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Just traveling through

Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- One of the best moments in “New Hotels for Global Nomads,” the current show at the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, is a music video directed by Spike Jonze. The video shows actor Christopher Walken tap-dancing through a hotel lobby -- a generic, sterile space otherwise devoid of human life. At one point Walken lifts off the ground and soars across the room as if in a reverie. A moment later he sinks back into an armchair, his face blank and expressionless.

The sequence of images captures the aura that can make hotels such tantalizing social spaces. Anonymity, freedom, loneliness -- a tinge of eroticism -- these are the qualities that give hotels their particular frisson. In recent years, architects have tapped into these themes with an imaginative fervor that hasn’t been seen in decades.

Unfortunately, such moments are rare in this exhibition. Divided into seemingly random categories, such as “Urban Hotels,” “Fantasy Hotels” and “Hotels on the Move,” the show includes six full-scale installations by a range of architects and artists, photos, videos and architectural models.

The result is a confusing assortment of often dull, predictable images. The exhibition opens at the end of a 10-year period that was one of the most inventive in the history of hotel design. Yet it jumps around from experimental, contemporary hotel designs to artists’ interpretations of hotel travel and turn-of-the-century lodges. What’s totally missing is the kind of curatorial insight that could have given the show some meaning.

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Nonetheless, there are a few notable highlights. Among the oddest are the Japanese “capsule hotels,” which date to the 1970s and were an effort to accommodate business travelers in dense urban centers at minimal cost. The show includes a full-scale replica of one such capsule, its molded shell just big enough to house a single reclining guest. The capsule evokes the distant age of space travel. But it is also an example of capitalist efficiency taken to an extreme, a model of alienation for the Willy Lomans of the world.

Other examples offer a more decadent view of hotel culture. A series of photos by Peter Marlow depict a typical Japanese “love hotel.” The photos show vending machines for sex toys, and patrons paying bills from behind glass screens to preserve their anonymity. (In the real version, hotel staff even offer black plastic license plate covers.) The hotels, which arose in the 1950s, are perfect emblems for a repressed society -- one in which illicit pleasures are never allowed to pierce the veneer of social conformity.

With the emergence of boutique hotels in the late 1980s, however, public voyeurism begins to replace anonymity as a central theme in hotel design. One of the earliest examples of this trend was hotelier Ian Schrager’s Royalton, which opened in 1988. Designed by Philippe Starck, the Royalton’s cool sensuality -- marked by minimal lighting, lush surfaces and furniture that was meant to evoke obscure objets d’art -- was a place where Manhattan’s fashionable set was less likely to sneak off for casual afternoon sex than to be found blowing air kisses in the hotel’s upscale restaurant.

The Royalton, unfortunately, is missing from the show, as is its West Coast version, the Mondrian, which opened in 1996. Instead, in a telling example of the show’s inability to gauge the global zeitgeist, past or present, three later Schrager hotels are included -- San Francisco’s Clift and two hotels in London, the Sanderson and St. Martins Lane. None is as pivotal or as sexy as the Royalton.

Included is Koning Eizenberg’s design for L.A.'s Downtown Standard Hotel -- a more provocative take on the boutique theme, but it is unclear from the exhibition what makes it so. The hotel’s rooftop terrace offers a surreal skyline view that seems out of place in Los Angeles and has made it a gathering spot for twentysomething hipsters. The bedrooms are a voyeur’s private fantasy, with bathrooms enclosed entirely in glass and views into nearby office buildings. But what you get in the show are slick pictures of the retro, 1960s-era decor.

The show does a better job with a number of theoretical hotels for the ecologically conscious. There are several projects by New York-based Lindy Roy, including a 2001 proposal for the Wind River Lodge outside Valdez, Alaska. The proposal’s compact, cross-shaped plan and sleek curvilinear forms -- complete with twin helipads -- give it a paramilitary look, as if it were the launchpad for an invasion. Dutch architect Dre Wapenaar’s 1998 “Tree Tents,” on the other hand, are designed to hang off the side of a tree trunk like enormous ripe fruit. They would make an ideal sanctuary for a group of environmental activists.

But such works quickly get lost in the bric-a-brac that surrounds them. Many of us surely would like to own the Louis Vuitton luggage that the luxury goods company designed in 1936 for Leopold Stokowski, with its fold-away table and bookshelves. But what does it really say about the evolution of the contemporary hotel?

What the exhibition is missing is a clearer sense of historical context. One of the show’s most powerful images, for example, is a 1999 photo by Andreas Gursky of a hotel atrium in Taipei, Taiwan. The hotel’s monotonous rows of balconies, bathed in a harsh light, could just as well represent the interior of a suburban corporate headquarters building or a minimum-security prison.

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That image could have served as a jumping-off point for a more intriguing show. In her 2001 book “Building the Cold War,” Annabel Jane Wharton points out how the Hilton hotels of the 1950s and ‘60s served as monuments to American corporate power and its global reach. Their uniform modernity gave that power a progressive veneer.

The boutique hotels of the ‘80s and ‘90s can be seen as a response to those earlier models -- and they cater to a very different clientele. Unlike their white-collar predecessors, the new global nomads are more obsessed with glamour than with wielding influence. The currency they share is the hunger for celebrity, not an unyielding belief in the superiority of the American way of life. What both have in common, perhaps, is a lack of genuine cultural curiosity.

But the Cooper-Hewitt exhibition never bothers to make such connections. And in any case, that moment may also be past. A year and a half ago, during a visit to Los Angeles, Schrager suggested that the boutique hotel had had its run. “I’m starting to look back at the old Hiltons,” he said, “big, anonymous spaces. I think they may be the next wave.”

A few months later, terrorist attacks destroyed the World Trade Center, and the hotel business still has not fully recovered.

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Schrager abandoned his plan to build an elaborate new Frank Gehry-designed hotel at Manhattan’s Astor Place. Andre Balazs’ proposed New York hotel, designed by the celebrated French architect Jean Nouvel, is being re-conceived as an apartment complex.

One is left to wonder, in such a context, what the next wave of hotel design will bring us. You won’t find the answer here.


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