Here every stone exudes history, as well as a profound connection with ancient constructive knowledges and long-standing technologies. The inner part of the city marvels every year million tourists with its timeless flavour made of narrow streets and elegant medieval buildings.
Crown jewel of this historic centre is the Santa Croce neighbourhood, a district that takes its name from the famous homonymous Basilica. Although the area is very touristy, the district has maintained its own original essence made of monumental architectures towering over winding streets and small squares punctuated by tiny craftsman shops, today framers, restorers and antique dealers.
Connecting the well-known Ponte alle Grazie to piazza Santa Croce is via de’ Benci, a thirteen-century road where once lived the noble Alberti family, which, between 1462 and 1469, sold its possessions to the merchant family of the Benci’s. Most of the old palaces that centuries ago hosted the Bencis and other noble families are still part of the building screen of the road, giving continuity to the historic district. On the inside, however, their use has changed and the new millennium inhabits the old architectures with respect to the lessons from the past, but with confidence in the contemporary potential. This condition is quintessential in the Benci House project, a green boutique hotel inside an old palace of the Benci family.
This is the outcome of the meeting of Lorenzo Segre, the owner of the hotel, with Archea Associati and the creation of a well-matched designing team. While the palace was restored by Impresa Nital Restauri and furnished by Divania, the design was entrusted to the well-known Archea Associati architectural firm, and in particular to its founders Laura Andreini, Marco Casamonti and Giovanni Polazzi, together with Silvia Fabi, who in 1999 became associate. The studio is one of the most important architectural firms of Florence, operating since 1988 and now part of a network that has branch offices in six different cities: Milan, Rome, Bejing, Dubai, Sao Paulo and, of course, Florence. However it’s in its main office in Florence that the founders Casamonti, Andreini, Polazzi and Fabi, operate, all combining an intense designing life with teaching and research activity within Italian and international universities as well as with the editorial commitment required by the production of the architectural international magazine «area».
As a green hotel the designers of the Benci House aimed at creating not only a sustainable architecture, but a unique sensory experience also, immersing the client in a natural dimension that is at the same time both essential and authentic, universal and deeply rooted in the local territory. To achieve this Archea Associati chose to use wood, making it the protagonist of the design.
The hotel is in fact provided with four types of rooms – two deluxe ones and two superiors – which are identified by the different essences used inside: walnut, oak, chestnut and cypress, all typical of Tuscany. Each room is indeed marked by one of these wood essences, which is used in the pavements, in the vertical surfaces, in the boiserie and in the furniture, all hand-made by highly specialised craftsmen. Thus wood does not only define the architectural features of each room – which far from the standard seriality of usual hotel rooms here differ very much from one another – but, being free of any covering, also its surfaces, essential and decorative thanks to the natural beauty of wood grain.
Walnut, oak, chestnut and cypress express themselves in their different grains, colours and even smells, becoming the protagonists of the hotel’s multisensory experience, just as that of the tourist outside. Tactile, olfactory and visual encounters with architecture are part of the visitor’s trip in the Tuscan landscape, in Florence and in the hotel, which mimic the natural world evoking and reinterpreting its essential elements – trees, nests, logs, mosses, bushes and vines – in a setting that is dominated by the vertical dimension, just as in a forest, where one can wander in a world that will constantly elude him in its entirety because of its vertical tension, so different from that of men, but that will also shelter him under its branches roof.
The hotel has multiple references to nature, not only are there the wood beams shaped as branches in the oak room or the nest ceiling of the cypress room, but there is the rest of the hotel which constitutes the trunk that through corridors as branches leads the client to the rooms-leaves. The common areas are decorated with another type of wood yet, this time limited mainly in the pavement made of recovered floorboards, giving space to paintings, photographs and small sculptures along the walls or in the small lounge. Here is also the terrace, from which there is a beautiful view on the city and its monuments.
From the rooms for the guests, to the common areas, to the terrace, the hotel is a tribute to local landscape and architecture, but at the same time it is a truly modern design where traditional materials are shaped in unique furniture and enhanced by carefully studied lights.
Over the years Archea Associati has been entrusted with important works both in Italy and abroad, however in this case we won’t mention the Green Energy Laboratory of the Jiao Tong University of Shanghai, nor the Liling Ceramic Art City in China, because it is the Cantina Antinori in San Casciano Val di Pesa, near Florence, that is due to mention, for this is a project that has a lot in common with the Benci House. Indeed, this also is an architecture that demonstrates a solid and successful design made of an international gaze, a futuristic tension, an ecological awareness and, most of all, the love for the Tuscan landscape where nature and history are indissolubly linked.