Llayers Llove Hotel/ Photo credit: Takumi Ota
“Everyone has a hotel story,” proclaims the opening panel to The Grand Hotel, a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional architecture and design show now running at the Vancouver Art Gallery May through to September. The show addresses the impact hotels – and motels too – have had on society through four themes, travel, design, social and culture. Each section is lavishly illustrated with film, video, photographs and personal artifacts.
The design section focuses on the evolution of the modern hotel from a simple rest stop to a must-see destination, the place you visit for an adventure in itself. Exotic getaways and luxurious pampering fall into this category. The exhibit features ten game-changing structures in the history of hotel design. They include, but are not limited to, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (since demolished), New York’s sumptuous Waldorf Astoria by Schultze and Weaver, the Flamingo Hotel and Casino by Vernon Russell, Arne Jacobsen’s modernist SAS Royal Hotel and Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals, a hotel and spa carved into the Swiss countryside. These structures are represented through beautiful scale models, videos and photographs. The exhibit profiles peripherals too such as key chains, matchboxes and Jacobsen-designed chairs and cutlery.
Architects get their due but so do the folks who frequent the world’s grand hotels. “Hotels have both sheltered artists from the outside world and offered them creative environments for them to produce their work,” says guest curator Jennifer Volland who created the show along with the Vancouver Gallery’s Bruce Grenville.
The culture section champions the hotel as an artistic incubator profiling the famous names who have either resided or passed through hospitable hotels, places like New York’s Chelsea Hotel– a video of a Chelsea garden party featuring Andy Warhol, John Lennon, Arthur C. Clarke and a very young Jack Nicholson plays in the background – or Chateau Marmont in Los Angles, a favorite gathering place for ‘60’s musicians Joni Mitchell, the Byrds and the Mamas and Papas. The Marmont in particular has also served as a backdrop in numerous films and TV shows.
New York’s Algonquin Hotel gets a mention for spawning the Algonquin Round Table, a who’s who of New York’s literary elite in the 1920’s consisting of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Harold Ross, the founder of the New Yorker magazine. Vienna’s Hotel Imperial is identified as a gathering place for Europe’s intelligentsia at the turn of the century – Sigmund Freud and Leon Trotsky frequented the hotel’s cafe when not writing or plotting – and the Beat Hotel in Paris is credited as the place William Burroughs stretched his creative legs. His stay, and that of others, is marked by original manuscripts, artifacts and home movies. And in a nod to Canadian nationalists, there’s a wall devoted to CPR hotels too.
On the political front, Hilton International gets pilloried as an engine of American cultural imperialism, part of a post WWII plan to rehabilitate war ravaged economies but also to spread American influence in the early days of the Cold War. Hilton’s modernist boxes are described as standardized fare “with kitschy surface embellishments that referenced an American view of the local culture.” Ouch.
So what’s a show that references history, politics and pop culture doing in an art gallery? “The hotel is a universal and identifiable symbol,” says curator Volland. Because of the ever-changing commercial landscape “there’s a lot of experimentation in design and architecture in hotels in a way that you won’t find in office buildings or churches.” As the role of hotels change, architects and designers have to come up with creative ways to redefine the space. Today’s hotels, the exhibition notes, consciously integrate a cultural aesthetic into the building’s overall design whether it’s by adopting a retro look or by loading the room with original art. Portland’s Ace Hotel and the Lloyd Hotel in Amsterdam, represented in the show by a striking, multi-coloured installation, come to mind.
Gallery officials hope Grand Hotel will travel to other parts of Canada next year.