarers whose travels relied on the positions of the planets and the stars.

One of Simon’s favourite spots is the library extension in the lobby that was created after the original high walls surrounding the terrace were torn down.

“This has worked so well and it’s great to see guests interacting with the space,” he remarks with a satisfied smile. “It has brought a whole new aspect to the space and more natural daylight.

“The lobby area was the biggest transformation. We enlarged the double-height opening to enhance the visual connection with downstairs, which leads to the lido, so there is more of a cohesive space rather than two separate areas.”

Every detail has been carefully planned and considered and each one of those details tells a story. Take the wood panelling around the lobby. “The parametric wall made of timber fins reflects the geographical map of the Qawra coastline with each cut in the timber representing a contour of the coast,” he explains.

The textured natural stone columns tie in with the rocks and seashore outside and the overall aesthetic of the hotel is centred around the lobby. But then each bar and restaurant have their own separate identity, from the vaulted ceiling of the basement-level restaurant Keel to the Mediterranean fusion upmarket Minoa restaurant, with its Maltese traditional tiles in terracotta colours, light blues and pinks, and then on to the Medusa nightclub on the 10th floor, topped by a striking 2.5m-high red sculpture by Kane Cali and interactive ceiling.

And don’t forget to visit the loos – the ladies get gold tiles; the men’s is adorned with silver. “We played around with the whole nightclub feel. It was extremely good fun to do,” Simon admits.

In the 20 years he has been living abroad, Simon is very much aware of the changes to Malta’s landscape. While he went all coy and diplomatic when pressed about his opinion on these changes, he agreed with architect Richard England, who recently said: “May what you put up be better than what you bring down”.

“Nail on the head,” remarks Simon. “Development is necessary but there is development and development and, unfortunately, I find there is little consideration for the aesthetic side of things in a lot of the projects, especially in the mass production of certain projects, with apartment blocks going up left, right and centre.

“It’s sad to see this because we are basically killing the goose that lays the golden egg. People come here to see the charm of what they know in Malta, and this is the legacy we are leaving behind.

“Malta is so unique in what it offers. If we build something, let’s make sure it is something we are proud of and something that can be a legacy for the future.”

In countries like Spain, it is a common practice for architects to put up a plaque outside the buildings they have designed with their name on it. This tradition is a way to acknowledge the architect’s work and give them credit for their contribution to the built environment. I wonder how many of Malta’s architects would be proud to see their name on a plaque outside some of the buildings they have erected.

Are you proud of your work, I ask Simon? “I am,” he smiles. “I am proud of what we have achieved. We worked very hard on it and the results are proving themselves. The recognition of this award is hopefully setting a bar for other places to work towards. We set a standard and hopefully others will aim to achieve that. Something I hope will carry on resonating throughout the island.

“You need to keep the standards high if you want the tourism everyone is aspiring for.” And not just for the tourists’ sake, I would add, but even more so for the residents.

“There is an element of respecting the aesthetic, the streetscape, what there is around, appreciating what you have,” continues Simon. “People are attracted to the island due to its unique mixture of Arabic architecture, combined with European/Mediterranean influences, juxtaposed with modernist and contemporary buildings.

“There is something of note and we should respect it as much as we respect the bastions. They are part of the legacy of Maltese architecture.”

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