The Hotel

Occupied Space

By (author) Robert A. Davidson
Categories: History of art, The Arts: treatments and subjects, The Arts
Publisher: University of Toronto Press
Paperback : 9781442610941, 224 pages, September 2018



The Overlooked Space

Of the many urban spaces that have been integral to the modern experience – among which figure the railway station, the café, the factory, and the shopping arcade – the hotel has been the most under-appreciated and least theorized. This is especially remarkable given that the hotel is a cultural and built edifice that is a ready-made conduit for transculturation. At once embodying the grey zone between public and private, the transience of the tourist, and, in the case of a postmodern city such as Las Vegas, the victory of simulacrum over monumental authenticity, the hotel is intimately linked to processes of modernity and postmodernity and is emblematic of the urban experience in the way that it provides both space and time for the forging of different types of contact. When parts of chains, hotels are interurban spaces that encourage and, to a certain degree enforce, the replication of spatial practice from one city to another. They are connected intimately to transport systems, a relationship that was fundamental during the West’s vibrant nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the rise of the grand hotel mirrored that of rail and motorways. During that period, hotels anchored city centres, commanded views of beaches and mountains, and became destinations unto themselves, images of which adorned postcards and the ephemera of the world traveller. Integrated and implicated as it was in the flows of modernity – and is now in the discontinuities of post- or supermodernity – the hotel must thus figure in our understanding of the relationship between an increasingly complex notion of what may be called global “conduct” – the movement of goods and people, behaviour, styles and aesthetics – and the experience of the built environment of the modern metropolis. The hotel has been many things: meeting point, outpost, way station, home, stage, and prison. Its social, cultural, and business functions continue to expand and change – along with its physical form – such that now, in the twenty-first century, hotel designers and architects not only draw on past practices and motifs but also cater to the new relationships humans are developing with each other, with nature, and with themselves. A unique zone that has closely tracked the development of modern urban societies, the ubiquitous hotel is a rich source of insight.

This is a book about the hotel in the realm of the imagination and of the physical, built environment. I read the hotel both as a symbol and as a space and propose the particular mode of being that it engenders – occupancy – as a broad, unifying concept that allows us to better understand the hotel both in its various artistic forms and in the diverse ways in which it functions as a structure. By considering the many variations of the hotel one gains new perspectives not only on a fundamental modern space but also on the multiple disciplines, domains, and circumstances in which it appears and plays a part. While the hotel’s underappreciated symbolic importance means that the visual arts and cinema are especially fruitful in this regard, its architectural permutations and varied historical and political uses provide ample fodder for new analyses in terms of the physical experience of the space by different types of people. In addition to inspiring painters, photographers, and filmmakers, it has played important roles during wartime and more recently served in the accommodation of displaced people – whether they be detainees or refugees seeking sanctuary – making its study all the more imperative and timely.

Occupancy, which is at the core of my interpretation and analysis of the hotel, is a flexible concept. In addition to describing a basic physical position or the act of residing temporarily, it extends to the assertion of a more militant or resistant presence. As regards the hotel, specifically, I contend that it functions both metaphorically and literally, extending equally through the realms of the imagination and the physical world. I argue that occupancy relates to and is informed by the mechanisms and experiences of travel and tourism and that not only does it dovetail with the hotel’s  penchant to serve as a space of decompression among circuits of ever-faster modern travel, it also conditions the building’s role in spatial requisitioning and in detention regimes. The versatility of occupancy as a guiding concept thus permits a multifaceted approach to the hotel’s unique spatial and temporal effects in both the imaginative and tangible realms.

Occupancy and the basic formula or calculus of the hotel, “space over time,” go together. I propose that hotel occupancy in its many forms is indicative of a new relationship with space, one that is specifically delineated and limited by the contractual time of one’s stay. This temporal element pushes the traveller by choice’s presence in a hotel into a new category. Temporariness measured by a clock or a calendar makes time the paramount factor. Dwelling, while possible under certain circumstances, is clearly not the default experience here. What is more, whereas “home” is governed by family rules, traditions, and cultural convention, hotel occupancy is a different and simpler beast. It is the market revealed on a supremely intimate level; this controlled space where we engage in such private activities as sleeping, dressing, and having sex is commodified along the temporal axis and supplied according to means, taste, and availability. Hotels may appear in all shapes and sizes, but the space-over-time equation remains an essential baseline from which alternate versions spring. How this fact adapts under different circumstances contributes to a deeper understanding of the space’s versatility.

It is important to note, though, that hotel occupancy is not restricted to the guest room; “run of house” grants access and services throughout the building and grounds, expanding and informing the mode of being and modified domesticity that one assumes and encounters in the hotel. It is particularly intriguing to see how this aspect manifests in art, the focus of chapter 1 of this book. Of course, the nature of occupancy itself is mutable and can result in different experiences within the same general system depending on one’s gender, race, and/or class. What is more, prolonging stays and extending occupancy allows for increased contact with staff, some of whom become very aware of one’s habits, thus creating the potential for formal and informal relationships. Repeated visits and loyalty programs mean one’s inclinations may be logged and catered to automatically in an almost familial fashion. Occupancy is also closely connected to an overlooked element of cosmopolitanism that I identify as decompression, or the relaxing of tension inherent in the modern subject’s experience of time-space condensing that occurs during travel. If planes and trains squeeze us into seats in metal tubes that zoom through the air or hum along rails, hotels at our destination serve as points of decompression. There, we check into rooms in which we can relax and compose ourselves. First, though, we must pass through a transition point that is half-private, half-public: the lobby. This particular aspect of hotel architecture is often synonymous with the entire space and was the subject of perhaps the most famous critical piece about the hotel, Siegfried Kracauer’s essay “The Hotel Lobby” (1922–5).

Table of contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: The Overlooked Space
Part I: The Realm of Imagination
Chapter 1: The Pictorial Hotel
Chapter 2: The Cinematic Hotel

Part II: The Built Environment Chapter 3: The Wartime Hotel
Chapter 4: The Displacement Hotel
Conclusion: The Hotel Attraction

Works Cited


The Hotel: Occupied Space explores the hotel as both symbol and space through the concept of “occupancy. ” By examining the various ways in which the hotel is manifested in art, photography, and film, this book offers a timely critique of a crucial modern space. To learn more about this publisher, click here: http://bit. ly/2C3QxA6


"Its assemblage of sources unique to Davidson’s perspective and its original articulation of the concept of occupancy makes The Hotel: Occupied Space a topical study that, while broad in scope, is refreshingly clear and accessible to anyone interested in our evolving relationship with the built environment in the age of global conduct. "

- Matthew D’Ambrosio Griffith, Harvard University

"Through his provocative series of close readings, Davidson uses the hotel form as a way to register the significance of incursions of state power into the contractually arranged relationship to space that defines the modern hotel."

- Jordan J. Howie, University of Toronto