My back pages: What is Hotel?

Originally published 12 September 2006 on my old site, this remains one of my most-requested pieces, and I’m embarrassed it’s taken me so long to get it back up. There are one or two odd resonances in these post-DSK days, but for the most part it retains its power. Do enjoy it.

I had wanted to do some thinking about why I so often prefer to stay in a hotel room when travelling – even to cities where I have many friends with room to spare, and even when I can’t really afford it. I want to clarify, for myself if no one else, just what it is that I am looking for, and why I so often find myself disappointed.

I think we can take it as read that Hotel is more than a place to stash one’s body and personal effects while on the road; otherwise the capsule hotel, priced appropriately to its dimensions, would have more than curiosity appeal.

But I’m also assuming that the proposition goes quite a bit further, even, than the evoking the space of home in unfamiliar surroundings. In many regards, I’m imagining, it is precisely the condition of home that Hotel aims to transcend. (Witness the curious reimportation into the domestic milieu of “hotel-grade” mattresses, linen, bath appointments, and so on.)

The element of reinvention is certainly at play here, the opportunity to try on new masks and guises that has always been afforded by travel. But there is also a potent set of inducements operating at the rawly material level:

– Hotel is always clean[ed], even sterile. Hotel is always a blank slate, an idealized terrain not subject to the cluttering accumulations and biological drifts of everyday life. Designed to be serviced, it holds forth the promise of a new beginning with every passing day, “sanitized for your protection.”

– Nested somewhere within the idea of Hotel is that of Concierge, of some human guide to the social, physical and temporal complexity that is city. Bundled up in the Concierge pattern are notions of access and privilege: they can get you reservations or tickets that are otherwise impossible to acquire, accomodate and smooth transactions that would otherwise require extensive nemawashi.

The prime attribute sought here is that of discretion: the Concierge arranges, but never judges. Or so I’d want to believe – never having actually availed myself of concierge services anywhere, the access symbolized by those golden keys remains a potent fantasy for me. The reality (i.e. “good” seats at tonight’s showing of The Lion King) is probably a great deal sadder and less romantic.

– Hotel is always perched precisely on the borderline between public and private. Once you close the door of your room, it’s as if you’ve decoupled utterly from the world and its demands – until the moment that you require something from beyond its walls. In the ideal case (that generally suggested by ads, brochures, and other marketing collateral), the guest finds that sustenance of most any sort is merely a phonecall away. This unusual ability to toggle at whim between public and private, detached and intensely connected, constitutes one of the primary attractions of Hotel.

– Hotel is a stage set on which the guest is free to act and enact some idealized version of his or her self and life. Room and public areas invoke a certain insouciance or lightness of spirit; the all-important element of glamour is provided by the furnishings, the location, the design, and never least by the spectral presence of other guests historic or contemporary.

– Hotel is a realm where you are unusually free to act without (apparent) consequence and where, to a great degree, you simply needn’t consider anyone else’s prerogatives in making your own choices. You come and go as you please; you act as you and you alone see fit; you emit whatever noises, smells and traces you will.

And here, of course, is where a significant element of bad faith surfaces, because unless you are unusually callous – and I like to think that I am not – the guest always retains the consciousness that someone has to clean it all up. And by the same token, that that someone is building up an impression of the guest based on their leavings. Of course, to put it with maximum bluntness, such perceptions have historically been safe because the people holding them do not matter to the guest, socially, economically, or otherwise. Suppression of one’s consciousness regarding all of this is a sleight-of-hand absolutely necessary to enjoyment of the Hotel condition.

– At its best, Hotel is always both prospect and refuge, offering (in its public spaces at the very least) a view from the commanding heights matched only by the security with which the guest retreats from others’ gaze.

– Ideally, Hotel is near-clockless, time here reduced to the shifting of the offshore breeze…the daily lighting of the lanterns…the setting-out of the breakfast buffet.

– There is always in Hotel a note of the louche, even in the most elegant surroundings and however subterranean. For me, anyway, Hotel is always an intensely erotic machine, a potent cocktail of privacy, disinhibition, borrowed glamour and relative anonymity. Much of the pleasure of Hotel living ultimately resolves to what it promises the guest in the exercise of their sexuality. The best Hotels understand and acknowledge this, but don’t beat you over the head with it.

Following on from this is a specific geometry which has always been all but irrelevant to me personally, but which presumably furnishes much of the attraction of Hotel for a great many: backstairs sexual intrigues of guest and uniformed staff, fueled by the power and economic differentials between the participants just as a tornado is fueled by stark gradients of heat and humidity. You can’t convince me that the desk staff at the Standard or the W aren’t hired with this in mind, or don’t consider it in applying for work there.

– And this brings me, finally, to the question of why I so rarely find these elements held in just the right balance. (I discount, with sad ease, nine of ten nights spent on the road, in hostelries variously too corporate, too generic or tone-deaf or self-consciously swank to enjoy.)

Some simply try too hard, throwing every conceivable vista, gadget and obsequious gesture at the Guest in the hope of securing acquiescence to the particular paradigm of luxury on offer. But excess for its own sake isn’t really the point of Hotel, at least as far as I am concerned, unless you mean the deeper and truer privileges of abundant time and space and air.

Even when the level of material luxury has been gauged properly, some – many – get its tenor all wrong. For Hotel to work for me at all, it can’t smother the Guest with wet “glamour” of the Versace/Trump/Cristal variety, or anything even remotely close. I’m not asking for an ashram, but to err on the side of astringency is frankly preferable. Too rustic, too winking, too bustling, too efficient: easy pitfalls to stumble into, and terribly hard to recover from.

Ultimately, I think, it’s the quality of modulated privacy that determines whether Hotel is experienced as restorative or as something to be endured. A lodging can fail on every other aesthetic and practical ground and still succeed, in my book, if only it lets the Guest establish a temporary base of operations that transitions rapidly and readily between sanctuary and conviviality.

Happily, of course, some do far better at resolving these challenges. Even the big chains occasionally demonstrate an understanding of real comfort. And once in a blue moon, someone gets almost everything right.

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