Fashion or sustainability? You can’t have it both ways

Fashion or sustainability? You can’t have it both ways

Casting my eye over a hotel design magazine yesterday, I was struck yet again by how fashion and hotel design have become the darling couple. Not only have the couture brands flocked to put their names to a hotel — Armani, Versace, Bulgari, Missoni and so on — but now we have websites, press articles and books dedicated to “fashion hotels.” And we have hotels deliberately designed at the outset to have their interiors changed when the vogue for pink turns to blue or some such new fad. 

Now, I have nothing against fashion hotels per se — they can be fun, they get hotels talked about, presumably they keep designers in work and they are in many respects a welcome contrast to the stuffy and regimented approach to hotel interior design that used to predominate among the major hotel groups. However, to my mind, the trend does pose a fundamental question: Can an industry that shrieks about becoming eco be wedded to “fashion” at the same time?

My dictionary defines fashion as “… designed to be in the current fashion, but not necessarily to last.” Therefore, it has to be frequently replaced with new materials produced by using more energy and resources. By contrast, sustainability is inherently about limiting human consumption of these resources. This surely requires architects and designers to create environments that will endure rather than be discarded every time the wind changes direction. Actually, I believe as an industry that largely depends on people using planes or cars to reach our ever-so-eco hotel buildings, we are in denial. Whatever 10 commandments to reduce consumption may be in place once guests are in their hotel, the original sin has already been committed. “Sustainable tourism” is, in my view, an oxymoron. Will someone please show me a sustainable airport?

That said, as architects and designers, we have to do what we can to reduce the impact of what we create on the planet. Surely the best way is to espouse longevity. There are some great examples of design that have achieved an enduring status and are therefore beyond the need for change. I am thinking, for example, of the furniture of Charles Eames — to my mind the perfect fusion of materials, technology and the human form and a perfect alternative to “fashion.” It has been innovative and iconic from day one with a design that has been spectacularly sustained through the decades since. 

Currently, our industry is giving out very mixed headline messages. But then, I suppose that by its very nature, the fashion of “fashion hotels” may soon move on. What next?