A sense of place

A sense of place

What gives us a sense of place when we find ourselves away from home, and how do we make sense of this?

Continuously over many years, the world has become a smaller, more known, more similar place. Yet even a place close to home is essentially foreign in its essence.

Curious that the ordinary hotel room — primarily more an essay in otherness than a corporately calculated conception of conformity, and most recently reconstituted as a “unique boutique” — should still straddle the line between known and unknown.

Card key? Check. Fire route card on the inside of that door? Check. Foyer with bathroom door, two robes on two hooks or in the closet? Headboard and bed on one long wall, desk and screen on the other. Two or three drapery layers on the window on the far wall. Check, check and check. Will even those who nightly struggle to sleep, even in the familiar womb of their own room, be successfully beguiled into repose?

And when awakened, with exotic reveries receded back into the unconscious, what physical aspect of the night’s abode will linger? What will distinguish this night from all other nights, and this place from all other places?

Hence, regionalism, the godfather of boutiques. Thematically no less “disney” than Disney, yet presumably more authentic. A sense of place is, in essence, an essay in history. One looks back into the historic attributes of a place or region and attempts to instill those attributes into the mind, and the room, of a visitor. Yet, by recreating the aspects of this unique essence, are we expressing or excluding its authenticity? Or by creating an environment, as we shop and live in our ordinary day-to-day, are we truer, or less true, to what this place is?

During a quick weekend in Europe, I spent the first night in a Berlin apartment hotel and the next in a Spanish resort. What identity do they have, and what character or characteristics does a guest identify in each?

Berlin: a modern block of flats on a street of modern flats. A creation of the west after the demise of the east, but nonetheless a memento of endless uniformity, drab and unexceptional, but also comfortable in its ordinariness. A modern one-bedroom unit, modern furniture, very current bathroom and kitchen. Ordinary, as if one were really a resident of this city and had shopped personally for everything here. In its very present-day presence, it is a clear expression of life in Berlin today.

Spain: Costa del Sol. Stucco, stone door frames, clay tile floors and handmade glazed tile vanity top. You feel away from home. The Spanish flavor is unmistakable. But is this really Spanish, in the way that people truly live here today, or is this a set design, an evocation of the history of this place, but not its present? Some locals probably live amidst the signature materials and shapes of the past. The traditional crafts and their modern facsimiles are probably readily available and reasonably common. There is nothing inherently inauthentic in the traditional here, any more than colonial decor is inauthentic American. But if we are not in Williamsburg or some New England B&B, Chippendale is not representative of how life is lived today, but a themed past that becomes a theme park present. 

Once upon a time, only kings and queens and their retinue traveled, nightly abode was by definition a palace and every journey was an historic epic. Today’s population is the most traveled in history, and, fortunately, travels more as time goes by. 

Shall we offer a night’s repose that is a comfortable extension of our lives, the ordinary, or shall we provide an escape from the every day, and be extra-ordinary? As with most big questions, the answer may not simply one or the other, but both. So when we conceive a new hotel, we may need to consider where this place will be in the continuum of our guests’ lives, and who and what they want us to be.