Examining the front door

Examining the front door

Things that are too familiar often go unnoticed. Even new things that feel familiar may fall into this zone of blind comfort. Those of us who work, and have worked in and with hotels, may not see what might be obvious to a first time guest. This working hypothesis offers us a methodology to examine “the hotel,” as type, and “a hotel,” as prototypical experience. Let’s start at the front door, theoretically and cyber-realistically.

The front door to the quintessential American home is a phenomenogical marker, signaling to the world our existence, and a portal for our guest to enter into life. The front door to the prototypical hotel is often more akin to an airport than an abode, ergonomically linked in their design by suitcase dimensions to those vast buildings associated more with departure than arrival.

The inherent dichotomy between the door to our home and the door to a hotel is not only a matter of scale, it may ultimately be unscaleable, given the volume of guests (we hope) for our hotel and the vaunted privacy of our home. But the front door, while both symbolically and in reality our entrance, may be the third or fourth level of “entry” to our hotel (or our home). Assuming we are in America in this analysis, or perhaps even we aren’t, arrival is by car. Our roadside first impression is from the highway, thanks to the illuminated and over-scaled sign atop a tall pylon, signaling “YOU ARE HERE,” but may engender more associations with gasoline stations than guest stays. Then we pass into park in a large asphalt expanse, isolating our destination from the rest of the physical (and psychological) world. This tabula rasa arrival, despite its recurring motif or perhaps because of it, bears more resemblance to an actor’s arrival on stage than our arrival at home. Even the arrival via taxi to the sidewalk in front of an urban hotel, more familiar to my own New York City practice, which may connect us urbanistically and mentally to the rest of the world in an au courrant policitally correct way, may also disconnect us from that desired guest arrival experience.

Meanwhile, what have we seen between roadside sign and revolving door? When we arrive home, if we live in the classic American home (or even, in our mind?s eye, in some mental version of the classic American dream), we  see symmetrical windows flanked by immobile shutters, symbolizing welcome and the chimney with crayon curls of smoke, marking the classic hearth at the heart of our home. These psychologically laden cues are proffered to our guests as well, or even more than, ourselves.

Compare this scene of domestic tranquility, unmarred, or perhaps reinforced by, its restful presence in our psychologically insecure era, to our arrival at a large building with repetitive floors lined with repetitive windows, a grid of uniformity revealing the essential, and probably literal, sameness of every abode within. Associating anonymity with uniformity, and eschewing the beneficial associations of groups (unless perhaps our dental convention has booked the whole building), our arrival is depressed by the facade we face, not elevated by the elevation.

Imagine for a moment that we have arrived at an inn, lodge, or bed-and-breakfast, for example, a Victorian house, perhaps with a round corner turret, a front porch, flower beds flanking the lawn, even a cat? Not only is the symbol of home more piquant, (perhaps a given, given its likely prior life as a private home) the particularity of the front facade, prototypically encompassing turrets, bay windows, French doors, balconies, gables, dormers, etc., speaks of many different types of rooms, each now a different guest room offering an individualized experience, with unique (antique?) furniture and a name! Our room will be the Victorian Room, or the Victor Hugo suite (Pavilonde la Reine on Paris?s Place des Vosges). We bond with its individuality and can visually identify it when we arrive and each time we return, providing a literal association with our arrival moment and our unique place in this world.

Now let’s go back to our standard hotel or motel, and a concern with non-descript and repetitive architecture. The classic grand hotel of a century ago adopted the language of the classic grand home, from gables on down to front door. Think of The Breakers, The Biltmore, The Broadmoor, or countless others, less iconic but perhaps no less iconoclastically connected to our visceral collective unconscious associations with home and hearth, hospitality and happiness.

Our classic hotel’s iconography is differentiated by physical elements that not only address the building’s own aspirations in the architectural pantheon, but signify individuality, so even if we are not the lucky ones with the dormered penthouse amid the mansard, we recognize in this x-ray image of the differentiated internal quarters a respect for our role as individual actors in the larger drama. The “form follows function” dictum of modern architecture rendered the compositional imagination impotent, even exposing a solitary corridor window on blank end elevations, corner rooms eviscerated by lockstep fenestration systems, one window for each rank-and-file room.

Our arrival at this grid of equality, while perhaps democratically appropriate, more often is a sign of least-common-denominator reductive thinking, perhaps implying a semi-catatonic confinement, rather than the ennobled aspiration of “all men created equal.” Keeping our English heritage in mind, are we to be upstairs or downstairs, in a house that has both, or are we relegated to a one-size-fits all universe? My first hotel, faced with a scarce few square feet of husbanded FAR, in lieu of adding an inch to each room, I cantilevered a half-dozen rooms forward. Once built, thanks to overly late realization by client and contractor what had been proposed, these longer rooms with larger windows commanded a premium, and I was startled to see them, with their framed view of the Empire State Building, featured in an airplane infomercial as the apogee of the relationship between guest quarters and the greater world. And like the dormers and gables of an earlier century, the projection of these rooms from the facade plane, here rendered in an asymmetrical bright blue curve, says that not all is mundane within.

So now, visually and mentally informed how our hotelier considers our relationship, we finally advance on foot for the last few seconds to arrive at the front door. Assuming it is not cluttered with luggage carts and luggage, but still affords a gracious and substantive greeting (that includes luggage assistance when needed), we can focus on that symbolic (or not symbolic) front door. Beneath the brand-mandated porte-cochere, shielding us from the chance of rain but again reminiscent of gasoline stations, the front doors, automatic sliders or revolvers,  function ergonomically and engineering-wise to effortlessly push us in, even the graphic tape on the glass a visual cue that safety regulations even guide our arrival.

Perhaps it is too much to ask that this moment, stepping over the threshold (images of wedding night aside, its own images of entry perhaps too powerful) and transitioning from traveler to guest, that we seek the welcome of home, even another home welcoming us as their guest. But the carefully considered imagery of brand is meant for this moment, to create the familiar, and to foster the feeling of return in our recognition of the familiar, despite the high percentage chance we have never been here before. The careful cues, extending to flanking planters and signature lobby scent, should make us feel welcome, despite the high-volume in-out flow. Maybe we encounter a liveried doorman’s white glove, swinging open an impossibly large, but architecturally impressive front door; perhaps it is our own turn of the knob at the seaside Victorian; or perhaps a revolver, adequately sized to wheel luggage, while revealing a gracious lobby. When we step inside, if we do not feel “at home,” do we at least feel at home with ourselves?