The Politics of the Hotel

Leonhard Clemens:

In May 1954, following an invitation from the Prince of Netherlands, a delegation of political, military, financial, media and scientific leaders met in the Hotel de Bilderberg in Osterbeek. The gathering was to informally discuss the growing anti-Americanism in Western Europe and promote a better collaboration between the Old and the New World – creating an ‘Atlanticism’.[i] The summit became known as the Bilderberg Conference. Since then, the annual meetings of the ‘Bilderberg Group’ have become an important forum for political negotiation between non-governmental and governmental groups, taking place in hotels all around the world. The choice to host these political events in a hotel is not unparalleled, on the contrary, has almost become the standard in contemporary political life. Yet it is the frequency and importance of such events in hotels that allow me to propose the central thesis of this essay: The hotel, in direct response to a paradigmatic shift in political power-relations, has become a political institution.

The structural transformation of the modern state can be considered as responsible for the shift of power from traditional political institutions to organisations and establishments of civic society. Their governance is characterised by administration and driven by private interests and capital. This transformation has been described by Foucault through the concept of ‘biopolitics’ and ‘governmentality’ – the rationalisation of exercising governance through various techniques of control, i.e. an administrative body. Since then, political institutions are increasingly forced to engage with civic society, multiple actors and with the market, which constantly challenges their organisational and operational form.[ii] This condition has been also described as ‘post-political’ or ‘post-democratic’.[iii]

However, lobby groups and a need for negotiation with non-governmental interests are not new to the democratic process. The creation of the lobby in the Palace of Westminster was in fact a conscious inclusion of civic protocols in the parliament, allowing politicians to meet representatives of different interest groups, or even private people. It coined the term ‘lobbyism’. But with globalisation and increasing complexity of decision-making processes, former representative spaces have often become insufficient to represent – or even enable – today’s political practices. This is evident in the complete eradication of the lobby in the German Reichstag as part of its renovation (Fig. 1). The negotiations within parties or between governmental and non-governmental bodies have been extended to spaces such as the hotel.

leo pics-1Fig. 1: Eradication of the lobby in the German Reichstag after renovation.


In 1789, the first American president George Washington began his famous presidential tour across the country. His campaign was to build trust with federal states and provide insight into the current state of the nation.[iv] At that time, hotels did not yet exist, only taverns and inns. These were anonymous public houses often of doubtful repute and standard. Yet Washington favoured to stay in these accommodations, as their neutral character meant avoiding any suspicion of favouritism. On his return to Philadelphia – the then capital of the United States – Washington had made many notes on the poor state of public houses. His experience coupled with increasing mobility led to a need for a new standard of hospitality. Consequently, it did not take long for the private market to invent a new concept of hospitality: the hotel.[v]

The first American hotel was built in 1793 by Samuel Blodget Jr., a financier, merchant and founder of the Insurance Company of North America. Well connected to the political elite, a friend of Washington and Jefferson, Blodget was appointed Building and Improvements Supervisor for the new capital city Washington. He realised that the capital city had to provide accommodation for travelling officials and businessmen. The Union Public Hotel, costing 50,000 dollars to complete, was truly novel in comparison to the common wooden construction of public houses. Built in brick and ornamented with ‘modern’ Georgian-styled columns, the hotel started a new standard in the hospitality business. But what really differentiated it from existing public houses was its internal arrangement. While the bedchambers were located on the upper floors, the main floor accommodated several large public meeting rooms. This enabled it to serve different social and public function, most famously the temporary use of the halls by the Congress from 1814 to 1815 as a consequence of the 1812 War against British Forces and the destruction of the Capitol.

The Union Public Hotel, besides holding the status of the largest privately owned building in the city, was considered an impressive landmark only inferior to the Capitol and White House (Fig. 2). Although the building, due to increasing construction costs, was a financial disaster for Blodget Jr., it encouraged entrepreneurs to join the hospitality business and uphold the new standard it had created. The distinctive architecture of the first hotels helped travellers to immediately identify their lodgings, while their public spaces offered meeting places for business. Due to prominent locations within the urban fabric, hotels also soon became important social centres. For example, the Exchange Coffee House built in 1809 in Boston provided spaces for social encounters and events, while Latrobe’s 1797 hotel proposal in Richmond and the inclusion of assembly rooms highlights the importance of public and meeting spaces in the hotel (Fig. 3). However, hotels became political spaces not only because they provided local people with public spaces, but because they deliberately created a forum for them to come in contact with strangers and outsiders. This fostered larger networks of commerce, politics and association. The City Hotel in New York, for example, was specifically established to provide a political space and move political debate away from the street. Its elegant architectural form, in this sense, mirrored the desire of its owners for politics that are rational and refined.

leo pics-2Fig. 2: The Union Public Hotel in Washington D.C. designed by James Hoban. Source: Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, Hotel: An American History (2008)
leo pics-3Fig. 3: Benjamin Latrobe´s 1797 proposal for a hotel and assembly theatre. Source:


‘Each of our hotels’, I said ‘is a little America’. Conrad Hilton[vi]

leo pics-5Fig. 4: Conrad Hilton and a model of Hilton Istanbul: the American dream arrives in Europe. Source:

From the very beginning, the American hotel was a project of capitalist speculation, but also a political project to modernise a nation. The hotel as a commercial project that could simultaneously promote a specific social agenda and explicit political intention was especially realised by the international expansion of the Hilton Hotel chain in the second half of the twentieth century. The Hilton Hotel was founded in 1919 in Cisco (Texas) by Conrad Nicholson Hilton, an aspiring banker. Hilton expanded first across the United States and in 1949, with the founding of Hilton International, the brand started to grow globally. The first European Hilton franchise was opened in 1955 in Istanbul, followed by a hotel in Berlin three years later and another 15 hotels abroad by 1966 (Fig. 5).

leo pics-7Fig. 5: Hilton Istanbul ground floor. Source: Annabel Jane Wharton, Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture (2004)

Hilton never made a secret out of his ambition to use his business as a political and educational project to promote universal capitalism. In a 1954 speech, delivered to the American Hotel Association in New York, he stated that if transportation equals civilisation: “Hotels facilitate transportation and therefore facilitate civilization”.[vii] He also claimed: “An integral part of my dream was to show the countries most exposed to Communism the other side of the coin – the fruits of the free world”.[viii] In addition the substantial financing of Hiltons Hotels abroad by the American government through the Economic Cooperation Administration and the Marshall Plan, are evidence of their role as political instruments to restructure the economic and civic order in host countries. The Hilton Hotels were conceived as modern harbinger of American culture. The lives they offered emulated that desired by the American upper middle class, they were produced by an American economy and rooted in the American dream. They not only represented but also actively shaped wants by providing an attainable utopia that simultaneously presented a space of modern luxury and technological desires. Whereas the first American Hilton Hotels were existing hotels rebranded by Hilton, the Hilton Internationals hotels where newly planned projects. Their internal layouts represented a key aspect of American economy and capitalism, extreme efficiency and standardisation, which was promoted and aestheticised through modern architecture. Modern architecture therefore symbolised both an American economy and politics.

The plans of the first European Hilton in Istanbul reflects this ambition. The floorplan has a clear organisation that leads the guest, in an almost Fordist manner, on arrival at the entrance first to the reception, then to the elevator and finally to the room (Fig. 06). The programmatic diagram of the Hilton was immediately understandable and promoting transparency, it sent a clear message to the outside world: this is the American way of life. The functional agenda applied to the whole interior design of the hotel. Following the modernist doctrine of “form follows function” the structure of the building was exposed and devoid of any ornamentation. What differentiated the Hilton from other grand hotels in Istanbul and around the world was its commoditisation of space, the creation of literally consumable space. This is evident in the integration of a small mall around the hotel’s atrium space and the unprecedented large number of 244 rooms on offer (Fig. 6). The efficiency of profitable space is legible in the organisation of base and slab, which enabled an unlimited addition of programme on the ground floor and an efficient stacking of standardised apartments on top. In its urban disposition, the hotel further clearly contrasts with its surrounding. The scale of the building is set against the smaller grain of the neighbourhood, while the American modern style and alien suburban middle class lawn clearly states that this territory belongs to “little America”.

leo pics-6Fig. 6: General organisation of a standardised hotel.


The example of the Hilton shows a specific form of domesticity and civic order – that of the American upper middle class – which is used to promote, or more precisely reproduce, a specific political and economic subjectivity. The Hilton is symptomatic for a paradigm that uses a particular form of domestic and urban environment to sustain its economic interests. In America this paradigm can be compared to the New Deal, a domestic programme by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s. Reacting to the Great Depression, it was to normalise the national economy and introduce various social reforms. In Europe this paradigm was profoundly inscribed in the structures of the welfare state that, starting in the late nineteenth century, emerged in Germany through a structural reform under Chancellor Bismarck. Both political acts relied on insurance, healthcare, education and housing as main elements of structural reforms. The issue of domesticity gained major importance for the state to set new standards of hygiene and to form political subjectivities.[ix]

The notion of domesticity first appeared in the nineteenth century as a reaction to the division between work and home.[x] This shift came with major structural transformations of the urban environment and its planning. Urban renewal plans such as Ildefons Cerda’s Eixample for Barcelona solved problems of hygiene and housing by providing large infrastructures, greenery and housing blocks.[xi] The involvement of the state can be seen in the large numbers of housing projects financed or initiated by local and national governments and politicians around Europe. In Germany the founding of the Deutscher Werkbund in 1907 by the politician Friedrich Naumann and the architect Henry van de Velde, or subsequent programmes such as the Werkbundausstellung in Stuttgart (1927) give testimony of these efforts. As politicians identified the domestic as an effective instrument to restructure society, new social and economic paradigms emerged.

A different example of a political instrumentalisation of domesticity is the former German Presidential Residence, the Kanzlerbungalow in Bonn (1964-99).[xii] The bungalow was commissioned by the former German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard, who claimed that the late-classicist Palais Schaumburg, the then residence of the Chancellor, was representationally inappropriate. The bungalow was to find a new democratic form of representation, with the architect Sep Ruf developing a building that referred to the Weimarer Moderne, associated with the roots of German democracy (Fig. 7). The building was designed as two interlocking squares, each composed around a central patio. By doing so, it avoids any monumental gestures stereotypical of the Nazi era. It employed instead a bungalow type, a “firmly established style for sixties Federal Republic housing”, which represented the ideal German home.[xiii] The interior of the house with its wooden ceiling panelling and built-in cupboards was reminiscent of the middle class’ style and taste. As an epitome of German modern architecture, the building tried to combine “state ceremony and a mass ideal of private living”.[xiv]

leo pics-8Fig. 7: Kanzlerbungalow Bonn. Source: Thomas Riehle,

During its time of use, the bungalow served as the backdrop for many state visits and media events. But the absence of traditional symbols of power was not always met by enthusiasm, with Helmut Kohl, for example changing the interior to his own taste. Indeed, new forms of representation had to be learned by the media and state representatives to adequately perform in this domestic environment (Fig. 8). Forms of representation that seem rather natural to the hotel lobby, which Siegfried Kracauer once described as the surface expression of modern life.[xv]

leo pics-9Fig. 08: Ludwig Erhard and Photographer. Source: Arch+ 65 ‘Transparenz als politisches


The hotel can be understood as a political institution operating at different levels, scales and spatial modalities. Its political implications can be especially recognised in three different moments. The first is when the hotel, from the very beginning, was conceived as a space of social encounter that, while fundamental for the forming of a public and civic society, also enabled the creation of new political protocols. Its success was thereby grounded in the unique combination of commercial interests and the provision of accommodation and public spaces. The second moment is when the hotel as a geopolitical instrument emerges in parallel with ideas of standardisation, efficiency and modernisation. The last moment is evident in how domesticity has increasingly become exploited by political representation. These moments allow the proposal of the hotel as a space of political representation.

Whereas the political character of the hotel is defined by its possibilities to simultaneously enable and include public, economic and social protocols, its institutional character is dependent on the establishment of these protocols as continuous, replicable and reliable – in short, a consistent form of administration. But the hotel as a political space is often seen as a space of dubious political negotiation. Conceiving the hotel as a political institution, therefore leaves us with the questions: How can the hotel become an acknowledged and integrated part of our governmental apparatus? What new possibilities for democratic processes arise from this? How can democratic institutions be rethought in their effect at an architectural and urban scale?


[i] (accessed April 22, 2014).
[ii] Michel Foucault and Graham Burchell, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège De France (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 51-100.
[iii] “[…] ‘post-political’ is a politics which claims to leave behind old ideological struggles and instead focus on expert management and administration”. From: Slavoj Žižek’s Violence (New York: Picador, 2008), p. 202.
[iv] Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz, Hotel: An American History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), pp. 13-30.
[v] The hotel had European precursors. But these were mostly extensions to royal palaces for the accommodation of aristocrats (for example Palais Royale in Paris) rather than public houses. They did not offer any new spatial layout or programme, but rather copied the configuration of the palais. The differentiation between ‘hotel’ and ‘inn’ through mere size, as presented by the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, is insufficient when considering the American hotel. It provided a completely new standard of hospitality and infrastructure, and created a new civic and public social life. Compare Nikolaus Pevsner, A History of Building Types (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), pp. 169-173.
[vi] Annabel Jane Wharton, Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 1.
[vii] Randall S. Upchurch, ‘A Man of Vision: Conrad Hilton’s Perspective on Progressing toward Civic and Social Responsibility’, in Hospitality and Tourism Educator (August, 1996), 116-117.
[viii] Conrad N. Hilton, Be My Guest (New York City: Fireside, 1984), p. 237.
[ix] Mark Swenarton, Tom Avermaete and Dirk Van Den Heuvel, Architecture and the Welfare State (London: Routledge, 2014).
[x] Hilden Heynen and Gülsüm Baydar, Negotiating Domesticity: Spatial Productions of Gender in Modern Architecture (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 7.
[xi] This ubiquitous problem found its preliminary climax in the discourse of Modernism in the 1920s and 30s and in its promotion of the minimum dwelling as a response to these conditions. See Karel Teige, The Minimum Dwelling (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002).
[xii] Andreas Schatzke, Jaoquin Medina Warmburg, and Paul Swiridoff, Sep Ruf, Kanzlerbungalow, Bonn: Opus 72 (Munich: Edition Axel Menges, 2009).
[xiii] Schatzke, Warmburg and Swiridoff, p. 15.
[xiv] Ibid.
[xv] Siegfried Kracauer and Thomas Y. Levin, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1995).

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