Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 31, 2002
Annabel Jane Wharton Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture University of Chicago Press, 2004. 272 pp.; 1 color ills.; 90 b/w ills. Paper $27.50 (0226894207)

“The great advantage of a hotel,” states the waiter in George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell, “is that it’s a refuge from home life.” In the 1950s, however, as an increasingly wealthy American middle class began to travel a world whose boundaries were largely defined by the Cold War, hotels could find considerable advantages in open links to the familiarity of home life. Consider, for example, the seventeen massive Hilton hotels built on foreign soil between 1949 and 1966. By piping ice water into each air-conditioned room, by serving milkshakes at a lobby soda fountain, or by setting swimming pools into an expanse of lawn in downtown Istanbul, Hilton hotels offered Americans traveling in countries such as Turkey or Germany some of the basic physical pleasures of suburban American homes.

In the politicized 1950s, though, these domestic conveniences were not designed with just the tourist in mind. As Annabel Jane Wharton argues in her enjoyable Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture, such comforts also functioned as advertisements, to the residents of the cities in which they stood, of the American way of life. In the words of Conrad Hilton, each hotel represented a little America, and the crisp, modernist exteriors and coolly efficient interiors of his hotels offered concrete proof, in cities that stood between the United States and the Soviet Union, of the fruits of capitalist democracy. Hilton exteriors sometimes acknowledged local cultural patrimonies, as in the white marble and repeated columns of the Athens Hilton, and indigenous crafts often decorated the lobbies of the hotels and were sold in adjacent pavilions. But concessions to their environs were ultimately mere ornament in buildings conceived as monuments to American power and allegiance. In other words, for the patriotic Hilton and the consistently supportive American government, the great advantage of international Hiltons of the 1950s lay not in a refuge from home life, as Shaw’s waiter would have it, but rather in the open embrace and promotion of home life.

Wharton’s previous books concentrated on medieval Byzantine urbanism and empire, and her interest in postwar architecture seems at first glance surprising. Yet it is, after all, only a few miles from the monastery of Daphni to the Athens Hilton, and the inscription of political power in an urban landscape was as common in the medieval East as it was central during the Cold War. Wharton issues a slight disclaimer at the beginning of her book, noting that she is an American medievalist writing about modernism in the Near East, but she need not apologize, for she has clearly done her research. Furthermore, her book pulses with the excitement of a scholar who has found fertile new terrain. As a medievalist used to slim archival records, she delights in the depth of source material here, drawing on interviews with hotel employees, corporate documents, industry journals, print ads, and Hilton’s autobiography. Using these records, Wharton demonstrates that many international Hiltons were built through an interesting partnership between the hotel corporation and host country. The structures were underwritten by the local government, which was generally eager to land a member of the chain as a symbol of national prestige, by local investors, and even, indirectly, by the American government, which promoted American entrepreneurial efforts through the Marshall Plan and the Economic Cooperation Administration. The Hilton Corporation then operated the completed hotel, to which it lent its name, and received a third of the profits, which were usually considerable.

The bulk of Wharton’s book consists of a series of case studies, in which she offers rather brief histories of the cities where Hiltons were built and then moves on to a close discussion of the construction and decoration of the specific hotels. She begins with the Hilton Istanbul, which opened in 1955 and remains to this day both an important element of the city skyline and social scene; her discussion of this hotel might be taken as rather typical. After tracing the genesis of the plan, predicated on an incredibly generous land grant from Turkish officials, Wharton explores the form of the building, which, despite limited availability of reinforced concrete, was stridently modernist in its pure geometry, white walls and plate glass, and refined austerity. Certainly, the hotel included concessions to Eastern form, in its use of native tile and Turkish carpet, but such motifs existed, for Wharton, only within a dominant aesthetic of American modernity. And this aesthetic was knit, in turn, to a sense of transparency and spectacle. Through a carefully designed series of views, the hotel allowed residents a powerful prospect of the strait below; through its basic structural honesty and openness, it functioned, according to Wharton, as a tribute to the implicit honesty of American economic values.

This symbolic reading of a nominally pure functionalism immediately recalls the writings of Robert Venturi, and Wharton generally leans rather heavily on theorists of the 1970s in her investigations into the implicit meanings and codes of modernist architecture. For Wharton, the restrained forms of the Hiltons were partially self-negating, creating an architectural stage on which the residents were actors as well as members of an audience that enjoyed privileged vistas of the exotic cities beyond the hotel walls. In some of the best moments of the book, Wharton attempts to show that the orientation of the hotels could suggest a specifically politicized view of culture: thus, the Cairo Hilton faced resolutely west, ignoring medieval Islamic Cairo in order to look toward pharaonic monuments, and the Jerusalem Hilton offered outlooks that roughly echoed the commanding sightlines enjoyed by visitors to the model of the Holy Land in the hotel lobby. The buildings suggested a view, in other words, that was as political as it was picturesque.

Do her arguments convince? Certainly. Wharton accomplishes her two main goals: she establishes that the international Hiltons need to be read in terms of a heated political context, and she demonstrates the ways in which architectural forms shaped, both physically and symbolically, the experiences of Hilton residents. Nonetheless, several aspects of her study seem slightly underdeveloped. For one thing, although she opens each chapter with a consideration of physical context and architectural forms, her movements toward theoretical analysis often seem to overlook, or to trivialize, the primary intentions or sentiments of the creators and users of the hotels. Thus, she is surely correct in arguing that air-conditioned rooms allowed tourists to be sealed off from their environment—but isn’t that the goal, in a sense, of all buildings, and especially of one in the brutal heat of Cairo? Similarly, Wharton’s insistence on the inscription of political symbolisms seems at times to run against the grain of some of her sources. She is forced to dismiss, for example, the claim of Hilton executive Curt Strand that in constructing the Tel Aviv Hilton “we took no part in politics and we were only in the tourism business.” And although her references to Hilton’s autobiography are generally apt, she might also note that in fact his book refers only occasionally to contemporary politics. For the most part, Hilton seems to have been at least as interested in the romantic symbolism of his hotel chain (in his book he consistently referred to his hotels as ladies) as in the political value of his structures. Of course, interpretation need not rely solely on explicit primary evidence, but one wishes that Wharton’s theoretical analyses were supported by harder contemporary data: even a single journal entry from a single guest would help considerably here.

More importantly, though, Wharton’s examination of the symbolic connotations of modernist architecture seems oddly curtailed. Her discussions of the features of the specific buildings are accomplished, and her look at the complex relations between American architectural firms experienced in the modernist idiom, third-world designers nominally intent on retaining native forms, and local workforces newly trained in the new building technologies is especially interesting. But while her summary of the primary connotation of modernist hotel architecture in the 1950s—a cool efficiency rooted in attractive, easily maintained interiors—is generally fair, her further claim that modernism was read as inherently American needs a stronger defense. The development of the International School in Europe, and the vast projects influenced by Le Corbusier and erected in, say, Brazil and India did not suggest simply Western capitalist power. Wharton is correct in pointing to the open financial support of the U.S. government (although this point, too, could be strengthened through reference to the work of Serge Guilbault on governmental support of Abstract Expressionism shows), but her claims that the resulting hotels represented an “American spectacle abroad” ought perhaps to be nuanced slightly, in order to reflect the real complexity of competing symbolisms.

And this complexity persists. In the summer of 2000, while traveling in the Middle East, I was strolling through the lobby of the Ramses Hilton in Cairo (the more northern twin of the Nile Hilton discussed earlier) when I heard a flourish of tambourines. A small crowd began to assemble at the base of the great staircase, and I watched a wedding party descend, preceded by musicians. Tourist rubbed shoulder with wedding guest, English observations competed with Arabic song, and the hotel lobby became, as Wharton would have it, both stage and spectacle. The international Hiltons remain, in other words, sites of exchanged cultural meaning, and a thoughtful new study of these sites, and of their complicated genesis, is a welcome work.

Kerr Houston
Professor, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, Maryland Institute College of Art