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21st Century Hotel
By Graham Vickers
Abbeville PressCopyright © 2005 Graham Vickers
All rights reserved.
Excerpt from: 21st Century Hotel
The Station Hotel? It’s a building of small architectural merit built for some unknown purpose at the turn of the century. It was converted into a hotel by public subscription. I stayed there once myself as a young man. It has a reputation for luxury that baffles the most undemanding guest.” Dr. Prentice in What The Butler Saw by Joe Orton.
The phrase 21stcenturyhotel design” inevitably has a touch of the futuristic about it, something light years away from Joe Orton’s ominously recognizable Station Hotel. True, we are already living in that twentyfirst century, but there remains a sense of impersonal progress about the phrase, almost as though hotel design strides ahead and those of us who actually stay in hotels must somehow try to keep up with the trends. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Hotels have never been so earnestly responsive to the Zeitgeistor at least what hotel operators, owners, developers and designers perceive to be the Zeitgeist. How else can we explain the latest trends in hotel design, which at one extreme increasingly blur the border between lodging, lifestyle, refuge and living theatre, and at the other still seek continue to reinvent the more discreet manners and style of the grand hotels of the past?
This book seeks to explore some of the latest trends and ideas in a sector that has often experienced some difficulty in finding appropriate descriptive terms for the many different shades of hotel experience on offer all over the world. Part of this difficulty derives directly from the worldwide nature of business travel and tourism. Although local notions of luxury in Mexico City are not necessarily the same as those in Manhattan, now that international travel has homogenized our expectations of comfort and service, it is often left to international design”, in the broadest sense of the word, to add the distinction, variety and shading that local manners would once have imposed, and to project the hotel’s image into a market place that now embraces the borderless Internet.
Trends are much harder to pin down than might be imagined. The practicing expertsdesigners, architects, developers and ownerswho might be considered to be the most involved and therefore the most informed observers of hotel design, usually turn out to have a vested interest, and seek to extrapolate from their own latest venture evidence that this is indeed the exact shape of things to come. Perhaps more unguardedly revealing is the wealth of promotional copy generated by the marketing companies whose task it is to sell certain types of new hotel to the public. Someone once remarked, after a disastrous gastronomic tour of the United States, that he now knew the one thing that American restaurants did really well: the menu. Similarly, the overripe cartes du jour issuing from those who market particular kinds of hotel seem intent upon making them sound like Lourdes, ShangriLa and Eldorado all rolled into one. The chasm between promise and reality is ludicrous but in certain cases pretense and pretension may be camouflaged, or at least diminished, by interior design or architecture of considerable quality.
What then does this tell us? That there seems to be a growing public appetite for hotels masquerading as health farms and spiritual retreats and that some quite distinguished hotel designers are cheerful accomplices in fashionable bids to realize them. It tells us why every other hotel must now have its spa, a word suddenly divested of its true meaning and commercially recoined by the hotel industry to mean any sort of indoor water feature with a press agent. It tells us, too, that any hotel fortunate enough to be surrounded by dramatic natural beauty would do well to investigate every local peak, crag and rill for regional evidence of spiritual history and then promptly install a totemic crystal energy chamber before publicizing itself as a timehonoured retreat for burntout movers and shakers.
More interestingly, these excesses have filtered down to make more sober health and fitness facilities (often with their vaguely defined overtones of well-being” and purification”) de rigueur at almost all new hotels, cutting across every category with the exception of those budget establishments unable to provide any nonessential services at all.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
What of those categories? The main ones adopted in this book are admittedly loose groupings but also, one hopes, helpful ones. The idea of reinterpreting tradition is an enduring and fascinating one, calling for very precise readings of contemporary perspectives on the past. Every age throws up popular culture versions of a past period. To take just one example, an epic elevenpart 1980s UK television version of Brideshead Revisited fixed the visual and social manners of interwar British aristocracy for a whole generation and, incidentally, still exerts its influence today, leading a London hotelier to describe his new establishment as Brideshead Revisited meets Sex and the City. This is a cultural gettogether about which one feels Evelyn Waugh might have had something to say, despite the fact that it is the television series not the novel that is being referred to. In short, tradition is a mediamediated moveable feast from which the passing moment picks and chooses.
The hotels featured in the Traditional Reinterpretations section of this book can therefore be seen to be reinventing very selective elements from the built past for a modern consumer. This consumer’s visual sophistication is certainly greater than ever before, but he or she is also more heavily influenced by a wealth of manipulated images of the past that have been created by film and television. Tradition, or the illusion of it, may bring reassurance but people also want the manners of the past to be invisibly blended with the benefits of today; they are certainly smart enough to know that a Las Vegas’ desert recreation of Venice is a joke and not a reinterpretation. To cater for such a clientele, designers and architects must avoid pastiche and create, instead, a much subtler synthesis of tradition.
By definition most mainstream hotels have always been more concerned with reflecting style rather than actually setting it. However, today even the mainstream cannot afford to fall too far behind when it comes to design credibility. Mainstream Experiments, therefore, considers some hotels that have sought to combine the established image of the business, tourist or luxury hotel with fresh design thinking that unmistakably hooks them into the spirit of the times without alienating guests who may still seek the familiar reassuranceand sometimes the omnipresent corporatestyle hallmarkof the trusted hotel chain. Here, the prevailing trend seems to be one of trying to square the circle between corporate control and a more informal, independentlooking presence in the market place. Much of the evidence suggests that the balance will tip in favour of loosely branded individual identities as the big chains start to ape Ian Schrager’s now legendary recipe for success: buying up existing hotels that have been undermarketed or underbranded and using welljudged design to help them to shed their faceless images in favour of an attractive new variety of carefully managed individualism.
Oddballs and Auteurs
No such balancing acts trouble either the designer hotel or the kind of hotel that has been conceived for a unique purpose or founded upon an attentiongrabbing gimmick. Designer Hotels deals with seven design experiments that can be further subdivided.
Manhattan’s Soho House benefits from the attentions of a designer, Ilse Crawford, who is herself something of a minor jetset celebrity. The result is an almost perfect synthesis of real visual style and celebrity buzz, a latterday equivalent of the rather more austere cachet once enjoyed by, say, Boston’s Parker Hotel when Charles Dickens used to stay there. Today, no one wants to stay at a hotel where some longdead famous person once lodged, if only because the place’s corresponding antiquity is likely to raise grave doubts about things like plumbing and the telecommunications. What trendy, uptotheminute guests really want to hear is that famously fussy divas like Diana Ross or Barbra Streisand occupied their hotel of choice just last month.
For those who like their avantgarde design undiluted, HI Hotel in Nice typifies what happens when a designer is given an unconditional license to reinvent the possibilities of a hotel. Staying at this establishment is not for the fainthearted but rather for those who want to align themselves with modish experiments in organizing living space with surreal adventures in room rolereversal or other demanding hospitality experiences. Most of these experiments” are unlikely to be welcomed by a weary businessman who is simply looking for a bar that doesn’t resemble a James Bond film set and a bed that doesn’t turn into a bath.
Some premises resist the attentions of even the most dedicated designer, as an old American Legion building in Paris illustrates. Andrée Putman, past mistress of the Big Hotel Design Push of the 1980s, has certainly done enough to make this old building into a new hotel with a certain touch of class but conservation considerations limited her interventions, perhaps more than she would have liked. Putman’s peer in the 80s designer revolution was Philippe Starck whose unmistakable stamp can be seen all over a venerable San Francisco hotel, also featured in this chapter. Here, though, the treatment is unexpectedly Post Modern and the book’s only example of what is now seen as a rather passé style, saved by Starck’s continuing ability to invest his arch quotations from the past with real quality, style and wit as well as a welcome sense of the unexpected.
Original Ideas spans two areas of activity: serious purpose and playful theming. By definition, each hotel that is dealt with in this section needs to be discussed on its own terms, but what general lesson, if any, can we draw from the oneoff hotel? When the starting point is the rational one of a design that aims to addresses a unique set of circumstances, probably none. But when the Unique Selling Proposition is an assumed one, it usually has something to do with the burgeoning idea of the hotel as sort of fantasy camp.
Want to get married in an ice palace? Fancy the erotic literature suite of a hotel tricked out like a library? Feel like being born again in a stylized Tyrolean retreat? If so, then you are probably the sort of person who feels more comfortable with a leisure experience that has been carefully branded by someone else. Depending on your point of view, this can be a potentially disquieting idea, not altogether unrelated to the notion of dubbing canned laughter onto the soundtrack of a television show in order to tell audiences when they ought to find something funny. But even when the guests take such hotels less seriously than the hoteliers do, the underlying trend spills over into other, less obviously original” hotel concepts. Even a modest (if inventive) reinterpretation of an old budget hotel in downtown Tokyo now offers to provide its guests with many answers to the question how to live”. There is a specific cultural undertow that can be seen at work here that, whether overtly or subliminally, increasingly seeks to align a hotel stay with theatre, therapy or even treatment.
Historically, of course, there was always an element of this in the stereotypical Grand Hotel; with its sweeping staircases, lavish restaurants and theatrical public spaces, it was a place for society people to see and be seen. The difference was that there was no themed agenda, no communal psychological purpose and no expectation of anything other than a glittering upscale setting for social dramas. Today, however, the dominant trend is for themed hotels to provide not only the drama but the setting as well.
Building the Dream
It is also true, though, that this growth of the themed hotel experience has been stimulated by factors more pragmatic than psychosocial nuances. The global economic cycle will always condition the amount of new building taking place at a given time and a recent shortage of newbuild hotels has necessarily pushed hotel design activity more into the province of the interior designerwho may be asked or tempted to create dramatic themesthan the architect. In addition to this, stringent planning regulation can place considerable restrictions upon the design possibilities of any new hotel that does get built, further shifting the onus of making a strong and distinctive visual statement upon interior design.
Yet common sense tells us that the best hotel design will always be holistic: the building envelope will make the major design statement and, with luck, the interior will follow it through. Making the structure the starting point can therefore put the whole design process into a more leisurely time frame, militating against the kind of excesses that come from shortterm fashionled thinking and rapid execution. This can be a benefit from the point of view of restraint but may prove a disadvantage if the business plan demands a brisker timetable. In the best cases, good architecture may bring a level of quality to hotel design that nothing else can. Thus, Architectural Significance draws together some exemplary hotel projects where the building sets the agenda and interaction between interior and exterior is of exceptional interest.
A new Radisson hotel for the city of Glasgow might also have qualified for inclusion in Mainstream Experiments but it is its architectural impact that is so strong as to provide the primary focus of interest. Here, a whole design approach is flagged by the building itself, which successfully juggles with a range of practical issues and restrictions to create a strong statement reflecting something of the spirit of Glasgow and its history without ever being overly reverential or resorting to pastiche. The boldness of this particular piece of hotel architecture has also attracted some other good designers to create facilities inside as well as determining the architects’ own treatment of the internal public spaces. Only the standardized, cookiecutter” Radisson guest room design remains untouched by the inventive spirit of the building.
Eva Jiricna’s Hotel Josef in Prague is an exceptionally satisfying hotel building, respectful of its surroundings, light in its visual references and very far removed from the sort of hotel that wants to rent out a lifestyle to its guests. Meanwhile, the elaborate architectural story behind Austria’s Parkhotel is worth a small book of its own, but even the shortest account reveals how architectural restitution and a proper regard for site and history can result in the most surprising and enjoyable contemporary hotel design solution. In Mexico City, an old industrial building arms itself against an abrasive locale with a stunning new glass outer skin. In Rome, a new hotel building tries to elevate its rundown surroundings simply by being there. In São Paulo, a master architect with a bold agenda uses giant curved building blocks to illustrate how a hotel might look if it didn’t have to look like a hotel. And, in what would once have once been called the American West’s Indian country, a spa complex with spiritual and mystical aspirations gets an architectural treatment that takes an insubstantial agenda very seriously.
Without exception, these architectural solutions are solving problems that are way over and above the normal ones that attend the design of any building: they are giving solid form, not a coat of paint, to a hotelier’s dream. Whether it falls to the architects themselves or to others to flesh out the interior, in most cases the best possible start has been made.
Excerpted from 21st Century Hotel by Graham Vickers. Copyright © 2005 Graham Vickers. Excerpted by permission of Abbeville Press.
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