Subtopia is now a recognized ill, and unfortunately motels have chosen this moment to spring to life
Originally published in AR February 1956, this piece was republished online in March 2016
We in the British Isles have every right to be proud of our Coaching Inns. We have been proud of them for two hundred years. For nearly half that time their original excellence of plan and comfort has been replaced by their historical appeal. The coming of railways created its own demands upon the hotel trade. The immediate result was the Railway Hotel.
The indirect result, momentous architecturally, was the resort. Whole new towns consisting of hotel and sub-hotel accommodation were built, and most of our fishing ports put out engulfing growths of this kind. In fact the demand made by the railways was so well and truly met that the simple demands of the motorist have not been met at all. Such enormous resources of accommodation existed by the beginning of this century that only slight expansion seemed necessary to cope with motor tourists. The fact that the motorist wanted a lodging rather differently conceived simply could not be entertained. Beds and various grades of plumbing existed in plenty. The proprietors did their best to squash in a few motorcars.
‘Symmetry, cosiness and antiquity were mistaken for the real virtue of these inns, which was, as is usually the case with a successful building, intelligent planning for the job’
Our towns are very closely spaced. The motorist brought new prosperity to the existing network of coaching inns. Such new hotels as were built tended to model their planning on these. Symmetry, cosiness and antiquity were mistaken for the real virtue of these inns, which was, as is usually the case with a successful building, intelligent planning for the job. Cosiness in this climate is certainly not to be despised, but had our ancestors had central heating at their command I doubt if they would have bothered much with warming pans. In the U.S. where no closely spaced grid of towns existed in advance, two types of hotels have developed for motorists. The resort type consists of a scatter of holiday bungalows with a central restaurant and pool. The highway type exists alongside the road for the long-distance driver to stop off for the night. There may well be a future in Britain for the first type, in fact the sound of it is immediately attractive. But the second type is already here, and planning to spread fast. This matter is urgent. Let us take a look at it.
Our resorts can take care of themselves. Much of their charm is their visibly evolutionary character; an outer skin of flowery suburbs, flattering the Regency and Victorian layers of painted terraces, some eighteenth century gems, and a core of tangy mediaeval squalor. Such towns as these can absorb almost any novelty. But for the roadside motorist hotel absorption is out of the question. Even if urban sites were two a penny one explicit motorist demand is a night in the country. Preferably on the loveliest stretch of road, with the sound of a rushing stream and/or distant views.
Such a place will strike the motorist as very pleasant. What concerns us all at this moment is how the motorist will strike the place. There will have to be a building and a sign, both potential spoilers. Probably no reader of the Review would seriously dispute the possibility of a beautiful building. Inn signs, too, have added something very agreeable to the English scene. The particular danger of a sign directed at motorists is that it must be read by someone driving at fifty miles an hour.
‘Probably no reader of the Review would seriously dispute the possibility of a beautiful building’
One’s immediate feeling is that the sign must be loud. The visual equivalent of loud is in fact, not vulgar, but large and simple in scale. Perhaps it is not any intrinsic characteristic that makes most signs directed at motorists so repellent, but the fact that we have no wish to look at them and the assumption that the crude structure they are mounted on is invisible. A tin plaque fixed to a heavy structure of unwrought timber is the usual form. The plaque is naively intended to be seen as a painted sign upon a painted landscape.
If we were to design the eye-catching sign and its support in one operation we might get something as pleasing as those pub signs that hang from a vine of delicately wrought iron. The motorist cannot stop instantaneously, even at the bidding of the 100 per cent successful sign. An intelligent practice followed in the U.S., though not for some reason by the first motorist hotels in this country, is to put the first sign 500 yards ahead of the hotel.
Motel 6 jpg
Even so, the hotel itself will need an architectural allure as potent as that of the sign. One can well see the temptation to be flashy. Certainly financial returns on these hotels are more than usually dependent upon the skill of the architect. And I mean for once his architectural skill. Not his skill in dealing with quantity surveyors, ’or in correctly forecasting costs, or experience in working out the most economical grid.
‘One’s immediate feeling is that the sign for a motel must be LOUD’
When it is a question of stopping motorists, of instantaneous seduction, the ability to design an economical grid will get you nowhere. For this you want an artist, someone who can make the simplest statement in the most telling way. There is practically no constructional problem. The planning problem is an interesting one, and quite new. But the grueling test of the design is that it must be sold not once to a client, but to a given number of people every day of the building’s life.
Motel 7 jpg
What in fact does the motorist want that is not to be found in a good traditional hotel? Firstly, a night’s lodging that is not a break in his journey but part of it. This means direct under-cover access from motor car to room. Ideally, the car should remain accessible throughout his stay, so that the whole paraphernalia of maps, sunglasses and over-coats can stay where they are, or be carried in without the need to put a good face on them for the porter’s benefit.
‘The idea of motorists hotels has in this country come to the boil with plenty of scum on it’
Further, he wants to remain preoccupied his journey. He is not geared up to the ritual of a stylish arrival, and wants to meet as few people as possible. The traditional hotel is run on the assumption that social contacts may make one’s stay more pleasant. The motorist, although needing the very maximum amount of service in a very short time, would like to avoid a corresponding multiplication of the costs and courtesies of tipping.
Motel 8 jpg
His third requirement is to know in advance, not the probable, but the accurate total cost of a night’s lodging. This is answered by the system of paying in advance, and offers no special architectural complications.
Finally, there is the getaway, at any hour one likes to name, without the usual impediments of the hold; up over the bill and the five motor cars belonging to late risers hemming in one’s own. The first difficulty vanishes if one can pay in advance. The second demands the same kind of planning as the easy arrival. Here, then, are the purely architectural implications of this type of hotel.
‘The main planning problem when constructing motels is to make all room accommodation accessible by motor car’
The main planning problem is to make all room accommodation accessible by motor car. This clearly demands a larger site than the traditional hotel. And the letting accommodation cannot be more than two storeys high. A letting unit has evolved comprising a double room, with sofa for a child, wash-basin, w.c. and bath or shower. In England so far this goes with a lock-up garage, in the U.S. simply with a car-port. Whether this means that the Americans have fewer car thieves or the British are more untidy travellers I do not know. But this difference has considerable bearing on building costs. Planning is complicated by uncertainty as to the number of travellers to expect per motor car. This is solved at present by adding a wing of single rooms to the hotel.
Motel 9 jpg
The second requirement, of insulating the guest from human contact, has been enthusiastically taken care of, here as abroad. The plumbing arrangements are exotically self-contained. One is automatically woken and refreshed with tea at the chosen hour. The room door is built as a double-opening wardrobe. Into this the guest puts suit and shoes, which are whisked away from the other side, to be returned cleaned, the suit pressed, one supposes well before dawn, and one hopes silently. Rest, refreshment and valeting can all be achieved without leaving one’s room. For food only one must venture into the restaurant.
These are the planning points which concern the guest’s comfort and will determine whether he comes back another time. The architect’s problem is to assemble these units into a form that will be instantaneously arresting from the road-I hesitate to describe the little winding tracks we use as highways. The frontage of the site will have to be long, approximately 100 yards, to give motorists time to decide and stop. So that there is financial inducement to ribbon development. At Exeter, where Louis Erdi has evolved a basic elevation for the rental unit with room over garage, he gets his effect simply by lining up his units roughly parallel with the road.
Though one applauds the directness and restraint of this design, one would as a guest prefer to look out on to quiet meadows, rather than on to the roar of the by-pass. At Ower, where simplicity of plan has been sacrificed in order to have a bit of everything contemporary, the guest has the benefit of a courtyard screened by the restaurant from the road. In this matter the guests’ comfort must be weighed against elevational appeal. No doubt the alternative solutions are being watched for results. One cannot have everything.
‘Subtopia is now a recognized ill: its cure is receiving attention’
In the case of motels there are, however, two very auspicious architectural conditions. The first is that it has been found in America that initial costs of construction are unimportant compared with what is called rentability. It pays, in fact, not to economize in initial outlay in any way that can rebound against the all-the-year-round chance of letting every room. This point is flouted by the British motels. If shabbiness will eventually repel potential guests they will do well to detail the finishes properly. But, perhaps, shabbiness is reckoned as old-world charm.
The second unusual feature of motels is that in order to distinguish themselves from the immense gamut of existing hotel architecture they have to build in a contemporary style. Luckily for them the remarkable conservatism of twentieth century building ensures that every contemporary building shows up as though floodlit. For this reason they would do better not to over-reach themselves in presentation. Erdi has thought out a genuine rental unit and thus ensured a novel and interesting elevation. There is no need in the world to add to this phoney contemporaryisms. No need to face brick buttresses with decorative stonework. One loses the decorative effect while trying to figure out the structural relationship of these materials. No need, in Kent, where he had had the polite idea of using traditional barge-boarding, to guy it with embarrassing rusticity.
Motel 10 jpg
The idea of motorists hotels has in this country come to the boil with plenty of scum on it. The name Motel is one that only the most strong-minded can pronounce without a smile. Unfortunately, the beautiful seclusion it promises is ideal, not only for motorists, but for furtive sex life. We may smile at the headline Motels Threaten Morals. In fact, the unfortunate Authority who has to pass or refuse the plans is in a nasty jam. If it upholds what it may feel to be its duty towards morals at the expense of the motorists’ comfort and vetos the motel, it runs the risk of losing local trade to the less moral authority next door. It courts far more glaring disgrace if it can be shown to discourage American tourists, who have motels at home, and are notoriously nostalgic travellers.
This is a hideous dilemma for any public body and while it is facing it, it seems likely that the architectural problem, also of grave public interest will, as usual, be completely ignored. Motels, with their predilection for beauty spots, their need to shock the motorist to a standstill, and their expressed intention of a ubiquitous style, constitute a menace comparable to our best known brands of tea and cigarettes for sheer baleful squalor. And I have only touched on the dangers inherent in building a single motel. In fact, it has been found in the U.S. that it is a paying proposition for competing motels to line upside by side. Imagine motel row, with its attendant filling stations, kiosks, and parked cars, and you have in mind the piece of subtopia that threatens us now. Here is a test on a nation-wide scale of whether that nasty little word is going to prove a call to action.
‘A tin plaque fixed to a heavy structure of unwrought timber is the usual form of a motel sign’
It is for the proprietors of motel chains to decide what clientele to aim at and what architect to employ, for the Planning Authority to state if the proposed site is already scheduled, for the Local Authority to decide whether to pass the plans, and for the magistrates to decide whether to allow another Licence in the district. Supposing that the proposed site is not scheduled for anything that prohibits the building of a motel; supposing that the building looks ‘quite usual’ on· the drawings to the not passionately discriminating eye of the committee; supposing that local opinion is too much worried over possible immorality to engage itself on the over-all picture. It must be understood that motel chains operate on a large and potentially nation-wide scale.
A decision taken in the unpromising conditions I have suggested, and taken in isolation, is not only inadequate in itself, but quite out of scale with the problem of motels and with the picture that will be seen by visitors to this country. Whose business is it to decide, on the motels’ own scale, what kind of motels we want in Britain, and what kind we simply have not room for on this overbuilt island? Logically it is the business of all who care about the matter. Legally it is not the business of anyone at all.
Motel 11 jpg
Subtopia is now a recognized ill: its cure is receiving attention. Unfortunately motels have chosen this moment to spring to life. They can develop as a twentieth-century phenomenon as encouraging as our recent schools. Or they can tell the sorry story of the filling station over again. If any action is to be taken, it must be now. Two possible courses occur to me. We can appoint a body at a national level, on an interim basis, either with powers to deal with applications to build motels, or as advisor to local authorities. This body must include the guardians of several traditions, architectural, dollar-earning, road-using, and constitutional. And we can hold an architectural competition for motel plans. An exhibition of the winning plans would set general standards, which do not at present exist in the public mind on this subject. We are a committee-loving nation. Let us get down to it once again.