Room for change?
This year's European Hotel Design Conference will explore the topic of 'Designing for Change'. Patrick Reardon, of Reardon Smith Architects, who will moderate the first session of the conference, argues that nothing has really changed in hotel design since the 1950s
There has been no escaping it. The press, books, conferences and websites are all proclaiming a decade of massive change in hotels and the major contribution of 'design' to this change. We are told that hotels are now design-led, and that the term 'boutique' is currently out of fashion since the global hotel brands, needing in excess of 100 bedrooms apiece to make economic sense, have decided to enter the arena. In the 1990s, hotels were Minimalist; now they are definitely PostMinimalist. Suddenly, it seems, the young and the beautiful want to be seen in them and the leading fashion designers of the world, not to mention the great interior designers, all want to design them. What is more, we have 'hotels of the future' - on the moon, underwater and soon, we are told, coming to a location very near us.
Who is kidding whom? There are fundamentally two types of hotel. There are those that were developed for people already travelling - 2,000 years ago they were on the silk routes; 150 years ago on the railways; 100 years ago on ocean liners and, most recently, at airports. Then there are hotels that have been created specifically for people to travel to - resort hotels, the early and great European examples of which emerged the best part of two centuries ago. It is interesting to consider that a number of these destination hotels were developed around a spa - the hotel industry's latest 'discovery' and now a 'must have' in most designers' schedules.
When it opened in 1899, London's Great Central Hotel, now The Landmark, advertised 'magnificent public rooms, elegant private suites, bedrooms with baths attached, renowned cuisine, light, air, health and comfort with a tariff more moderate than any other hotel of the same class in London'. Move on 60 years to the time of rapid expansion in international travel and we have a period of worldwide growth in globally homogenised hotels, which were often described as 'home from home'. This phrase was patently nonsense. However, what it did reflect was that travellers, particularly in remoter parts of the world, were concerned to have food that would not make them sick, as well as certain icons of domesticity, such as clean sheets, hot water and security. They most certainly did not want to walk along dark and potentially hazardous corridors in the middle of the night just to go to the toilet. Not so very different, then, from the requirements of travellers on the Great Central Railway of the previous century, nor from - I would argue - the fundamental requirements of hotel guests today: value for money, cleanliness, security and some personal recognition of their presence.
The room remains the same So now we have hotels with increasingly lookalike contemporary interiors spiced up with a dash of local design reference. But what they are is what they have been for a very long time: a collection of rooms that can each be made a private space by way of a card or a key - a concept introduced in 1829 by Tremont House in Boston, US - with en suite bathrooms, the last true revolution in hotel design, which was virtually universal by the late 1950s. Some have signature-chef restaurants, reviving memories of the time when the great hotels were the place to eat;
some are social meccas where guests promenade every bit as much as they once did in Berlin's Kaiserhof and at the Grand Hotel National in Lucerne, Switzerland. The fact that today's guest feels at liberty to parade in ripped jeans is neither here nor there. Hotels have always been places in which to push the envelope - ladies smoking, women unchaperoned, illicit sex, pornography on the sly - it really has all been done before.
Quite rightly, it is these guest requirements that shape our hotel industry. Hotels do not shape guests and I applaud Ken McCulloch, founder of the Malmaison, Columbus and Dakota hotel groups, who, when commenting about boutique hotels, said recently: 'Design for design's sake really isn't worth doing. Any place that takes itself so seriously and forgets what it's there for is ridiculous. Whether someone's sitting on a very comfortable chair or sitting on something that looks like a mushroom is up to them, they still need looking after.' There is absolutely nothing wrong with fashion and styling - it can be great fun and very exciting. However, to those missionaries of design who will insist that they are changing hotels: you are wrong. All we, as architects and designers, are doing is continually refining and refreshing a well-established model so that our clients can earn a reasonable income from an unchanging set of human needs, and so guests can enjoy a comfortable environment. Let's be honest, modifying a few shapes and introducing new fabrics is nothing more than whimsy. Yes, we have an array of new guestroom technology these days but leading hotels have always been the testing ground for new technology - yesterday it was electric light and elevators, today it is plasma screens and ISDN lines. It is hard to describe adequately the tedium of the many presentations faced over the years from designers laying claim to a concept for the 'hotel of the future' when, in fact, all they are talking about is fashion and technology.
Fundamentally, their hotel schemes continue to comprise bedrooms with attached bathrooms and, usually, places to meet and areas of entertainment.
Architects and designers have one simple duty of care: to the client. This means focusing on their return on investment by maximising the asset and helping to increase revenue generation by providing what the guest actually wants. This, in turn, means understanding the contribution good design can make, while remembering that several of our most enduring and profitable hotel brands have no 'design' at all. And why do they do well? Because they know how to meet certain sets of enduring human requirements efficiently.
Hopefully, there will always be space in our interestingly diverse industry for budget hotels through to grand establishments - as there has been for centuries - but perhaps the biggest threat today to such an inclusive future comes from the inflationary claims made about the impact of design. It is no coincidence that many design-led hotels go through rapid and enforced changes of ownership as they become the product for which no one really wants to be responsible.
As Frank Croston, joint managing director of Hamilton Hotel Partners, so succinctly put it: 'Too much hotel design represents the triumph of style over function. Why is it that lawyers manage to exercise a duty of care and explain to clients the implications of a particular decision whereas designers, who like to think of themselves as professional, apparently do not?' It is because too many of us mistake fashion for design. It is only the seasons that have moved round; the climate has not changed and never will.
The European Hotel Design Conference, 'Designing for Change', will take place at the London Marriott Hotel, Grosvenor Square, on Monday 25 October. It will be followed, in the evening, by the European Hotel Design Awards reception and dinner. Further information on both events can be obtained from: www.