The Accommodating Space: A Hotel Check-In
A guest checks into a Las Vegas hotel suite, and makes it a fortress, staging a mass shooting on the city below. It's a horrific act that seems to subvert the very ethos of hotels — places of hospitality and calm. Yet hotels contain multitudes. They are sites of fantasy and functionality, pleasure and trouble. Their spaces are public and private, workplace and bedroom. They exist to house us temporarily, in luxury or in squalor. IDEAS producer Lisa Godfrey explores hotels, both in reality and the imagination, with hotel workers, designers, and writers — to reveal how hotels reflect private desires and social truths.
**This episode originally aired November 22, 2018.
The popularity of Airbnb and other home-based accommodation may be growing exponentially — and controversially — in cities around the world. But our cultural romance with the idea of the 'fine hotel' continues. From underwater luxury suites in Dubai, to artist-decorated rooms in gentrifying neighbourhoods, hotels still enthuse would-be travellers the world over.
Even if many are unaffordable, hotels are an aspirational destination, as they were during the rise of the first Grand Hotels in 19th century Europe.
Hotels have also sparked the imagination of writers, artists, filmmakers, and TV creators for more than a century. Directors such as Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson, and Sofia Coppola have all set notable movies in hotels.
Hotel rooms are also central to the evocative fiction of writer Katherine Mansfield, and the haunting paintings of Edward Hopper. Little wonder: the interior spaces and sightlines of large hotels are often designed to be dramatic, near-cinematic backdrops, for gathering and people-watching.
We see the performativity of hotel space… and that performance of being a hotel-goer.- Robert Davidson
Robert Davidson, author of The Hotel: Occupied Space (2018) is compelled by the malleable character of the hotel, as both structure, and symbol.
He points to the way that the Havana Hilton was taken over as Fidel Castro's headquarters in 1959 during the Cuban revolution. The once-exclusive hotel was opened to the public and renamed the Habana Libre, in a gesture intended to subvert the excesses of the preceding Batista era.
Davidson also points out that hotels have been used as barracks, shelters, and military targets, as well as housing and holding facilities for refugees. But hotels are also the site of accidents, death, and terror attacks. In 2017, the mass shooting in Las Vegas was carried out from a 32nd floor suite in a casino hotel — reversing the identity of the place as a pleasurable getaway.
Joanna Walsh, an English writer based in Dublin, reflects on the psychology of hotels and hotel guests in her genre-defying book, Hotel. It meditates on her observations as a hotel reviewer, when she found herself taking free stays in all manner of hotel properties, in order to avoid going home to a troubled marriage.
She points out that there is a historic relationship among personal difficulties, illness and hotels: hotels were often located near spas and natural pools, where patients could rest and heal.
A lot of hotel care seems to be to do with the body. There are spas, there are restaurants, there are luxury shampoos in the bathroom. So I think hotels are places we go to treat our bodies as well as our minds.- Joanna Walsh
The relationship between public and private space, of home and not-home, is a tension that is played out in the design of hotels.
Hospitality design firm partner Gordon McKay points to the aspirational quality of luxury hotel spaces as being at once home-like, and yet the "home away from home (we) don't really have."
Everything from the furniture to the staircases play into that desire. Guests also increasingly have the option of being social or anti-social. Arrival can be conducted through technologies like app-based check-ins, or a guest can opt into encounters with staff that are both personalized and attentive.
For those who work in hotels, their roles can be both rewarding and taxing. Toronto hotel housekeeper Kimberley Tabalbag has workplace injuries from years of making beds and cleaning. She has seen longtime employees in her field struggle to stay working despite chronic pain, because the jobs offer good benefits and pay.
Though hotel rooms are always in demand in a large city like hers — sought by everyone from event attendees to convention-goers — rapid change is imperiling many hospitality jobs. Real estate developers intent on hotel-to-condo conversions are buying up properties in the desirable downtown areas where hotels are concentrated.
Thorben Wieditz, a researcher for a hospitality workers' union, estimates that in downtown Toronto the potential loss of hotel rooms at this point represents "about 2,500 jobs."
He finds that it's a looming reality that is not much discussed, and has a theory as to why: "Maybe that has something to do with the invisibility of this work… and who does the work. It's a racialized workforce, mainly women."
Guests in this episode:
- Robert Davidson is the author of The Hotel: Occupied Space and Associate Professor of Catalan and Spanish at the University of Toronto, and Director of the Northrop Frye Centre.
- Joanna Walsh is a writer and author of the memoir and essay, Hotel.
- Kimberley Tabalbag is a Toronto hotel worker.
- Gordon Mackay is partner/strategy director at MackayWong .
- Thorben Wieditz is a researcher for the union Unifor 7575.
- Franck Arnold is the general manager at the Ritz-Carlton Toronto.
- The Hotel: Occupied Space by Robert Davidson, published by University of Toronto Press, 2018.
- Hotel by Joanna Walsh, published by Bloomsbury, 2015. Part of the Object Lessons book series, about "the hidden lives of ordinary things."
- Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel by Sherill Tippins, published by Mariner, 2014
- McGill University report on Airbnb effect on New York City housing.
- Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality by Jacob Tomsky, published by Doubleday, 2012.
**This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.