BOOKS Buildings that called for lavish costumes ALAN POWERS Grand Hotels: Reality and Illusion by Elaine Denby. Reaktion, 1998. 304pp. £40
Grand hotels are essentially a late-nineteenth-century phenomenon, from the time when modern technology crossed paths with old social structures, producing new forms of hierarchy based on wealth, for which the hotels were a perfect means of display. They needed the versatility of eclectic architecture to convey the mixture of messages and conceal the workings of the machinery. Art Deco, which is pre-eminently a hotel style, continued the line of theatrical dressing-up.
Elaine Denby's book provides excellent information organised around a series of chronological and geographical themes, with plenty of illustrations. She is of an age to have experienced the Midland Grand Hotel, St Pancras as a child visitor, en route to Mallorca from the North of England, remembering 'a bathroom where the white-tiled bath seemed to be nearer to swimming- pool than domestic size'. She describes these buildings and the life they supported by a mosaic-like filling-in of detail, which remains highly readable but will make this a valuable work of reference.
Grand Hotels not only covers architecture and decoration, but includes other aspects of the social history that hotel enthusiasts cherish, including finances, famous visitors, food and its supply lines, and musical entertainment. There is a fine photograph of George Bernard Shaw learning to dance the tango at Reid's Hotel, Majorca in 1924, under the supervision of the hotel instructor. Denby sees the life behind the scenes and understands the importance of good hotel management.
Modern architecture and interior decoration has had little impact in this field. To say that a modern building is like a hotel is probably derogatory. Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, was perhaps the only major attempt to bridge the gap between the decorative character inherent in a grand hotel and the opposite tendencies of Modernism. Curiously, Morris Lapidus, the man whose post-war hotels at Miami Beach are the culmination of a succession of moderne styles from the late 1920s onwards, does not appear - perhaps his hotels are only to be counted as pseudo-grand. So also would be the atrium-based hotels of John Portman.
In the absence of a modern image for the grand hotel (minimalism in hotels is presumably a kind of haute boheme), many of the Belle Epoque hotels have been lavishly restored instead. The comprehensive information on refurbishment helps to bring each case study up to date. Time inevitably overtakes such enterprises, and a stop press should be added to the Midland Hotel, Morecambe, designed in 1932 by Oliver Hill and featured with a colour spread. After six years of legal dispute between Lancaster City Council and the owner, it was determined that the Eric Gill relief of Odysseus and Nausicaa was required, under listed building law, to be reinstalled in the hotel after its removal for an exhibition. It has recently been reported in the local press that when council officers asked to inspect it, it could not be found and was presumed to have been stolen. Hotels still seem to be one of those things which they do better abroad than at home.
Alan Powers is an architectural historian