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Secret service: hotel housekeeping hidden by design

3 housekeeping hotels by design david brody architectural review

With its roots in European aristocratic households, the hotel orchestrates behind-the-scenes activity while perpetuating surface serenity

Very few customers spend the whole day in their suite but all have certain ingrained expectations after check-in, especially when of a certain wealth and used to staying at five-star hotels whether on business trips or during holidays. When in the evening they return to that cocoon of pampered comfort, they are pleased to find that the room has been prepared for the night – what in the hospitality industry is called the ‘turndown service’. As Margie Garay, former director of housekeeping at Four Seasons Hotel in New York City explains, ‘Everyone gets turndown and that’s the experience. That’s when you come in after dinner, after the show, after the meeting, and your room light is dimmed, your drapes are drawn closed, your music is on classical, your turndown mat is on the floor, your slippers are placed. That’s an experience’.

4 housekeeping hotels by design david brody architectural review

4 housekeeping hotels by design david brody architectural review

Source: Ben Margott / AP / Shutterstock

Like the Scottish folk-tales where magical creatures called brownies perform domestic chores during the night, the metamorphosis of the room seems to have happened by magic, through the action of invisible benign agents. That feeling is precisely what a large part of the hotel ‘experience’ is all about: making effort and labour almost miraculously disappear from customers’ perception. ‘Marx details how capitalist societies obscure the actualities of labour, relegating commodities to the class of things that we exchange without an understanding of the work that has transpired to make these goods’, writes David Brody in Housekeeping by Design: Hotels and Labor.

‘The dichotomy between the ‘back of the house’, where the human machinery of employees and servants is incessantly active, and the serenity of the ‘front of the house’, continues to operate today’

In the hospitality industry, the commodity itself is intangible, named with vague terms such as ‘comfort’, ‘leisure’ or ‘experience’. The visibility of labour is tightly controlled. It is often hidden, like the magical hand that drops a chocolate over the pillow or the personnel that remove the room service tray from the corridor. Alternatively, it is converted into a spectacle with the elaborate uniforms of concierges and valets or the show put on by barmen while preparing a cocktail at the bar. Customers and workers are carefully segregated to ensure labour remains invisible, both physically and temporally. Service spaces are deliberately concealed and separate, from secondary staff circulation to allocated personnel living quarters. A salient feature of all Four Seasons hotels, the cleaning cart is replaced by a dedicated room, discreetly hidden behind a banal door on each floor, from which maids have to frantically move in and out to perform cleaning duties and reach their daily quota. Timelines of customers and workers are stringently managed, the main rationale behind check-in and check-out hours. The architecture of the hotel is therefore a complicated system that generates wealth through a double control over time: customers versus workers. 

Housekeeping hotels by design david brody architectural review

Housekeeping hotels by design david brody architectural review

Source: Ellen Isaacs / Alamy

The familiar site of the hotel corridor and housekeeping cart

Though deliberately hidden from the customers, hotel labour is instead subject to permanent scrutiny by management, under the same panoptical systems of control described by Foucault. While today, security cameras, digital sensors and CCTV do the trick, the idea of control was ingrained very early on in manuals and textbooks. Mary Bresnan’s The Practical Hotel Housekeeper from 1900 was addressed to hotel managers and suggests that, ‘The housekeeper must be on the alert at all times and where there are ladies in rooms it is her duty to call on those ladies for a few minutes every day and ask them if they are waited on and their work done as they wish’.

During modernity, design has been mostly mobilised to manage labour through the control of space and time. The tight relationship between the dominance over bodies – developed through the spatial organisation of factories and Taylorist methodologies where workers’ movements were precisely registered and timed – has become the predominant mode with which not just heavy industrial production but all activity is conceived. Logistics, distribution, offices, retail and every other possible service are imbued with the same ideology of efficiency and implementation, where even microscopic alterations in space can reduce costs and augment revenues. In their pragmatism, every design professional involved in the process of the conception of places where labour is performed is primarily dedicated to constantly refine and implement a ‘layout’, de facto one of the most guarded secrets of any company, so as to impact on the ‘workflow’. 

‘Though deliberately hidden from the customers, hotel labour is instead subject to permanent scrutiny by management’

The uniqueness of hotels, a fairly recent typology, associated with the expansion of railways, such as the Midland in London inaugurated in 1876 or with unique urban wealth such as the Waldorf Astoria, opened on Fifth Avenue in New York in 1893, is that they combine and compress within the same site, different methods of creation of profit and extraction of surplus-value. The real stroke of capitalistic genius is that a hotel makes money and attributes a price to the least productive of all human activities: sleep. To maximise its return on investment, it has to carefully cram as many rooms in the minimum amount of space, an economic model akin to agricultural plots. Extremely sophisticated economic analyses, whose origins date back to the standardisation of this novel enterprise established by EM Statler at the beginning of the 20th century, are aimed at pursuing the right balance between comfort, cost of the necessary hardware – not just the building itself but also all the furniture, fittings, equipment and ancillary services such as bars, pools, business centres, gyms and spas – and the efficiency in maintenance. 

2 housekeeping hotels by design david brody architectural review

2 housekeeping hotels by design david brody architectural review

Endless dishwashing, as conjured by Orwell’s experience at Hotel X

Increments and decrements in the general layout and the organisation of the interiors of the rooms are calculated in centimetres, not just to regulate the construction and furnishing costs but moreover to gain a tight control on maintenance and housekeeping. Following the renovation of the Hyatt hotel in Chicago in 2013, minute changes had a significant impact on labour. Brody documents that ‘an abundance of glass takes more time to clean’ and that placing a second roll of toilet paper in each room is an additional burden. These ‘banal design choices’ add to a gruelling schedule: ‘The extra minutes it takes to clean the new glass surfaces and monitor and install a second roll of toilet paper accumulate over the course of a 16-room shift’.

This labour performed in the hotel itself is another mechanism of the creation of surplus value, analogous to the tending that is necessary in agriculture: regularly timed, repetitive, with the implication of very low-level technologies, and largely seasonal. In a hotel, production and consumption happen in the same place. The room is both the dominant mechanism by which money is extracted from its users, and also the site of daily chores to guarantee their satisfaction, which, in the era of online reviews and influencers, has grown to become a relevant currency in itself.

The lineage of the hotel as a specific sector of capitalist economy and as an architectural typology can be found in the rules of the highly hierarchical organisation of life in the aristocratic households in Western societies during the 18th and 19th centuries. The daily choreography of cleaning and light maintenance that occurs in hotels is inherited from the routine work performed for centuries in castles, grand residences, palazzi, mansions and manors across Europe. Manual labour was at the same time continual and intensive while also unobtrusive, so as to deliver the sensation of effortless leisure and not become an obstacle to the daily deployment of the activities of the aristocratic elite. It is not a coincidence that the terms employed to describe work in the hotel industry still refer to the domestic realm: as the title of Brody’s book suggests, we still use the term ‘housekeeping’. In classic French literature of the 18th and 19th centuries, the descriptions of the domestic spaces of the nobility often include the convoluted spaces and makeshift connections where servants moved behind the scenes to attend the needs of the few privileged owners. Hidden doors, shortcuts, dingy stairs, narrow corridors, servants’ quarters under the roof, larders, basement, cavernous kitchens – rarely visited by the duke or the ‘protegée’ – were the negative counterpart of the richly decorated boudoirs and salons where sassy conversations, long nights of cards and sumptuous balls unravelled.

The dichotomy between the ‘back of the house’, where the human machinery of employees and servants is incessantly active, and the serenity of the ‘front of the house’, continues to operate today in the modern-day hotel. Both the reading room of some earl in his manor in the countryside and the polished breakfast buffet at the Plaza or the Ritz, are the expression of a profound class divide that has persisted over time. Even the fancier hotels in Paris hide an underbelly of exploitation and ugliness, as vividly described in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, presenting the autobiographical experience of an impoverished Orwell as an overworked dishwasher, or in numerous Maigret police novels by Simenon, where the glitzy appearance of salons and rooms, is matched by the squalor of workers’ quarters. ‘Brownies’ have to disappear after their job is done, so check-out is at 11 and check-in is at 3.

Lead image: Ben Margot / AP / Shutterstock

Housekeeping by Design: Hotels and LaborDavid Brody, University of Chicago Press, 2016

This piece is featured in the AR May 2020 issue on Tourism – click here to buy your copy today