- Jet Age Hotels and the International Style 1950–1965 by Bruce Peter
Jet propulsion technology was developed during World War II. Cultural commentators and entrepreneurs were quick to foresee its impact on civilian society: the term "jet liner" presages the replacement of ocean liners with passenger planes, and the expected result was a dramatic expansion of overseas leisure travel. By 1948, the phrase "jet age" was in circulation. This was indeed a new age. Jet aviation had far-reaching effects, not only on the tourism and leisure industries but also on cityscapes, economies, social practices, and visual culture, as well as on international relations and diplomacy.
Although regular civilian jet services were not available until 1952, the new hotels needed to accommodate air passengers started to be constructed in the later 1940s. The arrival of jet travel coincided with the international spread of architectural modernism, and the hotels of this era were mostly designed in variations of the International Style. This term was coined in the early 1930s by Alfred H. Barr, director of New York's Museum of Modern Art. Characterized by rectilinear forms, repetitive modular elements, open interior spaces, flat surfaces without ornamentation, and innovative uses of industrial materials, the International Style was promoted by MoMA as part of its wider advocacy of the Modern Movement in architecture, art, and design. As Bruce Peter observes in Jet Age Hotels and the International Style 1950–1965, "rather than the revolutionary leftist image that had characterised so much of the mainstream of modernist discourse in Europe and Russia, the version presented by MoMA for American consumption was mostly focused on modernism as a futuristic and supposedly 'functional' style", that was "essentially value-free" (10). The International Style could, in fact, be appropriated for a wide range of ideological purposes, and the designers and financial backers of major hotels therefore became caught up in crucial political as well as aesthetic debates. In recounting the history of these building projects, Peter also tells a much larger story about, as he puts it, "the development and experience of the post-war world" (8). It is an extremely compelling account: indeed, reading it was a new experience for me, since I have never before been sorry to reach the end of a book written by an academic.
Two American companies, Intercontinental (owned by Pan American Airlines) and Hilton, were the main players in postwar hotel development around the world. They were influenced by [End Page 396] the older Statler chain, which had pioneered the development of efficient, standardized hospitality practices in early twentieth-century America. Statler was eventually bought by Conrad Hilton in 1954. Most of the chapters in Jet Age Hotels center on properties built or operated by Intercontinental or by Hilton and its subsidiary, Hilton International (now an independent company). One chapter, however, is devoted to individual hotels by architects with high cultural profiles. Among these are a few buildings that have been canonized as mid-twentieth-century masterpieces, such as the Scandinavian Airline System's Royal Hotel Copenhagen, opened in 1961. Arne Jacobsen was responsible not only for the architecture but for all aspects of the interior, and created his famous Egg chairs for the lobby. Featured on the front and back covers of the book, the SAS Royal Hotel is celebrated by Peter as the epitome of a distinctively Scandinavian modernism, identified by elegant detailing and understated luxury. Internally, the hotel has been extensively renovated several times, and the original unified aesthetic is now lost—except in bedroom 606. It has been retained as a kind of museum, with Jacobsen's décor carefully preserved.
As Peter observes, "constant and unsentimental change reflects the character of the international hospitality industry—a sector aiming to please demanding and diverse clienteles who simultaneously expect to experience luxury, modernity, tradition, novelty, familiarity, internationalism, locality and many other not necessarily compatible traits" (6). The many photographs and promotional images included in Jet Age Hotels capture, for the most part, buildings and interiors that have now been demolished or drastically altered. However...