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A show called 'New Hotels for Global Nomads' reflects a curator's belief that hostelries are design laboratories.

November 09, 2002|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

New York — Donald Albrecht has been taking things from hotels -- and we're not talking about towels.

He has a quirky yellow chair from Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (opened in 1922). He has a heart-shaped tub from a Poconos resort. He has a cutaway map of New York's Waldorf-Astoria from 1937 and a model from the implausibly lavish Burj al-Arab, a sultan's dream come true on the coast of Dubai.

In all, Albrecht has filled 5,800 square feet of the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum with artifacts, photographs, films, speculations and fantasies about hotels. The reason, the curator says, is that hotels make us think, and make us feel, in a way few other structures do.

His exhibition is called "New Hotels for Global Nomads." And as it happens, the show, through March 2, has arrived at a moment when one of the world's great hotel cities (66,000 rooms and counting) seems to be full of people thinking big thoughts about hotels.

Some 50 blocks south of the Cooper-Hewitt's space, in Times Square, the 45-story tower of a new Westin Hotel, clad in as many hues as Joseph's Technicolor Dreamcoat and bisected by a bending line of sky-bound white light, is stopping New Yorkers and tourists alike in their tracks.

Designed by the Miami firm Arquitectonica to mirror the frenetic energy of the urban blocks below, the hotel has been gradually opening over the last few weeks.

"It's beautiful," said a purveyor of $10 watches as he stood on the sidewalk across the street one day last week. A French tourist agreed. But others aren't so sure.

"Is this the ugliest building in New York?" asked the New Yorker in a recent headline. Writing below it, critic Paul Goldberger employed such adjectives as "shrill," "banal," "tawdry" and "gaudy" on the way to suggesting that the Westin "makes Times Square vulgar in a whole new way, extending up into the sky."

Meanwhile, a few blocks farther downtown, about 45,000 of the world's top hoteliers and restaurateurs are meeting this weekend at the Javits Convention Center in their annual convention.

This year, it's a mournful occasion, with average room rates and occupancy levels down all over. But this slump follows a decade of remarkable growth: Between 1993 and 2001, the U.S. hotel industry grew from 3.3 million rooms to 4.2 million, with $103.6 billion in annual sales. Only the car and food industries are bigger.

Since the first large-scale hotels showed up in the Eastern United States about 200 years ago and then spread around the world, their shape and contents have both mirrored social changes and fueled romantic daydreams: when London's Savoy Hotel added electricity in 1889, for instance; or when the Gideons started placing Bibles at the Superior Hotel in Superior, Mont., in 1908; when the Flamingo introduced the casino-hotel concept to Las Vegas in 1946; when the Hilton chain decided to put televisions in all of its guest rooms in 1951.

"I love to do exhibitions that engage people's everyday lives," said Albrecht, standing near the Cooper-Hewitt's entrance on East 91st Street as museum members filed in for the exhibition's Oct. 28 opening reception. He began to nurse the idea of a hotel show several years ago, he said, when the proliferation of eclectically designed boutique lodgings worldwide convinced him that "the hotel was back as a design laboratory."

Soon he was gathering string to support his idea of hotels as symbols of globalism, places of business, places of refuge, as addresses where, as British novelist Frederick Marryat once said, "you meet everybody and everybody meets you."Albrecht, who spent 12 years as an architect and six years organizing exhibitions on film design at New York's Museum of the Moving Image, calls himself a believer in "architecture as a narrative act."

His previous projects include "On the Job," a deconstruction of the American workplace for the National Building Museum in Washington in late 2000, and a survey of design work by Charles and Ray Eames that traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in early 2000.

His work on the hotel show began in January 2001. Collecting photographs, models, film clips and artifacts, and then commissioning artists, he pulled together about three dozen projects.

About a third of them represent real hotels, a third represent speculative hotels proposed by architects and another third are interpretations by artists and photographers, some literal (like the documentary photographs of Las Vegas), some off the wall (like the illustrated account from artist Sophie Calle, who 19 years ago took a job as a hotel maid in Venice and covertly photographed and took notes in the dirty rooms to which she was assigned. The hotel was unnamed; museum officials note that the artist was fired after two weeks.)

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