Art of travel

Time magazine published the following article, by Liam Fitzpatrick, about the hotel design. Illustration for Time by Harry Harrison.

The mid-twentieth century, some say, was the golden age of the big, bland chain hotel. Vacationers of the 1950s or ’60s took out second mortgages to afford jet travel, supposedly to find, as they hurtled from destination to destination, that a hotel room in Melbourne was the same as one in Manila. Innkeepers were accused of rolling out design templates such that no matter where you awoke in the world, the features of your room—the bedside panel, the writing desk—looked identical. Indeed, the very words Holiday Inn or Hilton took on a pejorative connotation: they were globalization’s earliest villains, blamed for destroying a sense of place with an imperialist approach to style.

But this is judgment passed in haste. For the fact is that there is another, more conformist time, and that is the present. The perpetrators are boutique hotels. Their seconders are the new breed of travel guides, which don’t tell you about a destination so much as how to ignore its realities.

Perhaps you already know what awaits you at a boutique hotel. Your room will look as if it were put together by Balinese decorators after a daylong brainstorm with brand managers from the Body Shop. The door opens onto a space of dark wood, coarse textures and handmade soaps. Here’s the bathroom with glass walls; there’s the bed of Frette linen, beside it an unglazed platter bearing (but of course) a single mangosteen. Yoga mats and aromatherapy oils proliferate in drawers like the Gideon Bibles of yore. And there are miserly arrangements of foliage. Fine hotels used to put out great urns of lilies; boutique hotels adorn your room with a single test tube, out of which springs a forlorn cutting of bamboo.

As for the public areas, you have doubtless suffered their like in worshipful TV travel shows and weekend glossies. Chili mojitos are served in a bar that resembles a pharmacy, and is called something like Dose. In the restaurant—invariably named after a once exotic herb, say Lemongrass—halogen lamps spotlight rarified stacks of food, borne on asymmetrical plates. The spa (known simply, perhaps, as The Spa) is expensive, padded and white, as if catering to the insane. None of these things are necessarily bad in themselves. But design-led hotels were supposed to free us from homogeneity. Instead, behind individual façades, they have been palming us off with the same formulaic, outmoded minimalism. That’s my beef.

You might have thought that travel publishers and style professionals would be thunderous in their denouncement of such conformity, but they are its ideologues. Design Hotels—a group whose 142 member properties probably corner the world market in white furniture and puzzling chrome ornaments—compiles the raving apologia of academics and designers in its own, biannual journal (sample: “Hotels of the avant-garde are rapidly becoming the starting points for experiences of reality that allow orientation in a world that is both falling apart and coming together”). Thames & Hudson publishes the Hip Hotels series, an anthology of vacuity, as well as the StyleCity collection of travel guides. To enter the latter’s realm—or, for that matter, the domain of the Luxe City Guides or the Wallpaper City Guides—is to land in a parallel universe of depressingly uniform bars and boutiques. You assume you are experiencing a city at its hedonistic, air-kissing optimum; in fact, you are barely experiencing the city at all. If a visit to Bangkok or Barcelona consists of being seen at what the callow bourgeoisie have decided are the “right” vodka bars, then who’s guilty of fostering bland internationalism? It’s not just the Holiday Inn.

Boutique hoteliers, designers, publishers—messieurs, it is time to arise from your collective failure. I am not saying that I know best what the art of travel should consist of. But I do know that the natural order has been reversed when rooms once given over to transient luxury now resemble cells for long-term incarceration, and the contents of travel guides have become as one.

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