Glamour is fragile. It tends to vanish with too much time or scrutiny. In response, people are always promising to “bring glamour back” (or declaring that “glamour is back”). Such promises are particularly common in three industries: fashion, airlines, and hotels. In airlines, they’re never fulfilled. In fashion, they often are. In hotels, there are more misses than hits.
Take the subject of this 2005 ad, the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center, the curved façade takes a good photo. But as a lived experience, the hotel offers little more than any other nice Hyatt. It does not inspire longing. Remodeling and a new spa did not change the hotel’s cultural resonance.
In fact, preservationists are now fightingplans to demolish the Century Plaza to make way for a complex that would include two mixed-use towers and make Century City more pedestrian-friendly. The arguments for preservation implicitly acknowledge that the hotel has little emotional or aesthetic importance today. “It is among the purest representations of 1960s Los Angeles planning and architectural philosophy we have left,” writes the LAT's Christopher Hawthorne--a back-handed compliment. The WaPost's Philip Kennicott called it “a hard building to love.”
Hotel glamour isn’t about what celebrities or presidents have frequented the building. It’s about the yearnings the hotel conjures in its audience, the escape and transformation a visit promises to provide. No one understood that better than Morris Lapidus, the architect best known for designing the Fountainebleu and Eden Roc hotels in Miami Beach. He wrote:
I was convinced that just as a store had to be designed to make people want to buy what the merchant had to sell, so a hotel had something to sell also. What was that something? A home away from home? Absolutely not! Who wants a homey feeling on a vacation? The guests want to find a new experience—forget the office, the house, the kids, the bills. Anything but that good old homey feeling that the old hotels used to see with a comfortable bed, a nice rocker on the veranda, a good solid nourishing meal. Not on your life! We were coming out of the war and the postwar period. People wanted fun, excitement, and all of it against a background that was colorful, unexpected; in short, the visual excitement that made people want to buy—in this case, to buy the tropic luxury of a wonderful vacation of fun in the sun. A sense of freedom from the humdrum lives the guests had. A feeling of getting away from it all.
Lapidus was famous for features like the “stairway to nowhere,” designed to give guests a platform from which to show off their finery. He made guests feel like stars. “Lapidus understood that a hotel lobby is a theater for amateur narcissists,” writes Tom Austin in Travel & Leisure. Though critics denounced them as tacky, to their intended audience, Lapidus’s hotels epitomized glamour. (For an excellent analysis of glamour in mid-century Miami Beach, see architectural historian Alice T. Friedman’s 2000 Harvard Design Magazine article, “Glamour, Class, and Architecture in Miami Beach”.)
In succeeding decades, that glamour dissipated. (The Fountainebleu’s builder went bankrupt in 1977.) The nouveau riche for whom the hotels were designed got old. Younger generations had different aspirations and ideals of luxury. But, after a $1 billion renovation, the Fountainebleu reopened last November. “The glamour is back at the Fontainebleau,” declared the announcer at the hotel's opening celebration, which doubled as last year’s Victoria's Secret Fashion Show.
Is the glamour really back? Unfortunately, I haven’t persuaded any editors to fund a reporting trip to decide for myself. Matt Rudd of the London Timesmakes a good case that the hotel is just too big for glamour: “In order to fill anything like 1,500 rooms, you need thousands of people, and they can’t all be Frank Sinatra.” Glamour requires mystery and exclusivity--and a lot fewer truck-parts conventions.
It is possible to bring glamour back to a hotel that has lost it, but “glamour” can’t just mean luxury or a history of association with dead celebrities. I thought the Palmer House in Chicago might have made it work, by playing up its architectural appeal, but complaints about small rooms and mini-beds suggest that modern standards may conflict with historic floor plans. (I have no first-hand experience.)
Architectural photographer Julius Shulman created some of the most glamorous images of mid-century architecture and mid-century Los Angeles. In his most famous photo, of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22 in 1960, two young ladies converse in a glass-enclosed living room that thrusts out toward the sprawling city grid of tiny lights. The architecture critic Paul Goldberger called it “one of those singular images that sums up an entire city at a moment in time.” Commentary on the photo often describes the women as models or dressed in the height of style (“elegantly dressed,” wrote Goldberger). In truth, they were neither, as Shulman explained to me when I was reporting this Atlantic column. The girlfriends of two architects who worked for Koenig, they were wearing ordinary, comfortable summer dresses. The photographer’s art made them, the house, and Los Angeles itself glamorous—symbols of the ideal life.
Frat boys are customarily considered the scourge of the earth, at least in all right-thinking online circles. On the other hand, 16 members of the Sigma Phi chapter at UC Berkeley live in one of the state's architectural treasures, the Greene and Greene- designed Thorsen House. Tracey Taylor, writing for the Financial Times, investigated, and found that not only were these brothers residents, they're also the caretakers.
Gamble House, in Pasadena, is perhaps better known, but no one is in residence.
While was wasting time this morning (I mean, “getting smarter reading the internet”), I came across this brief article and slideshow on Julius Shulman, the 98-year old architectural photographer famous for his iconic photos of mid-century L.A. homes. His photo of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22 (at left), an impossibly futuristic home perched over glittering Los Angeles at night, represents my absolute ideal of glamour. I’m viscerally drawn to the modern home, the breathtaking view, and the people inside, just beginning a night (and decade) full of potential for fun and drama.
I’m not the only one to look at this image and see “glamour” defined, but it’s not everybody’s glamorous ideal. So why mine? How did I develop an affinity for that kind of image vs. something else? When?
While I’m not so sure about the “how,” I do have an idea about the “when” and also the “where”: Orlando, Florida, 1981. My first trip to Disney World or, more specifically, my first trip to Tomorrowland.
At first glance, Disney World isn’t terribly glamorous. It’s full of tired, sweaty parents and their whiny kids, nothing’s even a little bit authentic, and it’s more heavily merchandised than The Mall of America. But just as Disney teaches kids about manners and social mores, Mickey and friends play a critical role in helping America’s youth develop their attitudes toward glamour.
For me, it was Tomorrowland and its streamlined futuristic aesthetic that took hold. But it could’ve just as easily been Cinderella’s castle that resonated, as it does for thousands of little girls. Or the bordellos-and-brawn-lite version of the Old West that is Frontierland.
So now I’m all grown up and Shulman’s photos have replaced Space Mountain (mostly) when I think “glamour.” What about you? Do you have a glamorous ideal or icon? Can you trace it back to what you loved when you were a kid?
[Space Mountain photo courtesy of Flickr user russes.]
DG: Many reviews of Naked Airport invoked the "vanished glamour" of air travel. What destroyed that glamour, and how was the loss reflected in the design of airports?
AG: Several reasons that the glamour went out of air travel: a more competitive airline business with new companies offering lower prices. I flew with my parents to Europe numerous times in the 1960s and we always dressed up as if attending a special event. Those were relatively small planes, the service was good and the airports were manageable. The Boeing 747, introduced in 1970, was the final insult, ushering in mass air travel and lowering general standards of service and aesthetics, bringing cramped seats, poor cuisine and overworked staffs. The jumbos also threw airport terminals into chaos because none were designed to handle such crowds. Architects and planners responded with sprawling, mall-like terminals that stripped away the final vestiges of romance. Nor did the threat of hijacking and terrorism help. Being scanned by machines or interrogated by poorly trained personnel is never sexy.
DG: In that book, you write about an airport sign that says, "Excuse our appearances. We are tearing down yesterday to make room for tomorrow." You write, "But the idealized 'tomorrow' never comes." How does architecture relate to cultural aspiration?
AG: For me, architecture is ONLY interesting as far as it reflects cultural aspiration and the prevailing spirit of the day. Almost all of my books have been about social history reflected in the built environment: Weekend Utopia looked at how the modernist beach houses of the post-war period were idealized icons of Cold War aspiration (the flip side of all those basement A-bomb shelters.) Naked Airport traced the evolution of the airport as a symbolic as well as functional "artifact," one that by its very nature could never live up to its utopian promise. Kennedy International, for instance, was designed in the late 1950s to be a showcase for US-style democracy (vs. Soviet-style communism) with an eclectic array of architectural styles, formal gardens, fountains, reflecting pools, chapels, etc. to evoke a welcoming "Ellis Island of the Air." In my most recent book, Spaced Out, I wanted to document, and in a sense reclaim, the trippy environments of the psychedelic sixties and show how they reflected the cosmic aspirations of that generation.
DG: Hippie dwellings seem too grungy for glamour, but they do (or did) have a certain romance. What attracted you to that subject?
Hey! I think hippie culture is very high fashion, whatever that means, and it seems more relevant now than ever with so much renewed interest in green/sustainable design, planetary survival, living simply and bling-less. (Just before Christmas, I was involved in a big "Have a Happy Hippie Holiday" event at Barney's in NYC that Simon Doonan conceived.) At some point I realized that the sixties were a major cultural renaissance and not merely a youth revolt. What attracted me was the wild exuberance and innocence, the seeking of expanded consciousness and new kinds of spirituality, especially in light of Bush/Cheney's fear mongering and the culture of control that arose after 9/11. I suppose the book was also a way to reconnect with my own adolescent wanderings.
DG: What surprised you when you did the research?
AG: Everything surprised me. All of my assumptions and prejudices went out the window. It turns out that the official version of the 60s was a complete distortion of fact. I grew up during that period but was too young to really participate as a mover/shaper. By the time I was eighteen it seemed over and then, suddenly, everyone was dissing the movement as an aberration. (Of course, Altamont and Charlie Manson didn't help.) I wanted to go back and make a narrative that wasn't dumbed down or dismissive. I tried to be as generous and open-minded as possible. (My wife would point out wherever my text became too judgmental.) Everyone I interviewed had a different story: a million mini revolutions happening at the same time, sometimes overlapping, sometimes taking place simultaneously but separately, and very little of it was documented. The outlaw architects and builders I researched were trying to reinvent the very idea of human community; replace the conventional family with tribal patterns; expand consciousness; live in harmony with nature; work with recycled materials; live off grid; create revolutionary structures like geodesic domes, yurts and organically curving womb rooms. It's easy enough to make fun of them today but they may be the ones that end up having the last laugh.
DG: In Spaced Out, you write about the "reckless longing for other states of being." Is that longing something that can be expressed architecturally? Was it inevitably disappointed?
AG: Yes, I think that longing was expressed architecturally, but unfortunately we don't have many monuments from that period as reference points. I began the book with a visit to Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri's sustainable city in the Arizona desert, because it still exists. But most of the architectural spaces from that period were more insubstantial and didn't survive. Early psychedelic explorers described how corners dissolved, hard edges softened, straight lines curved, colors exploded, ceilings and floors blew away. This new kind of spatial experience was translated into all kinds of temporary environments (some called it "LSDesign"): crash pads, womb rooms, teepees, tents, tree-houses and basic shelter built out of unstable materials like mud, straw bales, recycled wood or blown polyurethane. But the temporality was also what made theses structures beautiful. The counter culture was all about being in the moment so who was worrying about resale value or termites? Yes, of course, it is bound to disappoint because it can't last very long. You do eventually get sick of leaky roofs, shared communal spaces and eating out of the same bean pot. But to me that was what was so compelling about the period: this reckless sense of abandon, that anything was possible, that yes, society could be reinvented and rebuilt from the ground up. I think we're seeing this legacy reconstitute itself today.
DG: You now write for the WSJ's luxury-oriented magazine. How has the financial crisis affected what stories you do? Is there room for luxury and aspiration in the current environment?
AG: Yes, I think "luxury" and "aspiration" are being substantially redefined and down-sized, and that is obviously a good thing. There's a noticeable turning away from conspicuous excess. I'm certainly not writing about giant MacMansions in the Hamptons or architectural ego trips. I just published a story in our last issue about a group of small guest huts on wheels that Tom Kundig designed in Washington State: "the architectural equivalent of sack cloth and ash," is how I described the rusting steel walls and plywood interiors.
The client had plenty of money and could have built anything but he chose to make a statement. The huts are simple but incredibly elegant. I'm working on a story for the next issue about how young architects are donating their services to design affordable housing, schools and community parks. This is a promising, and inspiring, trend. And yes, there's room for luxury and aspiration in the current environment but the days of unapologetic Greed (with a capital "G") are over.
The DG Dozen
1) How do you define glamour? Intelligence mixed with a physical sense of self.
2) Who or what is your glamorous icon? I really don't believe in "icons" but I guess for a woman:Michele Obama walking up Pennsylvania Ave. with her beautiful daughters; for a man: Sean Connery in opening scenes of Dr. No.
3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity? A necessary part of the human ritual. Glamour doesn't have to be a luxury.
4) Favorite glamorous movie? Monica Vitti and Alain Delon in Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse (1962), a perfect degree of Euro-style angst mixed with glamour.
5) What was your most glamorous moment? Meeting my wife at a softball game in East Hampton and/or the nanosecond on red carpet at Academy Awards before photographers realized I wasn't a real celebrity.
6) Favorite glamorous object (car, accessory, electronic gadget, etc.)? "Rocket" Hermes portable typewriter from the 1950s.
7) Most glamorous place? French Leave Beach, Eleuthera.
8) Most glamorous job? My brief career writing glamour copy for Calvin Klein in the early 1990s, or my even briefer career writing for Hollywood in the 1980s.
9) Something or someone that other people find glamorous and you don't Hollywood
10) Something or someone that you find glamorous whose glamour is unrecognized Alien abduction
11) Can glamour survive? Only if it comes from the street.
12) Is glamour something you're born with? No, not necessarily, but genes might have something to do with it.
1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett? Usually Cate but I like how Angelina's becoming a real woman and less of an action vixen.
2) Paris or Venice? Paris most of the time but Venice once in a while.
3) New York or Los Angeles? New York and almost never L.A.
4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace? Diana, I guess, but Grace was lovely.
5) Tokyo or Kyoto? Kyoto, only because of those raked gardens.
6) Boots or stilettos? Boots only because it's hard to find stilettos for my size 13 feet.
7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau? I don't like either one but Art Nouveau if I was forced to spend time with it.
8) Jaguar or Astin Martin? Vintage E-type Jags are cool if fussy but I always liked that James Bond Astin Martin with the ejection seat.
9) Armani or Versace? Neither. Really. Neither.
10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour? Vreeland I guess because I met her once and she seemed pretty elegant.
11) Champagne or single malt? Single malt.
12) 1960s or 1980s? Of course: the 1960s but the 1980's will soon have its day again.
13) Diamonds or pearls? I don't wear any form of jewelry but if I did I guess I would wear a diamond nose stud.
14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell? Kate, only because I think she's getting more beautiful despite cocaine controversy.
15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig? Are you kidding? Sean Connery
[Kyoto garden courtesy of Flickr user alq666 under Creative Commons license.]
Reader K. Zachary purports that architects have never been Hollywood heroes. However, there's a juicy list of movies with leading men who just happen to work as architects. Still, Zachary's right--the job is really just an accessory, like a cool car and cute dog. And Hollywood loves those models. Just look at Richard Gere, in Intersection. And actors love to play architects--all those erections.
I live within walking distance of Sci-Arc, in industrial LA, and have always thought that it's the perfect location for an urban mystery. All those late nights, professional jealousies and young men and women on the edge. And they work with sharp objects.
I'm fascinated by this ad (by Venebles, Bell & Partners), which has been running in heavy rotation during the Olympics. It adopts the conventions of shelter magazines (and their advertisers) in presenting an empty but evocative home interior, then speeds up the imagery so fast that you experience the space only as if out of the corner of your eye. You don't quite have time to feel the glamour of the interior or the displaced meaning it represents. But that's OK, because the ad is using the house to sell a car.
The ad works because you don't need the details. You already know what the house, in its two incarnations, represents: the good life. What's interesting is that the ad doesn't cheat. It makes the traditionalist interior look well-designed and appealing. It simply presents an alternative and names it "progress," confident that the audience it wants will agree. And then, of course, the trick is to get people who feel the allure of the modern house to identify with Audi rather than (again, no cheat) Mercedes.
What's been largely forgotten by the non-expert public is that Saarinen's future-shaping architecture included the design of many corporate research campuses, including those for Bell Labs, IBM, and GM. These facilities were just as forward-looking and glamorous in their day as any airport. "Coming to work at the Tech Center was like stepping into the future," Wayne Cherry, GM's vp for design, told Metropolis magazine in 2003. (Great slideshow here.) In December 1955, Architecture Forum called Saarinen's GM Technical Center "nothing less than the Industrial Versailles--the nerve center, the capitol of an empire whose corporate directors and managers believe in what GM stands for and what it does even more firmly than Louis XIV ever believed he was divine, and have declared themselves (as he did) in the way they built."
Click here, or on the photo above, for examples of Saarinen's work from the National Building Museum exhibit.