Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life

“Everyone has a hotel story.” So says the tagline of the feature exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery, which ended today.

Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life

The exhibit traces the evolution of the hotel from seventeenth-century dak bungalows (government structures put up for European travellers living and travelling in India) to self-contained miniature cities. The exhibit looks at four main themes surrounding the phenomenon of the hotel: travel, design, social, and culture.

I particularly enjoyed the design part, in which ten models of world-famous hotels were displayed in a rectangular room with architectural and historical facts.

Imperial Hotel in Tokyo designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

The real hotel

Raffles Hotel in Singapore designed by Regent Alfred John Bidwell

The real hotel

The Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown LA is a good example of a city within a city—but this “hotel city” seeks to offer protection to its guests from the “other city” with its dark, reflective glass and lack of formal entry. You’re not sure when you’ve officially entered it because the exterior skin folds in on itself, reflecting where you’ve come from but not revealing what you’re about to step into. With four identical towers, the structure almost intends you to get lost in it. Literary critic Frederic Jameson calls this hotel the quintessential postmodern space or “hyperspace”, a word he uses to describe a space that mutates so fast that the human body and mind has difficulty keeping up with it.

The Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles designed by John Portman & Associates

The real hotel

Jameson writes in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism:

The mini-city of Portman’s Bonaventure ought not to have entrances at all, since the entryway is always the seam that links the building to the rest of the city that surrounds it: for it does not wish to be a part of the city, but rather its equivalent and its replacement or substitute. That is, however, obviously not possible or practical, whence the deliberate downplaying and reduction of the entrance function to its bare minimum.

“Design” room featuring wall of hotel diagrams

These next two models are the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. The back side (right picture) “reveals a cross-section of multiple and diverse scenes recreating a microcosm of the urban life around it—a labyrinth of interweaving public and private space.”


Here are a few of my own photos of the Waldorf Astoria from my NYC trip two years ago:

IMG_6242 - Version 2IMG_6210The exhibit stressed the role of the hotel as a liminal space between public and private; individual and collective. As the quotation above says, you’ll never know who you may “collide” with in a hotel. The hotel collects a motley crew of individuals and arranges them into private rooms and communal spaces (lobbies, pools, restaurants) for varied lengths of time, a constant motion of inhaling energetic faces while exhaling wearied ones.

When I returned home last week after seeing the exhibit, I began to think of my “hotel story.” After all, everyone has one, right? Then I realized that as informative and entertaining as the exhibit was, it missed a big part of the hotel experience for Gen Yers like me. It gave space to the hotel and the motel, but what about the hostel? The only time I’ve stayed in hotels is when travelling with my family as a kid. As such, I can think of hostel stories more readily than I can of hotel stories, and I know many of my friends would say the same. In fact, this is the only way we travel as adults—I would say it’s even more conducive for “generating random but fortuitous collisions,” especially collisions with other solo travellers who then become your companions to take on the city. I know the exhibit can’t include every configuration of the hotel experience, but this gap stands out to me as a significant one as modern-day hotel culture, especially for young people, includes the hostel.

Wallpaper in Llayers Llove Hotel, Room 307, Tokyo designed by Richard Hutton

In any case, the exhibit provided a fascinating overview of the hotel and its place in history, travel (whether by airplane, car, or train), design, and culture (including famous artists who created in hotels and historic moments that happened in their spaces). After walking through the exhibit, there’s no denying that hotels have significantly shaped modern life in some form or another.

How has it shaped yours? Do you have a hotel story?

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