Airbnb has built a hotel.
Of course, the company isn’t calling it anything as crude as that. The startup has announced the formation of a new design studio, Samara, that has a mission of “exploring new attitudes towards sharing and trust.”
Its first project was to build a community centre in the Japanese village Yoshino — and although it’s never described as such, it sounds a lot like a traditional hotel.
Airbnb frames Samara’s remit in vague, feel-good language. Here’s what it says in a blog post (emphasis ours):
“We can’t really expect people to be empathetic in every scenario. Empathy typically comes naturally or it doesn’t come at all. So how do we design for something like that? It might seem impossible because there are so many factors that need to be taken into consideration — identity, political agency, socioeconomics, cultural values, family dynamics, relationships, etc. In the way that Airbnb’s design allows complete strangers to share experiences with one another, Samara seeks to design new kinds of experiences that address these factors in the hopes of fostering empathy… naturally.”
It all certainly sounds positive — but doesn’t explain very much.
Fast Company Design, which got an exclusive story on the launch, describes the “Yoshino Cedar House” (as Samara’s first project is called) as follows (emphasis ours):
“[Airbnb founder Joe] Gebbia’s team worked with architect Go Hasegawa to design a community center where travellers could also stay — thus providing the community with a central meeting point where they could also serve as hosts to tourists. “Hosts get an economic stimulus and something to get excited about,” says Gebbia. “It’s a pathway to get the community to help each other, and it happens to be in the form of architecture.”
Like Airbnb, Kuang never uses the word “hotel” or “hostel” for the property. Instead, he describes it as a “novel” new kind of community centre.
It’s a commercial property, staffed by locals, and tourists visiting the area pay to rent rooms. A hotel is exactly what it is.
Of course Airbnb doesn’t want to call it that. Its whole appeal — and $30 billion valuation — is based on rejecting traditional, sterile hotels in favour of authentic local apartments and rentals. “Don’t go there,” says the company. “Live there.”
The Yoshino Cedar House’s alternative image is carefully crafted. The building’s timber has the craftsmen’s names stamped into it. The land was actually donated by the town. “I picture Western guests walking up, stepping inside, and you’re interacting with the community from the minute you arrive. If you want to tour the sake factory, or the chopstick factory, or take a hike, the locals are right there,” Gebbia says. Samara even has its own screenwriter, “Kuang writes, “to help storyboard the new experiences they’re trying to create.”
And Airbnb clearly has good intentions here. “The proceeds of each booking will go towards the community of Yoshino,” the company says, citing the problem of ageing populations of Japanese villages.
“The Yoshino Cedar House aims to prove that the house is more than a physical space,” Airbnb declares. “It speaks a simple truth that we all understand: human beings seek community.”
But ultimately this isn’t just an isolated experiment, and Airbnb is a for-profit company. The startup told Fast Company that there are other properties in the pipeline: “After this project, Airbnb will look to scale it to other declining small towns across the world. The idea is that Airbnb could become a force not only in sharing homes, but in urban planning.”
A “force in urban planning” is an an awfully fancy way of saying “hotel chain.”