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Checking out the Check-in

Herbert Wright on what hotels tell us about locality, branding, technology and ourselves

A cockroach and I once shared a 3m2 room in Chungking Mansions. It was at one of two Hong Kong hotels I’ve tried. The other was a Marriott, with sumptuously plush rooms, views of Victoria Harbour, shimmering lobbies and 24/7 service. By contrast, Chungking Mansions is a gritty Kowloon edifice in which many thousands live, work, trade and sleep above a warren of bazaars and eateries. Life there is colourful, multicultural and never sleeps. The Marriott floated above the city; Chungking Mansions was the city.

This raises two issues, non-locality and travellers’ budget. Marc Augé’s 1995 book, Non-Places: an Anthology of Supermodern­ism, identified hotels, along with supermarkets and airports, as offering a bland location-oblivious experience. Actually, non-locality has a long history, spread by transport. The railways spawned grand Victorian terminus hotels offering a similar First Class experience everywhere, and cars dispersed the motel typology. When Hilton opened in Park Lane in 1963, the Jet Set had landed in the UK, and so had the international chain. These chains gradually spread downmarket until they reached the bottom of the star-rating system, and have jumped into star-free ‘boutique’ hotels. Chains are now brands with boutique sub-brands, along the lines of My Trendy Hotel by You Know Us.

Fitting everything into a small area was not pod hotels’ big design leap; that was dispensing with the window. Who needs a window when a big screen shows everything, perhaps even a televised view?

At least chains are now reversing the drift to anywhere-and-nowhere. Buildings with history are being rehabilitated, and in old and new, design is increasingly theming in local character – stuffing überhip art into a Shore­ditch hotel, say, or rock’n’roll iconography into Camden. That could go further – how about barred windows in Pentonville, or big kennels for Battersea? The danger is the Disneyfication of what’s just outside.  

In the UK, this and other trends – such as rooftop restaurants or aparthotels – apply mainly to London. The Olympics have gone but hotel construction continues, and London will need even more beds if the Home Office ever makes visas easy for the Chinese. London’s average room generates over double that of UK rooms elsewhere, despite over half of them being classified as ‘budget’. Sadly this word no longer implies ‘cheap’ – that’s something only the chance whims of the internet-­based booking market might deliver. No wonder that couch-surfing, an ultimate local experience, is so popular.

The most extreme non-places must be pod hotels. Fitting everything into a small area (much bigger than in Chunking Mansions, by the way) was not their big design leap; that was dispensing with the window. Who needs a window when a big screen shows everything, perhaps even a televised view? Like dives for discrete liaisons, pod hotels are flexible with time, but not with space. Here’s a design challenge that might keep prices down: make room size flexible, with moveable walls or partitions. When demand is high, pack more rooms in, and when it’s low, cut their number and inflate them for more appeal. With ­silent mechanics driven by sufficiently quick market response, a client might check into a ­rabbit-warren and wake in a suite.

For most, comfort and convenience win over local authenticity. But personally, if I get back to Hong Kong, I’ll shack up with the cockroach for the latter. 

Herbert Wright trained as a physicist, is an architectural writer and historian, contributing editor on Blueprint, art critic and author of London High and other titles 

Save our towers

The demolition of Richard Seifert's International Press Centre is under way and his King's Reach Tower is being recycled to be taller and residential. Both these 1970s London towers were distinctive – the former with a matrix of rounded windows on facades mounted above Seifert's characteristic 'dinosaur leg' piloti, the latter for its full-height concrete fins and staggered roofline. Height and Heritage, the conference theme of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat this year, addressed skyscrapers in historic cities, but the heritage of great London high-rise itself is getting swept away for more Big Glass. Hm, time for reflection.