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Typology: Hotels

Anonymous rooms for anonymous and rootless lives, the hotel has long been a giant metaphor for modernity

Hotel living is communism for rich people, with possessions and private space reduced to the bare minimum while the lobby acts as a marble-clad social condenser. Life here is sweetened by the sweat of underpaid labour; and it is in the figure of the rock star, that mercurial intermediary between Olympus and the slum, that the latter takes revenge upon the former via the hallowed ritual of room-trashing. But in the world that is given to us the debris can only land on the backs of the already overburdened, and the power of the unchained id is expended in mere infantilism. 

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The hotel film encompasses many moods: in What’s Up, Doc? the farce culminates in the destruction of a room (Source: Moviestore collection Ltd / Alamy)

This destruction of the home-that-is-not-a-home is also a reaction to severance from place, once another aspect of the futurity of the hotel which has by now seeped into supposedly more settled domesticities via the hotel’s nemesis – or, speaking dialectically, its sublation – Airbnb. Of course, the homes of the poor were never settled, but homeliness is a convenient fiction: one which is unmasked by its commercialisation. Here, however, the condensing function, never truly realised by hotels in any case, is atomised beyond all possibility of realisation.

The history of the hotel can be divided into two distinct phases, which are severed by the iron tracks of the railway. Hotels once served as nodes in networks for the distribution of knowledge and goods, such as the caravanserais that punctuate the Silk Road, or the tabernae decreed by Roman emperors to support the infrastructural system of the empire. The former survive in ruins or touristic recreations, most beautifully of those built by Shah Abbas; the latter became taverns, precursors of our pubs. Both had to accommodate passengers, goods and means of transport in the form of donkeys, camels and horses, and they frequently slept scores of visitors to a room. In larger inns, the rooms were often arranged around a courtyard, accessible by a raised gallery; in caravanserais the central space was lined with niches for stabling and the storage of merchandise. 

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Caravanserai near Yazd in Iran (Source: DB Images / Alamy)

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Gettyimages 463986585

The courtyard of a British coaching inn (Source: The Print Collector / Getty)

The advent of the railways marked the climax and culmination of this infrastructural function. The hotels built and run by British railway companies between 1839 and 1983 numbered over 140, yet the mode of transport on which they depended, as well as the telegraph, decoupled trade and information exchange from the traveller, and led to the rise of the ‘purposive purposelessness’ that Siegfried Kracauer detected in the modern hotel and its residents: ‘Remnants of individuals slip into the nirvana of relaxation, faces disappear behind newspapers, and the artificial continuous light illuminates nothing but mannequins.’ 

The railway hotels were technologically advanced structures that functioned as city gateways due to their physical integration with termini. This made a species of brick gothic a popular choice for their facades, behind which lay the exposed steel girders of the stations – a fitting combination from the perspective of those who, like Viollet-le-Duc, detected a sympathy between 19th-century engineering and medieval architecture. The grandest of the British railway hotels, the Midland hotels in London and Manchester, were designed by Scott and Trubshaw, respectively. The former, completed in 1876, contained 300 rooms; the latter opened in 1902 and had 400 rooms as well as a 1,000-seat concert hall.

The very grandest hotels of this era, however, were those built by individual speculators such as William Waldorf Astor and Richard D’Oyly Carte. In 1893 Astor opened a hotel of unprecedented luxury on the site of his Fifth Avenue townhouse, partly to spite his aunt, who was a neighbour. Soon her son, John, built another hotel on the site of her home; the two were presently conjoined, leaving the interstitial 300-metre corridor, ‘Peacock Alley’, as the ceremonial heart of the building. The block-sized Waldorf-Astoria was the largest hotel in the world, and the first to have private bathrooms, regarded as an absurd indulgence at the time. It also had telephones in every room and a famous ballroom that became the hub of New York society, which had formerly congregated in private mansions. So began the publicisation of the bourgeoisie.  

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Gettyimages 51390908

‘Peacock Alley’, the 300m heart of the Waldorf-Astoria (Source: FPG / Getty Images)

Theatrical impresario D’Oyly Carte introduced these American standards of luxury – and hygiene – to London in 1889, when he opened the Savoy. The hotel had 70 bathrooms, quite an advance on the equally splendid Hotel Victoria, which had opened two years earlier with only four bathrooms provided for its 500 residents. Crucially, D’Oyly Carte invited a crack team to manage his establishment: César Ritz and ‘chef of kings’ Auguste Escoffier. The pair had already gained a reputation for the fantastic standards of service they conjured in the resorts of Baden-Baden and Nice, achieved via the application of Taylorist management techniques (the ‘affective labour’ recently demanded by high-street sandwich vendors has a long history). Bellboys were drilled in prompt and discreet attentiveness, kitchen staff ranked according to Escoffier’s brigade system, with chefs de cuisine, sous chefs, sauciers, etc. The building had to be organised, too, and in Berlin architect Karl Wilhelm Just developed a system of ‘room sequencing’ in order to manage spatially the flow of hotel guests. 

Ritz was sacked from the Savoy in 1898 for fraud; later that year the first hotel to take his name opened in Paris with the backing of South African diamond millionaire Alfred Beit. London and Madrid followed in 1905 and 1906. However, the first hotelier to truly grasp the possibility of the international chain was Conrad Hilton, who opened his first hotel in Texas in 1919, at the height of the oil boom. Hilton’s empire slowly crept across the continent and in 1949 he bought the Waldorf-Astoria, which had relocated to Park Avenue in 1931 after the original site was sold to the developers of the Empire State Building. In the ’50s he expanded overseas, making Hilton the first truly international hotel chain, with 188 establishments in the US and 54 overseas.

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John and Yoko’s 1969 ‘bed-in’: political protest with room service (Source: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy)

The 1960s saw two further innovations pioneered by Hilton: chains began to divest their property portfolios and become franchises. Brand consistency was maintained across these by the second innovation, the SOP (standard operating procedures) manual. This took the Taylorisation of hotels to new extremes of exactitude; for instance, a 2010 Hilton SOP specifies ‘that staff must answer phones after three rings, that guests’ pets may not weigh more than 34kg and that scuba-diving boats must provide free pieces of fruit’. This creates an uncanny sense of extraterritorial ubiquity in even the most distant of the big brands’ franchises: whether you’re in Hull or Honolulu, there is no escape from those three mandated pieces of fruit. 

While Hilton’s organisational approach was new, geographical dispersal was not. From the 19th century, hotelisation assaulted the hitherto virgin territories of the world, with nowhere proving impregnable to its railway-borne spores. The Count de Renesse opened the largest hotel in the Alps, the Hôtel Kursaal de la Maloja, in 1884. The hotel, later renamed the Maloja Palace, had 300 bedrooms and 20 public rooms, including a huge ballroom, in which the orchestra of La Scala played twice a day in summer. A contemporary equivalent of this sub-type may be found in the 381-metre glass tower planned by Morphosis for Vals, but this is exceptional: in contrast to the bizarre spectacle of the monster in the alpine valley, far-flung hotels now attempt the vernacular, as in the thatched and stilted huts of the Maldives. Here the jaded rich play at rural misery while all around the locals inhabit the real deal.

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Maloja

The Hotel Kursaal de la Maloja was the largest hotel in the Alps when it opened in 1884 (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)

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Vlh re peak

Morphosis’s controversial design for a 381m tower in Vals continues in this tradition (Source: Morphosis)

Not all hotel dwellers are rich, of course; YMCAS and YWCAS were the third-largest hotel chain in the world in the 1980s, and, although challenged by Airbnb, hostels continue to facilitate young people’s travel. Another relatively inexpensive variant of the type, the rooming house or residential hotel, was important in the history of the USA by facilitating the migration of labour, and still in the 1990s one to two million lived in such accommodation, more than in public housing. These establishments varied enormously in character, and over time, too: the notorious Chelsea Hotel in New York started out far more staid and respectable. B&Bs in the UK sometimes have a similar function, especially when substituted for social housing by desperate local authorities.

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New York’s Chelsea Hotel was home to many bohemian residents (Source: Chrisinphilly5448)

But while for some, hotel life is grinding misery, for others it is a way to escape from reality entirely, most transparently in theme hotels. Grand hotels were always places to act out another life, but today Las Vegas is the theme hotel’s spiritual home, where desert sheds dressed in neon become Caesars Palace or the pyramids. Their public spaces (Venturi observed) are largely composed of vast low-ceilinged gambling rooms, their extent obscured by mirrors, darkness and coloured light. Disneyland offers imaginary worlds of a more literal infantility, with two vast hotels in Orlando, designed by Michael Graves to compete with the trend for conference venues, blurring the borders of fantasy and labour. 

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Orlando themeparks 074

Michael Graves’ unspeakable Dolphin and Swan Hotels at Disneyworld Orlando, 1990 (Source: Orlandohelitours.com)

The late 20th-century hotel is often taken as paradigmatic for postmodernity: it is the banal glitz of the facade that speaks to Venturi, whereas Jameson finds the hermetic interior of Portman’s Bonaventure ‘aspires to being a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city’. These simulacra are enclosed in vast atria, which provide the sublime element that Kracauer found lacking in the grand hotels of the 1920s. Yet, where the sublime pointed beyond disinterested aesthetics to ethics, here – in that very category in which the aesthetic is contaminated, even for Kant, by the world – the ground falls away beneath our feet, and we ascend into the sealed empyrean in a glass-walled lift.

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John Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel, LA, 1976: an anti-urban simulacrum of the city (Source: Mathias Beinling / Alamy)

Case studies

WOHA, Oasia Downtown, Singapore, 2016

The hotel-in-the-tower has sprouted ever taller since the Waldorf Astoria relocated to a 47-storey skyscraper in 1931; this was the tallest example of the type in the world until Stalin’s Hotel Ukrainia was completed in 1957. In recent years, hotels have become standard anchor tenants of skyscraper developments, hollowing out their tips as plunging atria. These have, however, been sealed volumes – until WOHA designed a hotel for Singapore, its upper reaches a huge cylindrical trellis open to the sky. There are also three enormous sky gardens carved into the building’s lower levels, and lush planting that spreads across the porous red mesh of the facade in the form of creepers. In a tropical context where the tall building is generally an air-conditioned bubble, this design revisits Charles Correa’s proposition that vernacular traditions of openness need to be reconsidered as a means of reconnecting the modern building with its environment. 

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Oasia downtown drawings

Oasia downtown drawings

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WMR Arquitectos, Punta Sirena Hotel, Chile, 2014

The beach hotel usually comports itself in serene and brilliant white curves, borrowing the sleekness of the ocean liner, but the surfing resort of Curanipe in central Chile is a place for less sedentary approaches to the water. In response, WMR Arquitectos have not opted to emulate the quaint traditional buildings of the town, either; their only nod to the vernacular is their use of wood, with eucalyptus and pine filling the black steel frame of their building. This takes the form of three long, cuboid and rather Miesian volumes, stacked on top of one another on stilts to avoid inundation – a major earthquake struck the area in 2010, followed by a tsunami. The hotel’s circulation spaces are, thanks to its porous cladding, open to the elements, while the central courtyard is protected from the wind.

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Wmr serena 087 2

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Wmr serena 012

Source: Sergio Pirrone

Punta sirena sections

Punta sirena sections

Punta sirena plans

Punta sirena plans

Click to download

Jean Nouvel, Sofitel Vienna, Austria, 2011

The Postmodern hotel has been called an anti-urban typology, arrogantly detached from its surroundings and substituting a simulacrum for the city. WOHA was able to counteract this by literally opening its building to the surroundings, but Viennese winters do not encourage sky gardens. Instead, Jean Nouvel has created a ceiling for the city, in the form of gigantic artworks by Pipilotti Rist which cover the ceilings of the top floor restaurant and atrium of his Sofitel tower. These artworks are, thanks to the design of the tower, clearly visible from the street, providing a link between interior and exterior that bursts through the otherwise opaque facade. This idea takes its cue from Richard Kelly’s lighting design for the Seagram Building – those glowing ceilings visible from the street that continue the grid of the facade deep into the building – while simultaneously nodding to the coloured tiles of St Stephen’s across the square.

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Ajn vienne sofitel copyrightrolandhalbe rh1979 0086

Source: Roland Halbe

Sofitel vienna plans

Sofitel vienna plans

Sofitel vienna sections

Sofitel vienna sections

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Ares Partners + Atelier Liu Yuyang Architects, Yun House Boutique Eco-Resort, China, 2015

The rediscovery of the countryside by China’s middle classes has led to a boom in rural tourism, which has helped redirect cash from the wealthy coast into the undeveloped interior. However, this has often resulted in insensitive building projects, and the ‘nong jia le’ (‘happy farmer home’) idyll frequently turns out to be a mass tourist hell. In response, an eco-tourism movement has developed, offering smaller scale, more deeply embedded experiences of life away from the city. For the more adventurous, this can mean home stays with farming families, where rural cooking can be enjoyed at its most authentic. Those who require a little more comfort do not have to forgo the charm of rustic simplicity, however: this hotel occupies nine old rammed-earth houses in a scenic Guilin village, with the addition of a sensitively designed modern restaurant building. The hotel’s perimeter is open to the village, and so the new blends into the old.

Birdview

Birdview

Restaurant facade

Restaurant facade

Yun house section

Yun house section

Yun house site plan

Yun house site plan

Click to download