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Vancouver Art Gallery announces Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life

Vancouver Art Gallery presents Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life an exhibition on view September 15, 2013, exploring the impact of the hotel as one of the pre-eminent architectural and social structures of our time.

Grand Hotel
Left: Peter Zumthor, Therme Vals, Switzerland, 1996. Photo: Nico Schärer. © Therme Vals. Right: Ace Hotel Portland Lobby, 2007. Photo: Jeremy Pelley. © Ace Hotel Group.

Conceived by independent curator and writer Jennifer M. Volland and created exclusively for the Vancouver Art Gallery, Grand Hotel challenges visitors to consider the ways that the hotel has both reflected and been an agent of social and cultural change throughout the modern era. The title of the exhibition is in part inspired by the 1932 Hollywood film Grand Hotel, in which lives of guests interweave during a brief hotel stay. The film depicts a thoroughly modern condition and demonstrates the potency of the hotel as both a real and symbolic nexus of human movement, interaction and ideas. More than six years in the making, the exhibition is a thought-provoking and dynamic presentation featuring noted hotels around the globe and throughout history. Co-curated by the Gallery’s Senior Curator Bruce Grenville and Assistant Curator Stephanie Rebick, this first-ever exhibition on the hotel as a defining architectural structure of the modern age fills a considerable void in existing scholarship on this important subject.

Spanning two floors, the exhibition investigates the physical and psychological dimensions of the hotel using four main themes: Travel, Design, Social and Culture. The Travel section traces two important threads in the expanding network of the hotel. First, it examines the geopolitical motivations behind the travel and tourism industries, demonstrating how economics, imperialistic designs and international conflict have influenced where hotels are situated. Famously, Conrad Hilton of the eponymous hotel chain promised “World Peace Through International Trade and Travel”, while promoting his hotel network as a bastion against communism in the mid-20th century. Other hotel chains served similar political purposes. Second, the section looks at the psychological aspects of travel, illustrating how the spread of hotels is linked to an intrinsic human desire for adventure, exploration and escape. This section also features numerous examples of hotels by revolutions in transportation including the Canadian Pacific hotels, the Holiday Inn chain, and today’s eco-tourism safaris.

Design is a fundamental presence in every aspect of a guest’s experience, and the hotel mediates this at every level of encounter. An attention to detail—from the smallest item on the bathroom shelf to the building and its context within the cityscape or landscape—is essential to its success. The Design section features ten models which exemplify game-changing moments in the architecture and design of hotels: Raffles, Singapore; Imperial Hotel, Tokyo; Waldorf Astoria, New York; Flamingo, Las Vegas; Istanbul Hilton; SAS Royal Copenhagen; Westin Bonaventure, Los Angeles; Therme Vals, VAls, Switzerland; Dolder Grand, Zurich; and Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. The objects selected for this section of the exhibition range from key cards and matchboxes to furniture and wall treatments. Arne Jacobsen’s design of the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen is recognized as one of the most outstanding examples of hotel design still in existence. Every element of the hotel, from its sleek modernist exterior to its iconic ‘egg chair’ and eccentric cutlery, was designed by Jacobsen.

The exhibition’s Social section looks at race, class, and gender and asks how social rules have been challenged by and in hotels. Civil rights sit-ins during the sixties at San Francisco’s Sheraton Plaza Hotel, Langston Hughes’ searing parody of a Waldorf Astoria advertisement during the height of the Depression, and Katherine Hepburn’s groundbreaking stand in 1951 against Claridge’s restrictive policy on appropriate female attire in their hotel lobby—all of these are examples of the hotel’s centrality in shifting social norms. Through videos, photos, and archival objects, this section explores the concept of the hotel as a living organism, formed and defined by the stories of individuals throughout history.

Finally, the section on Culture presents the hotel as an active site of cultural production. From the Chelsea and Algonquin hotels in New York, the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, the Beat in Paris and the Imperial in Vienna to various Asian colonial establishments—the hotel has proven to be a fertile environment for the production of notable works of art, literature, music, film and poetry. In this section, the exhibition showcases a selection of iconic works of the modern age—Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, Buck Henry’s screenplay for The Graduate, Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”—these are all works which owe their very existence to the convivial atmosphere of hotel life. In the past decade, we have seen the emergence of a new type of hotel in which cultural production is consciously integrated into its design and day-to-day activities. The Lloyd Hotel in Amsterdam, the Ace Hotels in the US, the Michelberger in Berlin and the Waldorf in Vancouver, to name but a few, are designed to support and nurture cultural production. Using film, photographs, audio recordings and original objects, this section explores the hotel as important cultural incubator of the modern age.

Grand Hotel features a vast array of representations of the hotel—from archival photographs and advertising to the latest video, film and interactive display. The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated 336-page catalogue published by Hatje Cantz Verlag.

Exhibition events include a special talk by artistic director Suzanne Oxenaar of the Lloyd and Llove Hotels on Tuesday, April 16th at 7pm, and a lecture on 20th-century Danish architecture and design by architect and scholar Michael Sheridan on May 28th at 7pm. More information is available on the Gallery website:

The Gallery is grateful to presenting sponsor The Keg Steakhouse and Bar, Supporting Sponsor American Express, and the generous support of Mark McCain and Caro MacDonald/Eye and I, as well as the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and Furthermore: a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund.

Vancouver Art Gallery
750 Hornby Street
Vancouver, British Columbia
Canada V6Z 2H7