The book (pre-order your copy here) includes four photos by the great architectural photographer Julius Shulman, including this one of the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs.
One of the biggest misconceptions about glamour is that it is somehow feminine. Men are as susceptible to glamour as women, but it takes different forms for different audiences. One of the first uses of the word glamour in the modern sense was in reference to "the glamour of battle," and martial glamour is one of glamour's most ancient forms.
One of the delightful discoveries during my research was the work of photographer Virginia Thoren, who specialized in glamorously portraying fur coats in mid-20th-century ads. I hope to feature an interview with her in a later DG post but, in the meantime, you can see more of her work at the June Bateman Fine Art site.
A few years ago, I found myself in an artist's studio in central Baltimore, browsing a collection of vintage mahogany gear molds the artist found in an abandoned warehouse somewhere in the city. That day, I took home one of the molds – it's now mounted in my dining room – and a reminder that the sad photos of decrepit factories and boarded up houses only tell part of the story.
Baltimore has a history of innovative approaches to real estate problems. In the seventies, the Dollar House Program led to the revitalization of several neglected parts of the city (some of which are now Baltimore's most popular – and pricey – communities). More recently, a vibrant architectural salvage industry has sprung up around the city. In addition to small, focused operations, like the artist I found selling those restored gear molds, Baltimore his home to several impressive architectural salvage organizations.
These organizations collect furniture, artifacts, and architectural elements from buildings that are slated for destruction or renovation. They usually pay for what they collect, but also provide a service by removing some of the stuff from the building.
The salvage companies then resell the goods, either as-is or after some cleaning and/or repurposing. (The NatGeo show "Abandoned" follows a Pennsylvania architectural salvage company through the whole process.)
One of Baltimore's best known salvage operations is Housewerks, a carefully curated shop (and workshop) located in a nineteenth century building that once housed the Chesapeake Gas Works. Owners Tracey Clark and Ben Riddleberger scout the city (and beyond) for furniture and architectural components that are interesting – and glamorous. (The surroundings at Housewerks are dramatic enough that the space is frequently rented out for parties and weddings.)
"There's such an elegance to old pieces that isn't in evidence today," says Meg Fairfax Fielding, the author of the Pigtown Design blog, and a close friend of Clark and Riddleberger. "It's about buying the elegance, craftsmanship and workmanship of a bygone age. Even in the most mundane industrial pieces, you find beautiful patterns engraved on the gears, or an elegant swoop to a leg of a work table. There was much more care taken when making and designing an old industrial piece."
Baltimore artist Sean O'Harra turns salvaged materials into gorgeous furniture and home accessories, all of which are imbued with a sense of history, thanks to the reclaimed wood and metals he chooses. "Old materials, like old growth woods, have more character," he explains. "Sometimes they're filled with nails and they might be hard to work with, but they have a better feel. It's like they had a past life."
O'Harra and Fielding agree that people are drawn to the inherent glamour of vintage materials, whether they're raw or have been reworked to create something new. "We're honoring our past and what came before us," says Fielding.
But both add warnings. Fielding notes that, like so many other things that are glamorous on the surface, architectural salvage requires a great deal of dirty, gritty work for both sellers and shoppers. "You have to be willing to pick through stacks of old marble, old bathtubs and old mirrors to find the piece you are looking for," she says. "Most salvage yards are filthy!"
O'Harra's concerns relate to the popularity of vintage materials and what that means for quality. "A lot of antique shops and pickers jumped on this bandwagon and make things that people see as interesting. But a lot of times, I think there's not a good marriage between materials. People eat it up because it's aged, but it doesn't always look aesthetically pleasing to me."
O'Harra also laments the increased popularity of newly made objects with a vintage look, which is at odds with his environmentally-conscious approach to reusing materials. "A lot of what you see is not vintage – it's recast materials made with new wood. That's not the right thing. These are one-off objects that shouldn't be mass-produced."
There's no doubt that architectural salvage has been good for Baltimore as a city and good for the individuals on both ends of the salvage transactions.
But together, O'Harra and Fielding's comments raise good questions: What would happen if a company mass-produced vintage "style" furniture while adopting a careful, detail-oriented, old-fashioned approach to construction?
Is that combination - mass-production and high-quality construction - even feasible?
And would it be a good thing overall? Or would it detract from the glamour of true vintage pieces?
Randall's post about the aging motorcyclists raises an interesting question: What's the difference between being glamorous and feeling glamorous?
Since at least the 1930s, fashion magazines, cosmetics companies, and fashion houses have treated "glamour" as a style or product. "The gospel of Max Factor and [British makeup artists] the Westmores was that glamour could be achieved by any woman who put her mind to it," writes Carol Dyhouse in Glamour: Women, History, Feminism, citing a magazine's 1939 on the makeover of a charlady. (She wiped off her new face and went back to her regular life.) A makeover or special outfit may make someone look attractive, and looking attractive may make her feel glamorous, but is that all there is to actually being glamorous?
In her excellent new book American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture, architectural historian Alice T. Friedman examines mid-century buildings that were designed to make their occupants feel glamorous by framing their lives--literally, with windows and other structural outlines--and giving them a feeling of processing through a special space. Eero Sarinen's TWA terminal, she writes, "offered travelers a vivid architectural experience, one in which ordinary people were given the opportunity not simply to arrive and depart in style but also to process and promenade, to sit, stand, dine, and observe one another in spaces of a ceremonial quality previously reserved for only the privileged few." The terminal was glamorous, but judging from the ordinary-looking crowd in the accompanying photo, I can't say the same about the passengers. Slumping in their swoopy modern seats, they look tired and a little schlubby, hardly up to crisp Mad Men standards. (You can see the photo at the end of this online excerpt from the book.) They don't make me yearn to join their special world.
Real glamour requires a receptive audience. You can only be glamorous if others perceive you that way. Feeling glamorous, on the other hand, means that your mental picture of yourself is one that you would find glamorous. You become the audience for your own glamour, creating a image of yourself that veils your flaws. Defying the ultimate intimacy, you somehow manage to turn yourself into an alluring Other. As for actual others, they may see something different.
Last week my wife and I visited two high-end bathroom show rooms in Denver. We are preparing to remodel our guest bathroom and basement bathroom, the only rooms in the house that haven’t been redone since we moved in three and half years ago. We took along an artist friend who also wants to redo one of her bathrooms.
Both women are visual artists who love contemporary design, so it was fun to see their reactions to the displays. An upscale bathroom showroom is a dream world, a place to see possibilities that seem like fantasies. There are sinks where the water magically disappears through barely visible slots, faucets that descend from the ceiling, toilets with built-in bidet functions that open when they sense you approach (my wife found this creepy), and tubs that can stimulate your skin with air bubbles or massage your muscles with water jets.
The Italian Bandini sinks shown above were photographed in a design space that makes them look like sculptures, and the water falls into them from faucets placed in the wall. The black floor and wall and the white Moon stone sinks are ultra chic, and the photograph suggests a bathroom of grand scale. Since we’re remodeling a small guest bathroom, many such possibilities seemed too large for our space.
In one room there was a large monitor that displayed dozens of extraordinary bathroom designs. Many of them were photographed from the interior of the bathroom, and a few had a bathtub next to a picture window that overlooked the sea or a verdant forest scene. These were bathrooms to envy, as Kohler makes clear in this video, which shows a tub designed to overflow the rim.
The woman who dies in the video ad has clearly enjoyed life, something many Italians seem to excel at doing. Her bedroom is traditional, but sumptuous and rich with memorabilia. She is surrounded by children and grandchildren. The photographs show that she had been a champion athlete, a traveler, a pilot, and in her younger years, an artist’s muse. A glamorous life indeed.
Then through a open window she sees another woman open her bathroom window to reveal a bathtub is has been filled by water coming down from a fixture in the ceiling. Already full, the water is spilling over the edges to be magically drained away. She imagines the decadent luxury of stepping into that tub, displacing more water over the edge, and letting the water continue to run, keeping the temperature perfect. And imagining what a bath like that would feel like, she glimpses a glamorous experience that she wishes she could have. Who can blame her?
Ever since writing about the relative glamour of New York and LA, back in December, I’ve been thinking – and trying to write – about the glamour of my own city, Baltimore. Finding glamour in anything requires a little detachment, so it follows that it’s difficult to clearly see the glamour in the place you live everyday.
It’s especially difficult when that place is Baltimore, a city best known right now thanks to David Simon and his series, "The Wire." The underbelly of the city that’s on display in the show holds a certain type of glamour for some people (like Anthony Bourdain, who made it the lens through which he examined Baltimore in an episode of "No Reservations" ), but by and large, the actual residents of Baltimore don’t consider our very real problems glamorous.
Fortunately, the city is bigger than one TV show. Big enough to hold several types of glamour, in fact.
I asked a couple of the more glamorous women-about-town, Meg Fairfax-Fielding (who writes the fantastic blog Pigtown Design) and Lisa Simeone (who writes for several publications and has a blog of her own, Glamour Girl, on Baltimore’s Style Magazine website), for their opinions on what makes the city glamorous. Right off, both women mentioned the city’s architecture.
Simeone says, “I think Baltimore's architecture (does that count?) is extremely glamorous. We have some of the most wonderful architecture in the country here.” And she’s right. Simeone was able to list, off the top of her head, ten different buildings and neighborhoods that are, by any objective terms, home to fabulous historic architecture of the most glamorous sort. Beautiful buildings have the power to make people feel good, too. “How can one fail to feel glamorous,” she asks, “while swanning about in front of such buildings? All you have to do is look up, and you see beauty everywhere.”
For Fairfax-Fielding, the glamour is in the details. “Look at the curve of a railing or the detail in a piece of architecture is uplifting.” She goes on, “Keeping your eyes open often catches you a glimpse of an elegant older lady or gentleman. One of the most glamorous old Baltimoreans is decorator Billy Baldwin who grew up in Roland Park. His classic elegance and timeless style is still reflected in contemporary design.”
Baldwin’s not Baltimore’s only historical icon of glamour, either. Edgar Allen Poe, and his particularly dark brand of literary glamour, lived and worked here. Both Wallis Simpson and Pauline de Rothschild spent their formative years in the city (Baldwin and de Rothschild were close friends). Yes, they had to escape to fully realize their glamorous selves, but this is where they got their start.
Interestingly, neither Simeone nor Fairfax-Fielding mentioned Baltimore’s “hon” culture, which I consider glamorous in the most over-the-top, drag queen sense of the word. With their teased hair and 50s-inspired outrageous clothes, they’re tacky, sure, but glamour’s not always refined.
Hons have something in common with their more tailored counterparts in glamour, too, in that they're of the past, even if they’re celebrated in the present. Actual hons are a dying breed, even if they are actively promoted everywhere from John Waters movies to popular restaurants.
Simeone made an effort to identify the spots and occasions when the glamorous Baltimoreans of today make an appearance, but even she admits that, “Baltimoreans, like most Americans, don’t exactly dress up for everyday events, so you’re likely to see a lot of t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers.” The silver lining? “When you do see a fashionably dressed man or woman, you notice it.”
Still, it seems that Baltimore’s glamorous glory days exist mostly in the past. Fortunately, this is the kind of city where the past isn’t simply tolerated, it’s celebrated. Every year, thousands of people break out the AquaNet for the city’s annual HonFest. Buildings are lovingly restored by both individuals and institutions. The city’s football team is named after a Poe poem, of all things.
So we keep the glamour alive in Baltimore, even if we don’t reinvent it each day.
[Photo credits: Baltimore skyline by Flickr user ktylerconk, used under the Creative Commons license. Detail of the staircase in Wallas Simpson's former home, the about-to-reopen Hotel Brexton, used with permission, by Meg Fairfax-Fielding. Poster from HonFest 2009, used with permission, by Baltimore artist Patrick Kelly.]
Shown at the Paris Fashion week last Thursday, the Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2010 Menswear Collection immediately caught my eye. Not because I am particularly fond of Vuitton (like too many other fashion houses, it has fallen prey to the Plague of Excessive Logos), but rather because of the references to Vienna.
Dominated by narrow-waisted suits, crisp riding boots and structured bags, the collection is described as having been inspired by Vienna's Age of Splendor, and by the Vienna of today. As Vienna has been my home on and off for the past several years, I could not help but ruminate on my own impressions of the city's style, and on the implications of its new status as Fashion Muse.
Over the course of my life in Vienna, I have continuously struggled with how I relate to it. On some level, it has become deeply familiar and even quite mundane, while on another level it has remained a romantic hallucination. In many ways, Vienna is a continental European city like many others – rich in heritage but dynamic in contemporary culture. The streets are full of young trendy people, the museums offer impressive lineups of cutting-edge international artists, the UN Headquarters looms large, and no matter where you are, you can be certain that a Starbucks or an H&M is not terribly far off. And yet, Vienna is not quite of this time. The spirit of the Austro-Hungarian Empire remains present, its rigid, explosive splendor running through the city like a rogue undercurrent.
Experiencing Vienna in this manner is like having persistent double vision, or perhaps even triple vision – whereby reality, history and historical fiction co-exist and struggle for domination over the cultural landscape.
When I ask myself why this is so, one obvious thing that comes to mind is the architecture. Unlike that of other German-speaking cities, Vienna's architecture has largely remained intact after the Second World War. Enormous neoclassical structures erected for the sole purpose of glorifying the Empire continue to surround the city center along the Ringstraße. The towering white marble, the black wrought iron, the vast stretches of cobblestone, and the tall chestnut trees, create a backdrop that insists upon itself and undermines the passage of time. In a sense, it is a romantic backdrop. But the brand of romance is the kind that makes one feel overpowered and somewhat uneasy. The architecture - both in its grandiosity and in the sheer fact of its continuity - sets a mood over the central district that even an army of neon Starbucks and H&M signs cannot overpower.
Granted, architecture can be seen as a passive influence. But there are other areas where Vienna's anachronistic atmosphere is maintained by choice. Take, for instance, the phenomenon of the Viennese Cafe. One can walk into any number of Viennese cafes that look as if they have remained basically unchanged since the 1920s: gilded interiors, plush red upholstery, starched white tablecloths, waiters in tuxedos, sugar cubes in tiny silver bowls, newspapers attached to wooden holders... the head spins from the elegance, and extravagance of it. And the elaborate coffee nomenclature puts other countries' terminologies to shame. (When in doubt, just order a Melange - and stay away from what the Viennese call a Cappuccino unless you want your coffee made with pure cream instead of frothed milk.)
It is not just the look of such a cafe that functions like a time machine, but the atmosphere as well. In a Viennese cafe, you will be called by your title. You will not encounter crammed floor space, even if it means that the cafe is serving only a quarter of the patrons that it could be serving. And you will never be rushed to free up your table, even if you have been nursing the same cup of coffee for hours while a crowd of hopefuls queues outside. And no, such places are not gimmicky tourist traps; they are perfectly normal cafes where the Viennese themselves go to relax.
And then of course, there are the head-turning persons you see in Vienna, the likes of whom I have not encountered elsewhere: from the ladies in floor-length fur coats and sculptural hats who look as if they've walked out of a silent film, to the serious men with heavy, intense gazes and thick streaks of gray in their hair regardless of their age, to the people wearing traditional national costumes as formalwear on a night out. True, the “retro” look has been internationally popular for over a decade, but I feel that in Vienna the look isn't “retro” at all, as it is done entirely without irony. The mixing of the old with the new simply reflects the city's nonlinear sense of time and its playful attitude towards contemporary realities.
An interesting trend I have noted, is how many fashion ateliers in Vienna are simultaneously involved in costume design for the theater. Of all the arts, theater probably occupies the most important position in Vienna, and has enormous cultural influence. Perhaps this explains why even the most contemporary boutiques seem to be at least partly inspired by dramatic turn of the 20th Century style: the designers who make the clothes for the streets are the same ones who create the costumes for the local stage. It would also explain why the past that mingles with Vienna's present seems to be not so much a historically accurate past, as a fantastical one: a romantic notion that the city embraces and projects back onto itself.
Getting back to the Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2010 Menswear Collection, I think that in large part it succeeds in portraying all of these things. The clothing is architectural, theatrical, and communicative, and there is a conceptual depth to it that exceeds what I have come to expect from Vuitton. The garments are rigidly tailored while suggesting fluidity, tightly closed while expressing a potential for openness. They evoke Sigmund Freud's writings on hysteria, Egon Schiele's images of tortured lanky youths, Gustaf Klimt's gilded motifs, and Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis while mixing traditional and contemporary materials and employing deconstructive techniques.
The LV collection is rather impressive really. But... Well, quite frankly, it brings to mind what has been available in Vienna for as long as I have lived there. If you want Viennese splendor that embodies all the anachronistic complexity the city has to offer, visit Vienna itself and walk through some of the neighborhoods that are lined with independent boutiques carrying Austrian designers, including the areas around Neubaugasse and Kettenbrückengasse. Viennese style is at its best in its natural habitat.
[LV runway images via Louis Vuitton/ Antoine de Parceval; all other images belong to the author]
“I have very expensive wallpaper.” So said Philip Johnson, architect of the modernist masterpiece Glass House, which he designed as his own residence in 1947 and inhabited until his death in 2005. Beyond its expense, Johnson’s glass walls create a glamorous atmosphere unique for a small suburban residence. Undoubtedly his lifestyle did much to enhance this feeling. The house was a setting for frequent salons and parties, hosting many luminaries of modern art and design. Johnson was so devoted to entertaining he had a hob in his kitchenette island removed so he could add an extra ice maker.
But the glamour of the house isn’t just about what happened inside; it emanates from the structure itself. Similarly, countless other glass buildings, from the Crystal Palace to the Burj Dubai (which contains a breathtaking 20 acres of glass) transcend the idea of buildings, becoming surreal settings of fascination and desire. Something about glass captures our imagination and creates glamour like no other architectural material.
Glass’s glamour arises from its physical properties: fragility, luminosity, and transparency. Rigid but delicate, glass is notoriously difficult to work with. It first appeared in architecture in ancient Rome around 100 AD, adorning only the most important buildings and expensive private homes. It remained a luxury through the middle ages, typically found in palaces and churches. Though glass is now ubiquitous, its use at large scale still feels lavish, and it wasn’t until the middle of the last century that technology allowed for the construction of multi-story glass facades such as those on Bunshaft’s Lever House and Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, and the many other glass skyscrapers that comprise the Manhattan skyline.
Glass’s precarious nature, combined with its scintillating reflective surfaces, give it a jewel-like quality at any scale. Cinderella’s slipper was glass, embodying hope, fantasy, and royalty in one fragile token. The glass structures of the world are like Cinderella’s slipper writ large, containers of dreams that always feel a little bit impossible. I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre, and the cube above the Fifth Avenue Apple Store that references it, have this gem-like presence. The same can’t be said for structures made with transparent plastics like acrylic or polycarbonate; poor cousins, too optically inert to stir our emotions.
Like all truly glamorous things, glass eludes us. It moves in a perpetual dance between two kinds of ephemerality. Lit from outside, it is luminous and reflective, taking on the character of what surrounds it. Johnson’s Glass House feels alive, an ever-shifting pattern of trees shimmering across its surfaces. Glass skyscrapers literally become pieces of sky, translucent blue by day and inky black at night. In this state, glass is like a mirror, restless and mysterious.
But light a glass structure from within, and it vanishes in another way, revealing its contents to the world. This glass is deceptively sheer. It yields to what’s behind it, inviting us to peer inside. It’s this invitation — to admiration and to voyeurism — that makes glass so special.
Inscribed in any glamorous object is the gaze which makes it so. Pull back from the object. Zoom out, and there is always someone watching and wanting, infusing it with the desire that is glamour’s driving force. Without a viewer through which fantasy can be filtered, there may be elegance or sophistication, but there can be no glamour.
Glass, with its tantalizing non-presence, creates the illusion that inside and outside are one. But not so fast. As anyone who has accidentally walked into a freshly-washed glass door will tell you, it’s a formidable barrier. This impenetrability is also part of its glamour. Glamour is an expression of a paradox: a fantasy so close you can feel yourself inside it, but so distant you must admire from afar. Glass facilitates this illusion better than any other material. Think of shop windows, museum exhibits, and jewelry display cases. Glass says look but don’t touch. It beckons to you to lose yourself in fantasy at the same time as it precludes you from making it a reality.
Playing directly with this paradox, the Standard Hotel has captured the essence of glass’s glamour in its 18-story New York tower. The hotel touts the spectacular views of the Hudson River from the picture windows in each room, but the real story is guests’ exhibitionist behavior, encouraged (and sometimes engaged in) by staff and management. Ostensibly about looking out, the allure is really about looking in. The glamour is in feeling admired and coveted inside the glass box — exposed, yet protected.
Johnson supposedly prized his house for its outward views. A nature-lover, he lit the house with the intention of making the natural surroundings visible rather than calling attention to the architecture, and he slept facing out towards his favorite view. But the house is also undeniably about looking in. Johnson considered the threshold to be outside the house, at the first point when you get a full view of it just past the stone wall that runs alongside the driveway. In the foyer of a typical home, you acclimate to the new environment whilst inside it; in Johnson’s schema, you are welcomed first by standing outside looking in. You must appreciate before you enter.
Glass is not a comfortable material, and Johnson was well aware of this. He never aspired to comfort in his home, but to an aesthetic purity. The Glass House existed not to coddle his senses, but to stimulate them. He has said:
...Comfort is not a function of beauty... purpose is not necessary to make a building beautiful...sooner or later we will fit our buildings so that they can be used...where form comes from I don't know, but it has nothing at all to do with the functional or sociological aspects of our architecture.
Glamour, like glass, is beautiful but rigid. It doesn’t bend to our convenience; rather, it offers a fantasy, and if we desire it, we conform ourselves to its standards. In this way, glass it like countless other tools of glamour — corsets, stilettos, sportscars — enforcing an uncomfortable, even painful transformation. It is not easy to be glamorous, just as it is not easy to live in a glass house. But it is beautiful. And for some, it’s well worth it.
Spurred by the FTC’s concern with blogger freebies, I’ve decided to regularly feature interesting looking books that I’ve received as review copies but haven’t necessarily read. You can buy them (or just get more information) by clicking the links. Here are the first two. Why Architecture Matters, by Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker
Andy Warhol, by Arthur C. Danto, art critic for The Nation
When the Atlanta Hyatt Regency opened in 1967, its glass elevators and rotating rooftop restaurant were the talk of the Southeast. To me, growing up a couple of hours from Atlanta, the Hyatt represented “the future” as surely as any World's Fair. Architect-developer John Portman had designed it to wow visitors for whom Atlanta represented the big city. As critic Paul Goldberger writes:
Portman devised a scheme for a modern hotel built around an open atrium as a conscious rebuke to the standardized, boxy modern hotels of the nineteen-fifties and -sixties (including a preliminary design of his own, which he rejected as too conventional), based on the belief that in the troubled urban climate of the mid-nineteen-sixties, a new hotel going up in an urban site had to serve as a magnet to attract cautious suburbanites and out-of-towners. Everything about the Hyatt was geared toward visual excitement: a 220-foot tall central atrium, glass elevators, a round, revolving rooftop lounge, perched atop the building like a flying saucer.
Portman’s design did indeed represent the future of hotels. Its atrium lobby in particular became a much-imitated feature, helping to establish Hyatt as a national brand and Portman as a sought-after architect, especially in the hospitality industry. His iconic hotels include the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, shown to the right, the Westin Bonaventure in downtown L.A. (famous from In the Line of Fire, where Portman's glass elevators were important to the plot), the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, and Embarcadero Center (and its Hyatt) in San Francisco.
Ric Garrido of the Loyalty Traveler blog fondly remembers his teenage awe at the San Francisco Hyatt's atrium and the large metal sculpture that dominates it. (Photo below.)
Back in the 70s sitting in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency at Embarcadero Center provided a respite from the streets of San Francisco, same as today. Here was a large hotel space I could sit and rest my feet, use a free toilet, and drink some water while watching people move vertically through the hotel in the glass elevators and take each other’s photos in front of the sculpture.
Ironically the criticism of John Portman’s hotel atrium designs is that the focus of these large buildings is interior rather than exterior. The buildings are considered exclusionary to the people outside on the city streets. My memories of the Hyatt Regency San Francisco as a place where I could enjoy the beauty and comfort of a grand hotel as a person seeking shelter from the streets defies that criticism. The Hyatt Regency San Francisco is a hotel I have visited for over 30 years, yet I was a registered hotel guest for the first time in 2008.
Portman in effect reinvented the American hotel lobby as it had been experienced in the 19th century, a trend that has intensified over the past decade or so, even as Portman's once-radical designs have come to seem somewhat old-fashioned.
On October 17, an exhibit devoted to Portman's work opens at the High Museum in Atlanta. The following description of the Atlanta Hyatt Regency is drawn, with permission, from the catalog, John Portman: Art and Architecture, to be published by the University of Georgia Press.
The hotel, John Portman’s first, revolutionized an entire industry by introducing the atrium concept to contemporary hotel design. The hotel was conceived as a totally new guest experience: the antithesis of the traditional, tightly confined double-corridor hotel. The design goal was to open the interior space to create a dynamic, uplifting environment, one that would bring the energy and life of the city indoors, while providing restaurants, cafés, and bars that would attract visitors, not just guests.
The 22-story concrete structure was figuratively “exploded” to create the huge, sky-lit atrium. With natural light, sculpture, trees, and water, the interior resembles a large outdoor piazza bordered by a sidewalk café. (Originally, the lobby featured a three-story aviary, home to colorful Macaws and other tropical birds.) The glass elevator cabs were exposed, turning the elevators into kinetic sculptures, creating a sense of movement and drama. Passengers on the glass elevators could view the Atlanta skyline as the elevator continued through the atrium roof to the blue-domed revolving restaurant above.
Many professionals saw the atrium design as a liability—an enormous waste of space. During the hotel’s construction, legendary hotel operator Conrad Hilton was quoted as observing, “That concrete monster will never fly.” When the hotel did open, it was visited by thousands of tourists a day, forming lines around the block. The great success of the original project, which comprised 800 guestrooms, quickly prompted the expansion of two adjacent towers, creating an additional 200 and 350 guestrooms, respectively.
Hyatt’s owners, the Pritzker family of Chicago, were richly rewarded for taking a chance on Portman's unconventional designs. In fact, writes Goldberger in his catalog introduction, the hotel “tied the reputation of the Pritzkers to architecture to such an extent that a dozen years later the family established the Pritzker Prize, which has become the most famous architectural prize in the world.”
[Hyatt Regency Atlanta, 1967, view of the atrium, photo by Michael Portman and Atlanta Marriott Marquis Hotel, 1985, view of the atrium, photo by Jaime Ardiles-Arce, both courtesy of the High Museum of Art. Grand Hyatt Lobby, San Francisco, by Flickr user amnesia_x under Creative Commons license. "Atlanta Lights" by Flickr user Old Shoe Woman, used with permission.]
The American hotel is not just a place to stay but a revolutionary institution, embodying hospitality as a liberal value and delivering once-elite services in a mass, democratic form. So argues historian Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz in Hotel: An American History. With its combination business, legal, and social history, the book offers a new way of seeing an industry we think we know.
Writing in the NYT Book Review Dominique Browning called the book “dense, ambitious and valuable,” concluding, “I will never again check into a hotel without thinking of myself as an ambassador of peace; that alone, with its profound implications, makes this thoughtful book worthwhile.” (It also gave her “an entirely new take on spoiled, bratty, neglected, charming Eloise, living at the Plaza.”) “This brilliant history,” wrote Kerry Howley in Reason, “is a reminder that the fear of the traveling stranger is something we have overcome before.”
An assistant professor of history at the University of New Mexico, Andrew is currently editing a special issue of Winterthur Portfolio on the subject of business architecture. We're delighted he was willing to contribute to Hotel Week.
DG: How did you get interested in hotels?
Andrew Sandoval-Strausz: It happened rather by chance. In the spring of 1996 I was in my second year of graduate school, and looking for a dissertation topic. While attending a historians’ conference, I spent some time in the beautiful second-floor lobby at the Palmer House in Chicago. As I watched the people come and go, I began to think about interactions among total strangers and how fraught they could be with delight, temptation, and danger—especially at a place with lots of alcohol and lots of beds. What if I were to write a history of hotels, with all their attendant elegance, naughtiness, and political intrigue? “Now, that,” I thought, “would be a guaranteed non-boring Ph.D. thesis!”
Palmer House lobby
DG: You write, “It is extremely easy for people to say one thing and do another....But when they construct a building—especially a large and complex one like a hotel—it is harder to argue that they didn’t really mean it.” What were the people who built America’s hotels saying?
Sandoval-Strausz: They were extending a welcome to strangers and outsiders in a way that hadn’t been done in America for almost 200 years. From the beginnings of European settlement in the early 1600s until the first hotels in the 1790s, Americans offered travelers only the most rudimentary of accommodations. European wayfarers who wrote about hospitality here were constantly complaining about bad food, overcharging, filth, vermin, and having to share beds with complete strangers. Moreover, many American communities had laws allowing them to inspect, interrogate, and eject anyone who was in a town other than their home community. But when people in the early United States started devoting enormous amounts of money, creativity, labor, and building materials to building a new class of public accommodations, it was an unmistakable sign that they had changed their views of outsiders, deciding to welcome them in style instead of viewing them with suspicion.
DG: You note that in the 19th-century guests spent very little time in their hotel rooms and that travel writers and journalists focused almost all their attention on the public areas of hotels. Why?
Sandoval-Strausz: Leading hotels at that time weren’t just about paying for a bed and a bath—they were places people went to see and be seen, to enjoy the pleasure of being in public. The entire approach to being a hotel guest was fundamentally sociable, so who would want to stay cooped up in their room? Hotel rooms were very small and plain then; it was the public areas—the lobby, dining rooms, lounges, bars, and the like—that hotelkeepers worked hardest to make beautiful.
DG: How was the role of a 19th-century hotel lobby different from the role of such a lobby today?
Sandoval-Strausz: In some respects I think today’s hotel lobbies are moving back toward the role they played a century and a half ago. After the past few decades, during which lobbies were becoming sparse, sterile spaces that were no more than waiting areas for people who wanted to go upstairs, hoteliers have again begun to see them as important gathering-places for their neighborhoods. In the nineteenth century, the lobby was the most exciting space in the entire building. Hotelkeepers spent enormous amounts of money on carpets, furniture, draperies, and other elements of décor so that they could attract people to their premises. Indeed, hotel lobbies were such important social and business centers that the majority of people in them weren’t travelers at all, but locals who simply wanted to meet friends or do business in the most vital and glamorous place in town.
DG: Today’s hotel guests tend to be baffled by the idea that an “American plan” means meals are included. What is the origin of this term? What was the appeal of the 19th-century hotel dining room?
Sandoval-Strausz: This term originated at a time when European travelers expected to take their meals privately, in their rooms. Americans thought this was impardonably rude: in a country based on the idea that “all men are created equal,” it was seen as snobbish and antisocial to want to keep your distance from others. The “American plan,” in which your room charge automatically included meals eaten in a common dining room, expressed the idea that it was proper to eat at long tables alongside your fellow citizens. For Americans, this was both a way of expressing their ideals about equality and democracy and an opportunity to put on a nice change of clothes and enjoy a banquet-like experience in a grand dining hall.
Stereoscopic view of Lick House dining room, San Francisco
DG: Luxury hotels play a prominent role in the movies of the 1930s and ’40s, with wealthy characters often living in hotels for long periods of time (sometimes permanently). How common were such living arrangements? What was the appeal of living in a hotel rather than in an apartment or house?
Sandoval-Strausz: They were very common, and not just in the 1930s and 1940s. More than a hundred years before, people recognized that living in a hotel was very convenient because so much of the everyday drudgery of living would be handled by the hotel staff. If you had the resources, you didn’t have to worry about cooking, cleaning, or laundry because hotel chefs, chambermaids, and washerwomen would do the work. Hotel living allowed single people and families to enjoy services and amenities that were usually only available to those with private servants.
DG: In the mid-19th century, critics decried the rise of hotel living for corroding family life while reformers saw hotels as a model for efficient domesticity, with shared cooking, laundry, and other services. Why did hotel living die out in the 20th century?
Sandoval-Strausz: This was in substantial part the result of housing policies that began in the 1930s and the prosperity of the 1950s and after. Under Franklin Roosevelt, the federal government brought mortgage rates down much lower than they’d ever been; and in the post-World War II period, the U.S. became the most prosperous nation that had ever existed. The combination of the two led to many people being able to afford the kind of freestanding, single-family house that was idealized for so many years in Anglo-American culture.
DG: Do hotels today represent an extension of ordinary domestic life or an escape from it? Has that changed over time?
Sandoval-Strausz: These days it’s definitely an escape, if the way they are advertised is anything to go by. Over the past ten or fifteen years, hotel companies have been emphasizing the specialness and glamour of staying at a hotel. For travelers, it’s the promise of something exotic, or historic, or especially hip—but in all cases different from your workaday routine. They’re also advertising in-town escapes, as when they try to draw married couples in for sexy weekends away from the kids and household responsibilities. This has indeed changed over time. In some eras, hotelkeepers tried to emphasize that hotels offered all the comforts of home: they gave guests personalized attention, tried to make the entire hotel seem like an extended family, and so on—indeed, hoteliers in the nineteenth century would often stand at the head table in their dining room and cut the roast for the guests, thus taking on the symbolic role of the head of a regular household. In other eras, they emphasized the predictability and machine-like efficiency of their operations, featuring anything from a large-capacity steam-driven laundry machine to a modern electric elevator to a corps of dining room waiters who served with military precision.
DG: What makes a hotel glamorous?
Sandoval-Strausz: It could be any of a few things. Many historic hotels are glamorous because of their incredible architecture: some of the most elegant hotels in the country—the Plaza, the Fairmont, the Blackstone—were built about a century ago, at a time when hotel builders spared no expense on elaborate ornamentation and décor. Some recent establishments, like the leading W Hotels locations, offer up-to-the-minute style and the latest in architecture and materials, using a modern minimalist visual vocabulary to dazzle and intrigue. And still others, like La Fonda in Santa Fe or the Peabody in Memphis, simply express the local culture perfectly, expressing confidence in their vernacular heritage and charm.
DG: Do you have a favorite hotel or hotel experience?
Sandoval-Strausz: This takes me back to the initial inspiration for my book. I like just sitting and having a drink in an elegant hotel bar or hotel lobby, watching what people do. They may smile or they may complain, they may look exhausted at the end of a long flight or exhilarated at the prospect of a night on the town, they may be giving a hug to old friends or flirting with someone cute whom they’ve just met. But they’re always up to something interesting, because if they wanted to be boring, they’d have just stayed at home.
To see a Slate slide show of hotel photos, with text by Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, go here.