Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life

by Brandon Chow


Hotels aren’t often imagined in the foreground of transformative pop culture, but the Vancouver Art Gallery’s latest exhibit, Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life, paints the storied history of the hotel as the intersection for creative collaboration.  

Like any grand hotel, the exhibit is animated and entertaining, drawing richness and depth from the colourful details of history’s most renowned hotels, and its ephemeral accounts of the famed, troubled and wealthy. Designed to replicate the interior of a luxurious hotel, the exhibit emanates the rich culture and high life of the hotel experience.  Spread into four themes—social, culture, design and travel—the display challenges us to reflect on the role of the hotel as a microcosm of contemporary pop culture, represented through a smorgasbord of visual and textual documentations and artifacts.

In the design section, enthusiasts can admire scale models of some of the world’s greatest hotels, including the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, The Flamingo in Las Vegas and the Waldorf Astoria in New York, while the culture section brings together iconic works of art, including Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and Dylan’s Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, and reveals their gratitude to the inspiration of hotel life.


The social theme was particularly engaging for me.  It stood as a reminder that hotels are often places of debauchery and escape for the troubled musician or inspired artist. A place that media theorist Steven Johnson would describe as the perfectly chaotic niche for good ideas to be born.  Good ideas such as The New Yorker, conceived from the raucous, late-night poker games held in a rented-out Algonquin Hotel ballroom, or the emotional ballads of Neil Young, Jim Morrison and The Eagles, who all who sought refuge at the Chateau Marmont—a place that came to be renowned for entertaining suicidal thoughts, scoring drugs or simply hiding away from the world. Grand-hotel_install_0034

As I read about these anecdotes, I came to appreciate the inspirational release that hotels provide. They lend us a brief detachment from our routine existence and an escape to a new understanding of the world. Without the constraints of our usual humdrumness, we’re free to explore and ponder: a place to step back from the world, observe and think.  

Both the colourful and rich heritage of hotel architecture and design, as well as the intimate sketches of interesting people in history, make Grand Hotel an exhibit to set aside a few hours to appreciate.


Grand Hotel is on at the Vancouver Art Gallery (750 Hornby St.) until September 15th.


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