New Age Hotels

May 28, 2004
Today's traveler demands not only personal convenience and comfort.
Quite apart from their design attributes, today’s hotels have to fulfill two key requirements as the temporary homes of business travelers: they must function effectively as fully networked workplaces, and they must offer a wide range of relaxation possibilities. Rooms offering Internet access and other communications facilities have become commonplace in such hotels; business centers are vital…Wherever their work may take them, today’s business executives and professionals — “the nomads of the information age” — want to be pampered in every way. Health consciousness is increasing, and the modern concept of “wellness” has less to do with rock-hard muscles than with physical and psychological contentedness. The American term “spa” — supposedly derived from the Latin salus per aqua (well-being through water) — is frequently used for these oases of physical indulgence…[see “Sensory Design: Health & Fitness” Part I, Nov/Dec ’02 ARCHI-TECH]The saturation of our senses with prefabricated images of what is desirable and pleasurable is progressing apace: leisure is becoming synonymous with entertainment, and entertainment value is the key to consumer behavior. It’s all about turning life into a theme park… The epidemic that started decades ago in amusement parks has long since taken hold in retail environments, restaurants, and hotels.If today’s theme parks are, in the words of Italian writer Umberto Eco, “allegories of consumer society,” then “experience” hotels embody its creative desires — the material counterparts, both subtle and striking in their effects, of changes in behavior and expectations… In a highly targeted way visitors are given a surface onto which they can project their fantasies and obsessions… The expedition into semi-private worlds of secret desires and barely suppressed illusions begins with the choice of story and setting…It is no coincidence that the leading transformation in hotel design is the French designer Philippe Starck. He was the first in the late 1980s to treat his interiors as stage sets, to assemble them using quotations and surprises, to arrange them as stimulating scene changes that are playfully managed and discovered by the guests; and he has done this in increasingly virtuoso fashion ever since.In doing this Starck anticipated the needs and desires of the consumer elite of the information age. The American [journalist] David Brooks recently coined the term “bourgeois bohemians” (or “bobos”) to describe this elite. The bobos have grown up with multimedia literacy, style-consciousness, and self-awareness… (T)hey react to images and new experiences in a correspondingly light-hearted and self-confident manner. They behave as consumers in the same way as they surf the net…Emotional qualities, powerful images, and unmediated expressiveness are the most prominent elements of contemporary architecture. Buildings are designed as adventures for the senses: overpowering, imperious, entertaining. “We are much more concerned with creating a building that arouses emotions, rather than one that represents this or that idea,” explains the Swiss architect Jacques Herzog. His Dutch colleagues Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos identify the main features of an architecture of sensation; it should be “anticipatory, unexpected, climactic, cinematic, time-related, non-linear, surprising, mysterious, compelling, and engaging.”Integral to the very nature of architecture and interior design is an artificial world of experience, but the creation of visual sensations and spatial illusions was for a long time subordinate to artistic, psychological, and economic concerns. In 1947, in the book Vision in Motion, Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy asserted that artworks and buildings should be seen as constructed sensual experiences, and that it is the artist’s task “to put layer upon layer, stone upon stone, in the organization of emotions; to record feeling with his particular means, to give structure and refinement as well as direction to the inner life of his contemporaries.”Modern architecture can be read as the fulfillment of this injunction. On one hand it creates one-offs with no general relevance — buildings that, like modernist works of art, stand alone; on the other hand it creates theatrical décors made up of quotations or borrowings from popular culture. In both cases it is moving away from the representation of functions and from architectural typology towards autonomy, excess, nostalgia, and spectacle. The “wow!” factor is what counts.The result is an architecture of grand gestures and big names. It is not political or religious power or the representation of community that lies behind the attention-grabbing, monumental constructions of today. These are the cathedrals of the leisure culture — museums and arts complexes, airports, mega-malls, hybrid mixed-use complexes, hotel-casino resorts — which seem to lay claim to an exalted status purely on the basis of their size. Popular culture has turned architecture into a brand logo; architectural design is entertainment “capital” used in a targeted way by investors, politicians, and brand strategists as a magnet for the public and a marketing instrument and, above all, as a source of profit…Theatrical DesignArchitects are in demand as suppliers of spectacle. Event architecture — opening up the city as an arena for events — is made possible only by what the German architect Axel Schultes criticized as the “architectural audacities of egomaniacs.” The Bauhaus ideal of the democratization of the arts becomes the vulgarization of style. Supposedly distinctive architectural images are increasingly interchangeable. A key characteristic here is architecture’s detachment from its context. The invasion of the human imagination by the myths of the entertainment industry has led to a proliferation of globally compatible architectural monuments that bear no relation at all to their surroundings.The validity of philosopher Jean Paul Baudrillard’s thesis of “architecture’s disappearance into the virtual,” where “reality turns into spectacle, the real becomes a theme park” is now apparent. In Las Vegas, the booming U.S. leisure metropolis in the Nevada desert, counterfeits are piled up to the point where they become overpowering realities… An amusement-driven world theater has left the auditorium to evolve into an open-air parade of curiosities. The city itself has become a cliché-laden interior; the architecture works with suggestive strategies and foreshortened perspectives, more or less turning itself into a three-dimensional stage backdrop.To use a term coined by Robert E. Somol, professor or architecture in Los Angeles, this “architainment landscape” is based on a universal architectural model: the hotel-casino with attached shopping, show, conference, and trade-fair facilities. Here, Endo urbanism — the transplantation and accumulation of set pieces — is inverted in the stage-set hotel, in its simulated privacy, where the strange attracts by means of the familiar. These environments for sale are temporary homes offering timebound attractions… [See “The Hotel-Casinos of Las Vegas” Jan/Feb ’01 ARCHI-TECH]It may seem that a vast chasm separates the rowdy world of Las Vegas from the subtle décors of the purist designer hotels, but the mega-palaces of kitsch and the small temples of contemporary style both offer “mood” architecture, carefully devised backdrops against which guests can enjoy new experiences. In this they follow the rules of the “experience economy” analyzed by the authors B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, which operates in a highly manipulative way: “Theater is not a metaphor but a model. Staging experiences is not about entertaining customers, it’s about engaging them.” [See “The Experience Economy” Fall ’99 ARCHI-TECH]Ian Schrager, who remains a trendsetter in the elite sector with his Starck hotels, compares the hotel’s spatial layout with a play: the lobby is the prelude, the first act of the hotel’s drama, which has its finale in the individual guest rooms. In recent projects such as London’s St. Martin’s Lane, guests can even influence their own happy ending by adjusting the stage lighting in their rooms to the colors they desire.Interiors are planned to the last detail. Restaurants, signs, graphic designs and the appearance of the hotel personnel have to meet, in a clear and consistent way, the expectations of a cosmopolitan public well vested in the language of fashion and advertising. “They were the messengers of the Lord, selected for their upright stature and attractive faces — advantages that were amply exhibited in their carriage and the look in their eyes. They were angels of this world.” This is how, in the 1930s, the German writer Wolfgang Koeppen saw the reception staff in the parallel and more beautiful universe that a hotel represents. To bring his vision up to date, the only thing you would have to add is the name of the exclusive designer or brand responsible for creating the angels’ uniforms.Star Architects“Image transfer” is an increasingly important concept in both the popular and elite sectors of the hotel business. Leading figures in modern architecture such as the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and the Swiss duo Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have been engaged by the fashion company Prada to design its new flagship stores and headquarters — the hotelier Ian Schrager invited the same stars to design the Astor Palace in New York’s SoHo, the first new-build hotel in his luxury chain, before he changed his mind and transferred the project to the even more illustrious Frank O. Gehry. Schrager’s local competitor André Balasz responded by having his latest hotel project, the Broadway — just a few blocks away — designed by Jean Nouvel. The battle for customers’ attention is fought between star architects in Manhattan in just the same way as it is fought between gigantic postcard panoramas of fictional and non-fictional sites…In large-scale mixed-use projects the hotel increasingly performs an anchor role. A hotel in a commercial mall is designed as a prime public attraction, drawing in not only hotel guests but also the general public. In the heart of Berlin, a former communist hotel block was demolished to make way for the new “DomAquarée,” where a 100-foot-high cylindrical saltwater aquarium, big enough for sharks and rays, will be a permanent attraction in the atrium of the new Radisson hotel. The two-story lift taking guests up to the health center on the top floor “floats” right through the aquarium. Generally, restaurants and shopping areas are becoming ever more important elements in a hotel complex, making the hotel a focal point in the urban environment and a place where local folk can meet and socialize. Single-use buildings — used purely for accommodation or conferences — are a thing of the past.A current trend…(includes)…an emphasis on design. W Suites, the design hotel subsidiary of the world’s largest hotel group, Starwood…is planning a move into international markets. A series of new “style hotels” is planned to rejuvenate the portfolio of the U.K.’s Hilton group — starting with the Trafalgar hotel in London. Smaller chains, such as the U.K.’s Firndale Hotels or California’s Joie de Vivre group, are successfully serving a more offbeat customer base… The “boutique hotel” (more compact and individual in its design than average), which has long been the province of the avant-garde, is now recognized as a successful model for small luxury hotels, in urban and rural settings…Human beings create their own images of desire and then set out in pursuit of them. These are simulacra: ideals, visions, idols… Yet perhaps simulation itself becomes authentic when it overlies the inherited reality, annexes it, and simultaneously becomes a point of reference in itself. There is no doubt that Las Vegas and Disney World have attained the status of originals — originals that others quote and imitate. For the American art critic David Hickey, Las Vegas is even “the only authentic image world on the North American continent”…There is no way back. The alliance of true art and contemporary architecture in an artificial setting is the logical development of the new image-driven and image-consuming global culture, contradicting the argument that original works and reproductions are incompatible… The consumer as traveler seeks distraction and edification, and experiences illusions as actual happenings: the creation of authenticity becomes an art form in itself…Otto Riewoldt is a curator and consultant on architecture, design, and corporate communication projects. This article is adapted from his Introduction to New Hotel Design, published in the U.S. ($50) by Watson-Guptill Publications (, and used with permission. Photos are courtesy of the exhibit “New Hotels for Global Nomads” at Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum ( with accompanying catalog (2002) by Donald Albrecht and Elizabeth Johnson co-published by Merrell Publishing ($39.95).

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