Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life
Unusual and unique, Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life is visual culture at its best. The exhibition, currently on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery, is a visual smorgasbord of architecture, pop culture and design woven together through the social fabric of the hotel. Grand Hotel, curated by Jennifer M. Volland, Bruce Grenville and Stephanie Rebick takes exhibition visitors on a journey through the evolution of the hotel from its initial purpose to the present, where they have transformed into cultural institutions that house our modern day artifacts. The exhibition, thematically organized into four categories – travel, design, social and culture – challenges viewers to consider that perhaps the hotel can be regarded as a microcosm of contemporary life.
Grand Hotel situates the initial development of hotels during the 19th century with travel and expansion. Through images and wall text the exhibition reveals how their spread was tied to business interests, developing to meet the needs of travellers. Dak bungalows, in India, were built in the mid-19th century as basic inns assembled along major routes to provide a place for travellers to spend the night before continuing on their journey. With their primary patrons being British businessmen and government officials, it is no surprise that the Dak bungalows became regarded as symbols of imperialism.
The exhibition explores how nearly a century later, during the mid-20th century, the expansion of the hotel chains Intercontinental and Hilton, flourished with political advancement. Although guised under the objective of developing a network of properties for increased profit, the strategic international expansion of these hotel chains was rooted in American foreign policy and a desire to promote the ideals of the American way of life abroad. Located in the exhibition are original Times magazine advertisements for these major hotel chains, propagating how the ‘American dream’ could easily be found abroad at their hotels.
With hotels gaining as much notoriety from their patrons as for the architecture of the space itself, Grand Hotel visually expresses how hotels and pop culture are inextricably linked. Hotels are the places of legends. Viewers are reminded that Bob Dylan filmed his music video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” behind the Savoy, in London and that Andy Warhol’s underground film, Chelsea Girls (projected on the gallery walls during the opening weekend) was partially filmed in New York’s famed Chelsea hotel. Vintage photographs of Paris’s Beat Hotel grace the walls of the exhibition; this hotel served both as inspiration and a home for William Burroughs while he worked on his seminal novel Naked Lunch. Imagery of and memorabilia from the Chateau Marmont, which has become synonymous with Hollywood’s A-list is ingeniously on display.
Grand Hotel demonstrates how modern hotel design is an art in and of itself. Like a gallery, every detail in a hotel has been carefully curated from the furniture and linens, to the light fixtures, right down the matchboxes placed in the rooms. All these details are used to construct the atmosphere and reflect the culture of the hotel. In the exhibition, objects such as soap and chairs are put on the high art pedestal, dramatically lit and encased in glass, asking visitors to re-evaluate the way that they view and interact with these everyday objects.
Walking through the entrance of the exhibition evoked what it would have been like to enter an old, black and white, Hollywood film. The ‘lobby’ of the exhibition, with its regal winding staircase, high ceiling and strictly black and white colour scheme seemed to reference the influential 1932 Hollywood film Grand Hotel, from which the exhibition borrowed its name. Another finely curated space within the exhibition was one of the rooms dedicated to architecture of iconic grand hotels, such as the Raffles hotel in Singapore and the Waldorf Astoria in New York. In this area of the exhibition, hotel models, artistic representations constructed by Vancouver’s Goodweather studio, are placed on thick, corrugated cardboard palettes, creating a monochromatic, clean and modern, Bauhaus-esque space. In total contrast to the ‘lobby’ and the ‘Bauhaus room’ was the gritty space that probed the roadside motel, the antithesis of the Grand Hotel. Like a motel on Route 66, the space was designed to feel slightly tawdry. Retro film clips, such as Easy Rider and Thelma and Louise, flickered on old-school television sets, while “Born to be Wild” echoes through the space, enhancing the mood.
The final space of the Grand Hotel exhibition is the gift shop which was curated by Ace Hotels. Cleverly confusing it is unclear to visitors if this gift shop is part of the exhibition or not. Visitors are invited to handle and consume the hotel curios, the curios they had just seen on display. Demonstrating that we are surrounded by visual culture, Grand Hotel would make an excellent travelling exhibition; it would be a shame for more people to not have the opportunity to see this show. Whether your personal preference is a five star suite or roadside room under a neon sign, there is something for everyone at the Grand Hotel.
Kate Galicz finished her MA in Art History and diploma in curatorial studies from York University in 2007. She is currently the Director of Appraisal Services at Heffel Fine Art Auction House. Kate loves anything kitsch, fashion, and is crazy about her furry four-legged friend.
Full Disclosure: the founders of Here and Elsewhere are employed by the Vancouver Art Gallery