Archive for July, 2009

Hotels Become Design Attractions

Friday, July 31st, 2009

This is the final installment of my presentation on the evolution of hotel design. I hope this might inspire other designers to take a closer look at your out-of-town accommodations for inspiration the next time you set about designing an environment for the comfort and use of people.

portman_hyattArchitect John Portman’s hotels set a modern, upscale tone. His Hyatt Regency Atlanta opened in 1967 as the world’s first atrium hotel. When it opened, visitors lined up to see it, described by one critic as “a concrete monster.” The top of the hotel features a Jetsons-esque flying saucer, and the 23-story atrium created a stir with its innovative use of space. The atrium was the prototype not only for future downtown hotels in the city, but also for a number of hotels throughout the United States. Portmanʼs hotels also featured artwork that set a modern, upscale tone.

Despite critical rebuke, Portman scored an immediate popular success with his innovations.


Boutique hotels began to emerge in the late part of the 20th century as a limited number of consumers desired something fresh, exciting and challenging, away from the design standardization that had become the norm.

Philippe Starck–the bad boy of design–started with his product design work and moved into space design. He reinvented the hotel using repetition, boldness, simplicity, sculptural modern gestures, and lighting. He envisions space from a theatrical perspective, and is careful to minimize the content. In the 1990s Starck was retained by Ian Schrager to design a series of boutique hotels in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles.

The sameness of the chain hotels with their lack of character allowed boutique hotels to emerge. Some of these hotels have informed chains on how to change their approaches. The concept for W Hotels, for example, came from the success of Philippe Starck’s design approach.

disneyMichael Graves (with the firm Arquitectonica) brought postmodernism to Disney World by including historical references in an exaggerated cartoon-like fashion. He increased scale, punched-up color, and applied graphic patterns onto the façades. Graves used classically-inspired play block-like forms to add details to his buildings. He imagined theatrically-inspired high-chroma spaces that allowed visitors to step into the fantasy that is Disney World. Hotels at Disney World also experiment with scale, like EDSA’s All Star Resort. By making the small larger-than-life, designers can put visitors into an imaginary world, surrounded by fantasy.


Thanks to media like TV and the Internet, the consumerʼs visual sophistication is greater than ever before. This gives designers the opportunity to reinventing selective elements from the past for a modern consumer. No matter the exterior design of a hotel building, tradition and traditionalist reinterpretations often make an appearance to provide guests with a sense of sophistication that comes with Greek, Roman, Classical and Baroque design elements like statues and gilded furniture.


Exhibit designers can take a number of cues from the cycle of hotel divergence, convergence and divergence again. If there is one thing modern boutique hotels hold in common, it’s the idea that the presentation should be full of drama, loaded with a common theme, and carried through boldly and without hesitation. From reimaginations of traditional themes (like those of the old grand hotels), to minimalism and naturalism, there is plenty of inspiration to go around when searching for a theme for temporary spaces that are intended to tell a quick story.

It doesn’t matter that hotels are living spaces while exhibition booths are not. What is common is the need to engender comfort, interest and attraction–all aspects of the uniquely American hotel.

I used a number of sources in researching these past three blog posts. They include:

  1. Hotel: An American History by A.K.Sandoval-Starusz, YALE, 2007
  2. The American Hotel–an issue of The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts #25, Wolfsonian/Florida International University, 2005
  3. Chicago’s Grand Hotels by Robert V. Allegrini, Arcadia Publishing, 2005
  4. The Architecture of Leisure: The Florida Resort Hotels of Henry Flagler and Henry Plant by Susan R. Braden, University Press of Florida, 2002
  5. New Hotel/Architecture and Design by David Collins, Conran Octopus Limited, London, 2001
  6. Grand Hotels of the Jazz Age: The Architecture of Schultze & Weaver by Marianne Lamonace and Johathan Mogul, Princeton Architectural, 2005

New artistic offerings in Chicago’s Millennium Park

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Having grown up in Chicago, I always enjoy returning to see the eclectic art and architecture you just won’t find in any other place.

Millennium Park is an amazing place a place to see the the past and future of Chicago. The Bean–really called “Cloud Gate”–is an amazing piece, as are the video tower fountains, and the Pritzker amphiteatre designed by Frank Gehry. The Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago makes a great neighbor to the park, and the overlook onto the park from its rooftop is spectacular. (I certainly hope the Art Institute is able to keep the Modern Wing’s tight corners where glass meets steel clean as nature takes its toll. I already witnessed a tiny bit of weather damage around steel bolts, and the glass was a bit dingy.)

unstudio1Temporary exhibits within the park are equally modern and innovative–the traditionalist blushes happen to be there, too, and the important thing is they actually work.

In my visit in early July, I saw the Burnham Pavilions, a series of temporary exhibits erected in celebration of the the 100th anniversary of Daniel Burnham’s master plan of Chicago. One of the pavilions is by UNStudio from Amsterdam. UNStudio’s chief–Ben van Berkel–says the design was inspired by the cantilevered roofs on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House (also in Chicago). What I thought was cool was the fact it was constructed completely out of wood, and painted white with a glossy finish. You wouldn’t think it’s wood at all until you begin walking on it.

zahaAnother by Zaha Hadid is still under construction. Zaha Hadid is a very talented sculptor masquerading as an architect and, in the City of Chicago, she has found a client to build an extremely complicated form. This tubular structure has been under construction for a long, long time. Its highly complicated skeletal structure requires high tolerance construction, which is a bit silly for an object that is going to make a short stint in the park.

Nevertheless, it’s exciting to go to Chicago to see new pieces making their premiere. I hope Chicago continues as a venue for experimental media, not only for the star architects and sculptors, but also local artists.

Hotels Become Distinct Places

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

As America became accustomed to independence in the 19th century, there emerged a system of distinct hotel types: luxury, commercial, middle class, and marginal. Entrepreneurs created this tiered system to respond to an increase in demand by an increasingly mobile American populace, and designed each space to suit their customers…and their ability to pay.

Luxury hotels were the first distinct class to emerge. They were large, ornate, expensive, and intended for a well-to-do clientele. Luxury hotels like the Exchange Coffee House were so visually impressive and elicited so much commentary that two centuries later they still capture the imagination and stand for “hoteldom.”

luxuryBut for every privileged family that stayed in the luxury hotel, there were a dozen businessmen that could not afford more than a clean bed. Thus the emergence of commercial hotels in 1820. These were for business travelers: the salesman, account clerks, wholesale agents, shopkeepers, and buyers whose ranks were growing as the economy expanded. They started in New York City and expanded nationwide.

Middle class hotels were hotels constructed to provide cheaper alternatives to luxury hotels for men, women and children rather than commercial travelers.

In time, even the poor could find a hotel to stay the night. Some marginal hotels were considered outside the bounds of respectability simply because they operated in a seedy part of own or served low-income clientele. They had numerous beds in single rooms. Some resembled boarding houses for day laborers, vagrants and the semi-homeless.

A fifth type of hotel emerged in the 1790s–resort hotels. The early resort hotels were the latest addition to a long standing tradition of visits to mineral springs and other sites to improve health. Spa towns drew visitors in Europe for centuries, and Americans organized spa trips at least as far back as the 1760s.

resortSoon, these resorts developed unique social scenes that replaced scenery and health as their main draw. They were unique enough to draw seasonal patrons and generated a standing community. While the guest of a city hotel would stay an average of three days, resort hotel patrons stayed for weeks and months at a time. Prosperous families could reserve rooms for an entire summer, with the husband returning to work during he week and the wife and children staying continuously. In order to occupy guestsʼ abundant time, resort hotels sponsored concerts, lectures, nature walks, plays, recitals, masquarade balls, and countless other forms of entertainment.

Resort hotels emerged out of the same conditions that had given rise to other hotels: commercial capitalism, rapid urbanization, and improved transportation. Despite the common origins, resorts played a very different role in the hotel system.

Resorts were not in the crossroads of networks of travel: they were in the nature of terminal points, places that people arrived rather tan moved through. They formed a refuge from the heterogeneity and hubbub of city life. In this sense, they stood in opposition to the democratizing trends that characterized other American hotels. Basically aristocratic, resorts were descendants of the British resorts.

nationalparkhotelMany resorts offered visitors “exotic” surroundings and experiences. The Fred Harvey Company, among others, built hotels within National Parks following their establishment and connection by car or railroads.

Americans invented the large urban luxury hotel in the early 19th century, and since that time these buildings have proven to be a source of fascination for the worldʼs traveling public. We tend to think of our citiesʼ gilded palaces as democratic imitations of the aristocratic palace homes of England and Europe, and like them, something beyond the realm of “real” life. The wealthy mansions of New York inspired the apartment hotels down the street.

The original Waldorf Astoria was a typical New York luxury hotel in the European style. The modern Classical style of this new 1920 hotel was called “Art Deco” and became fashionable in New York following the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et industiel Modern in Paris.


New markets provided major opportunities for hotel operators that had previously been confined to one city or region. Thus began the hotel franchise through which chains began to appear across the country. This paved the way not only for standardization in service and quality, but also in aesthetic and design.

By the 1950s and 60s, corporate chains dominated the market. Their primary audience was the traveling businessman, and modernism was the dominant aesthetic.

Modernism was a perfect match for the corporate hotels, it has no individual style, it had a stripped down pragmatic feeling. These hotels have been more concerned with reflecting style rather than setting it. The prevailing trend is one of trying to square the circle between complete brand and corporate control to those hotels that are more informal and independent looking. Unfortunately, this trend has resulted in a series of sterile hotels that are mostly benign, and free of character and fantasy.

Next up: Modern hotel design and what we can learn from these entirely choreographed spaces.

The Hotel Is Born In America

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

For my inaugural blog posts, I want to talk about the evolution of the hotel and how hotels can influence museum and exhibit designers. This will be the first post of three based off of a presentation I gave earlier this year at the Exhibitor conference in Las Vegas. First, some history on the hotel and where it got its start. I’ll include important research references in part three on Friday.

American hotels are some of the worldʼs most significant buildings. The most basic hotels–buildings divided into separate guest rooms–began to appear shortly after our countryʼs founding.

innBefore independence, American society was really quite different. Like in Europe (and elsewhere) public authority had been deeply invested in policing peopleʼs comings and goings closely–particularly out town strangers. Colonial communities generally discouraged visits from strangers and kept close watch on those who came into town. Certain approved travelers–such as circuit riding judges and other officials–were welcomed, but most others–-itinerant peddlers and preachers, fortune tellers, and especially people without–were viewed with suspicion.

Towns often passed laws scrutinizing outsiders upon their arrival, and local innkeepers were vital for this effort. Innkeepers were assigned the role of both guardian and sentry; they not only were responsible for sheltering visitors and their possessions but were also expected to notify authorities of the arrival of any and all outsiders.

Following the American Revolution, travel increased for commercial, administrative and religious reasons. Trade and trust are intertwined. The American revolution codified new political and economic beliefs and demanded a new system for housing visitors.

drinkingAs our countryʼs first president, George Washington devised a grand national tour on which he would make personal visits to cities and towns. He intended to use his extraordinary popularity to solidify public support for the fragile new federal government. Not wanting to be accused of taking advantage of favors, Washington refused private hospitality and decided to stay in public houses and inns.

Washingtonʼs 2000 mile tour from New Hampshire to Georgia fostered popular faith in the government and prestige in the presidency. He stayed in early inns that resembled houses and were not purposefully built. They did not contain individual rooms–only individual beds. Sometimes travelers would have to sleep in the same bed with another person.

Economic development and an infant government put pressure on this restrictive system. Travel increased for commercial, administrative and religious reasons. Trade and trust are intertwined. The American revolution codified new political and economic beliefs and demanded a new system for housing visitors.

When Washington took office in 1789 the finest public houses were 3 story, 20 room inns. Two decades later, the first 7 story, 200 room hotel was built.

bellThe hotel was born.

The country’s new hotels were deliberate attempts to create a new class of public houses that would stand apart from their predecessors. As the rise of market economies and social mobility began to erode the importance of aristocratic titles and other kinds of hereditary status, people turned to style, decor, and other visual cues to demonstrate their social standing.

Luxury, commercial, middle-class and resort hotels emerged over time and across the space of the country to create a number of outlets for designers and architects to experiment with the usage of space, color, lighting and decor.

New markets provided major opportunities for hotel operators that had previously been confined to one city or region. Thus began the hotel franchise through which chains be-gan to appear across the country. This paved the way not only for standardization in service and quality, but also in aesthetic and design.

The invention of the hotel was more than just a milestone in the history of the public house. It reflected important changes in the way Americans defined their communities, engaged in politics, organized their economic activities, and socialized.

Hotels were truly an American phenomenon.

The countryʼs new hotels were deliberate attempts to create a new class of public houses that would stand apart from their predecessors. As the rise of market economies and social mobility began to erode the importance of aristocratic titles and other kinds of hereditary status, people turned to style, decor, and other visual cues to demonstrate their social standing.

unionpublicThe Philadelphia City Tavern (1770) was one factor that contributed to Philadelphia becoming our countryʼs first capital city. The city had the capacity to comfortably host guests from throughout the colonies.

The Union Public Hotel (1793, pictured) was the first hotel built specifically for the new capital of Washington D.C. A contemporary journalist wrote this new hotel would the most significant building in America. White House architect James Hoban designed the structure–you can see the similarities between the two buildings. The building was such a feature that Congress convened inside for nearly two years when the British burned Washington in 1814.

The City Hotel (1794) was the first amenity hotel. It included ballrooms, public parlors, a bar, stores, offices and the largest circulating library in the U.S. It contained 137 rooms and remained the grandest building in New York City for over 40 years.

bostonexchangeThe Boston Exchange Coffee House (1809) required half a million dollars for its construction and was the largest building in the U.S. in its time. People flocked to the hotel, and it became the preeminent place to see and be seen. It was used for balls, concerts and other occasions. It was a center of Boston finance. A fire started in the attic, and because Boston did not have a ladder tall enough, the fire destroyed the building.

The hotel provided an improved standard of hospitality and established the necessary infrastructure of a new age pubic commercial and human mobility. Hotels symbolized the desires of a nation that was becoming more urban and commercial.

They supplied space for social display, and were designed to reallocate political power by restructuring political space.

Next up: Luxury, commercial, middle-class and marginal hotels jump onto the scene…and they look (and feel) different.