Grand Hotel

TEXT Steve DiPasquale

Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life sets out its agenda in clear and sober terms–to track the hotel’s development from “an isolated utilitarian structure to a cultural phenomenon that figures prominently within the global landscape.” But the show’s curators, Jennifer M. Volland, Bruce Grenville and Stephanie Rebick, have done well to permit themselves an array of indulgences in charting this transformation, and take palpable pleasure in fulfilling the latter portion of their mandate. It is in their attempt to lay bare not just the typological evolution of the hotel, but also its myriad roles as a cultural agent that exhibitors transcend the merely ambitious and set course for the truly audacious. The hotel, it turns out, is a promiscuous character, its bedfellows scattered across the various realms of pop culture, and tracing out its couplings is no small feat. Sequencing our way through themes of Travel, Design, Social and Culture, we’re asked to put a story together from a densely layered collection of media and artifacts–photos to films, postcards to adverts, cutlery to furniture, drawings to models, magazines to records.

In the first two adjoining rooms on Travel, exhibitors offer a savvy introduction that works to first establish the hotel’s straightforward familiarity before immediately problematizing it in its global complexity. On one side of the room is the hotel’s origin story–photos and text portraying the informal lodgings that peppered the ancient trade routes of Kazakhstan, Syria and Iraq. On the other, sublime façades of Middle Eastern hotels erected mid-century sit together with adverts of the age pairing leisure jet travel with safe exoticism. The locations represented–the Middle East and the former Soviet Union–make Conrad Hilton’s infamous credo land with potent irony: “World Peace through International Travel and Trade.” Arranged as it is, the presentation bounces the visitor from the organic simplicity of the mud hut to Cold War-era geopolitics in an instant, concisely laying out in text and artifact the ways in which countries leveraged hotels as tools of international diplomacy, foreign policy, and their own nationalist agendas. It’s a riveting introduction, and by the time we’ve left this opening stage, we’ve bought into the show’s thesis and are primed for the next edifying genealogy.

For those with an interest in the history of the built environment, the first stop of the Design portion of the show is perhaps the most extraordinary of the bunch. The long room is dominated by large physical models set out as a kind of chronological architecture park, an assemblage of 10 buildings that represent some of the most important typological turns of the modern hotel. There’s an unmistakably dramatic effect in wandering among these pieces: heavily individuated and exquisitely crafted, each model captivates by virtue of its own persona. The group responsible for shaping these personalities–Vancouver’s own Goodweather Studio–do an exemplary job of exploiting the possibilities of the architectural model, treating it not as another medium of literal representation, but as an accessible way to materialize a project’s operative strengths. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo is a judiciously reduced wooden diptych in axial alignment with Mount Fuji; Schultze and Weaver’s Waldorf Astoria overwhelms Manhattan in scale and stature while simultaneously holding its urban complexity in the vignettes of its windows; and Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals, modelled in stone, almost disappears in its homologous relation to its geography, now disclosing the adjacent hotel as something, well, extraterrestrial. The models are also contextualized by accompanying photographs, periodicals, and relevant passages from heavyweight critics, as well as a supersized graphic timeline of hotels running the entire length of the room. Having just read Langston Hughes’s poem from New Masses satirizing the displacement of the poor to make room for the new Waldorf Astoria, we can hold in our gaze the interpretive model of the hotel, its oversized graphic icon, and Rem Koolhaas’s assertion from his Delirious New York that “[a] Hotel is a plot–a cybernetic universe with its own laws generating random but fortuitous collisions between human beings who would never have met elsewhere.” The exhibition shines in inviting us to consider these artifacts at once.

In sourcing their raw materials, the curators have not so much cast a net far and wide as they have supercharged a magnet to do the heavy lifting for them: pulled through the ages and around the globe, figures as dazzling as Hughes, Koolhaas and Frederic Jameson, and artifacts as varied as Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, Philippe Starck’s Lou Read chair, and Brion Gysin’s dream machine leap up and accrue, sometimes tangling together in wild but cogent strings. This is not to say the curators’ task was easy, only that portions of the exhibition show up like ingenious works often do, as surprising that no one had done it before, as something sure-footed enough to seem inevitable. Tied together and presented as they are, all these magnetic chains make a strong case that the hotel might be considered, as surmised, “a quintessential building of the modern world.”

It must be said that the show’s strengths–its incredible diversity and fearless adjacencies–are also the source of its compromise. When we see, for instance, that the Algonquin Hotel was the first to let rooms to solo women travellers, that hotels are part machine designed for maximum throughput of meals and laundry, that hotels have also been sites of institutionalized racism, our minds begin reeling with tangential questions–but entertaining them lies beyond the scope of the project. Grand Hotel is, in fact, the first show of its kind (never before has there been such a survey exhibition on the subject) and its contribution is in the network of relations it suggests, and the flights of varying altitudes and velocities it easily supports. Those interested in the design of hotels, their social function as leisure getaways, their role in the political economy, or the ways in which they act as generators of culture will all find ways to be excited and enriched–and will no doubt be left buzzing to find out more. To them, the hotel will never look quite the same. CA

Steve DiPasquale is an intern architect at Hughes Condon Marler Architects in Vancouver.

The Vancouver Art Gallery has created a dedicated microsite at to allow visitors an immersive virtual experience of the Grand Hotel exhibition.