Inside SCI-Arc


Alumnus in the Spotlight: Eric Cheong (M.Arch '05), Director of Atelier Ace

Ever since the Ace Hotel chain first announced plans to open an outpost in downtown Los Angeles, everyone's been looking forward to it as the linchpin of revitalization in the southern Historic Core.

Earlier this year, the Ace Los Angeles began operations in the striking 1927 United Artists building on Broadway Avenue. The managing architect behind the restoration and refurbishment of the 14-story edifice where hip and history converge is SCI-Arc alumnus
Eric Cheong (M.Arch '05). For the past three years, Cheong has served as Director of Atelier Ace, the Portland-based cutting edge design shop responsible for the Ace hotels and related brands.

Characterized by vintage design elements, from in-room turntables to old-school photo booths in the lobbies, the provocatively artistic Ace Hotels brand has been spearheading a major expansion into several new markets, including locations abroad in London and Panama. Their downtown LA location is the second California Ace, and the fifth in the United States.

Before being approached to head Atelier Ace, Cheong spent more than eight years as a senior designer in New York City, serving as Vice President of building and interiors firm Roman and Williams, and also as Principal of his own firm.

An exterior shot of the new Ace Los Angeles Hotel in downtown LA

In a recent interview, Cheong shared his thoughts and experience launching Ace Los Angeles, as well as the influential role played by the education he acquired at SCI-Arc.

What was your role in the design and development of Ace Los Angeles?
The Atelier is the in-house creative services studio behind Ace Hotels. Our work ranges from new project development, architecture, interior design, and product development, to marketing, events, branding and social media. As Atelier Director, my day-to-day activities are focused on developing new hotel concepts and helping lead our in-house architecture and interior design team. We have so many talented peers and teammates that we truly direct the studio together as a group.

For Ace Los Angeles, we were very lucky to have the opportunity of partnering with an amazing design, development and construction team, including interior designer Commune Design. I was on the project from the first day we 'scouted' the building in summer of 2011 to our opening party in January 2014, working on the first program studies, and being involved in the interior design concept work with Commune through operations-related design guidance and construction administration. You can imagine our thrill seeing a range of our ideas come to fruition within the complex 'village' that makes up a full-service hotel.

What type of design challenges did you encounter in working on the restoration and refurbishment of the 14-story United Artists building?
Budget, time and the LADB, of course! We were fortunate to have strong financial partners who really allowed us to bring our vision of the hotel to reality with great support. I recently read in the news that the city of Los Angeles, through Councilman Jose Huizar and the "Bringing Back Broadway" initiative, is revamping some of the procedures currently in place for restoring buildings in the Historic Broadway Theater district. This effort to clarify what codes do and don't apply for with respect to redeveloping historic properties is a much welcomed, important step to continue to encourage the right kind of development in downtown Los Angeles.

Inside the new Ace Hotel's dazzling old United Artists Theatre

From an architectural standpoint, the original United Artists office tower had very little back-of-house space. We originally considered operating the administration offices remotely but it proved to be more cost-effective to excavate nearly the entire space below the theater seating. We also worked closely with the Office of Historic Services within the LADB to maintain key aspects of the historic office tower while we were trying to place in the most effective hotel programming. Seismic retrofitting, as with all buildings of this era in LA, was a big challenge for us. The theatre was in most part, with the exception of mainly cosmetic and MEP infrastructural work, left to us in really good condition thanks to its previous owners.

Conceptually, we really wanted this project to embody Los Angeles. All of the artist and artisan furnishings decorating the rooms, hallways and lobby are made in Southern California. When almost every other hotel developer out there wants to outsource so much of what is built in a hotel, standing our ground on supporting this local aspect was important to us.

Any particular aspects of the design process that you would like to highlight?
There are two that come to mind, the aspects of "collaboration" and "narrative." They have been instrumental in the collaboration between Atelier Ace and Commune. We've placed a large focus on our collaborators, whether artists, craftsmen, food and beverage partners, or retail neighbors. From the desk lamp to the store across the street, we wanted to help bring together what we think is a pretty great combination of local and global talent. We are finding that hotels are great vessels and vortexes for this sort of exchange that can actually create culture, enliven cities and stimulate locals and travelers alike. On the other hand, our overarching idea of "narrative" has played an important role in creating the Ace brand and weaving our collaborators together. Our process starts with creating a story of a new reality that embodies all our hopes and dreams about what the hotel could be, a story that serves us from design through to operations.

Ace Los Angeles hotel rooms feature vintage design furnishings made in Southern California

How many Ace properties did you help launch since joining the company?
We've launched three properties since I joined Atelier Ace in 2011: Ace London Shoreditch, Ace Downtown LA, and the American Trade Hotel in Panama City, Panama. Our plans are to continue to expand nationally and internationally in the near future, or as we say around here, onward and upward!

How is your SCI-Arc experience informing your work with Atelier Ace?
Perhaps similar to today's studio experience at the school, we experienced a very transitional time at SCI-Arc in early 2000s. It was foremost a time of open, sparring debate. Understanding and envisioning multiple points of view was a big lesson I learned from the talented variety of professors and students that SCI-Arc brings together as part of its “curriculum.” For me, SCI-Arc has always been a school where what you got out was directly proportional to what you put in. It allowed me to test out so many ideas and actions ranging from design to school politics, failing and succeeding on different levels that it became a condensed "life experience" time warp. I'm particularly proud of my classmates and all of the entrepreneurial spirit that we’ve shown after being released into the world just a few short years before the economic "meltdown" of 2008. It's been so great to have such a supportive alumni network—a truly great asset that a SCI-Arc education imparts upon you.