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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 11.2 (1999) 134-152

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The Hotel Kracauer

Marc Katz

Since the recent rediscovery of Siegfried Kracauer as a theorist of visual culture, and the subsequent English language publication of a sampling of his Weimar-era feuilletons, the broad outlines of his biography are finally coming into focus for American readers: the long friendship with Walter Benjamin, labor in the outer orbit of the Frankfurt school, exile in Paris and New York, and so on. What is less well known is the fact that Kracauer spent a brief but very significant period as a practicing architect. After finishing a design degree in Munich in 1909, he found work at various firms in Frankfurt where he was put to work drafting small-scale commercial and residential structures. He gave up this career in 1919, when he felt it had become too desultory, and he took a position as feuilletonist at the Frankfurter Zeitung. Yet his fascination with architecture remained with him, not only as a frequent focus of his reportage but as a source of spatial images [Raumbilder], which he elaborated across a broad range of topics. In fact, it was only as a critic and social theorist that Kracauer's architectural imagination could be said to have come into its own. The various employment agencies and department stores that turn up in his writings are not just formalistically "rendered," [End Page 134] because he never regards space as ideologically neutral: "Every typical space is created by typical social relations which are expressed in such a space without the disturbing intervention of consciousness. Everything that consciousness ignores, everything that it overlooks, is involved in the construction of such spaces" (Kracauer, Schriften 5.2.185). "Typical space" is the operative term here, because he examines architecture in tandem with leisure, entertainment, and domesticity, the broad spectrum of nonspecialized activity that has frequently been theorized in the postwar years under the rubric of "everyday life." As Kracauer recognizes, architecture in an everyday context constitutes a particularly double-edged medium: because buildings embody unresolved social contradictions in proximate form, they serve as a locus of potentially radical transformative power. And yet because buildings are appropriated by habit as we live in and through them, these contradictions tend to go unremarked. Ideology lies, Kracauer says, like Poe's purloined letter, out of sight in plain view. This is the starting point for what would prove to be his decades-long critical encounter with the built structures of metropolitan modernity. If the easily overlooked locales that reproduce social relations acquire a mythic dimension through the naturalizing force of repetition, then he works against this process by reading them as so many ciphered communications.

Among Kracauer's preferred sites for such culture-critical detective work, the one he returns to repeatedly, like the scene of a particularly opaque crime, is the hotel lobby. The typical metropolitan grand hotel is remarkably well-suited to his project, since it houses a full range of everyday practices by transposing them to a controlled environment. It is the quintessential heterotopic setting, where one can, under a single roof, attend a wedding of five hundred people, buy a pair of pants, and shower. Kracauer's essay "The Hotel Lobby" serves as the pivotal chapter of The Detective Novel (1922), his first sustained theoretical treatise on urban mass culture. Lobbies subsequently turn up as a consistent topos in his Berlin feuilletons for the Frankfurter Zeitung of the 20s and early 30s, including (among others) "Parisian Hotel," "In a Luxury Hotel," "Chemistry in the Hotel," and "Evening in the Hotel." My point here is that we should regard Kracauer as something of a "hotel flâneur," since to a great extent he learns to read the modern city out of the hotel's interior topography, with corridors serving as his avenues, and function rooms and front desks as his plazas and police bureaus. The hotel lobby serves Kracauer as a particularly flexible structuring principle, since like an [End Page 135] architectural rebus, it allows him to conflate discussions of...


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pp. 134-152
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