Height of fashion

They grew up in the postwar cities, offering a clean, air-conditioned respite and a cheeseburger. Bu

''Each of our hotels," Conrad Hilton once said, "is a little America." In the years following the Second World War, businessmen and tourists in Europe and the Middle East could retreat from the disturbingly alien into the comfortable familiarity of a Hilton Hotel, with its efficient, English-speaking staff, functional transatlantic telephone lines and, most fundamentally, air-conditioned modernity. For the economically exhausted local population, these same features lent the Hilton a utopian aura. Here was a space of luxury and promise, a space that realised, permanently and prominently, the new and powerful presence of the United States.

Between 1953 and 1966, Hilton International built 16 luxury hotels abroad. Some were constructed by distinguished American architectural firms such as Pereira and Luckman, and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Others were designed by local architects working with an American consulting firm. All were planned according to the Hilton programme and styled as "Corporate Modern" - the same form that distinguished the Ameri-can embassies and consulates proliferating in the period. In a number of host cities, the Hilton was the first significant modern structure, introducing a striking visual contrast to the vernacular fabrics of, for example, Istanbul, Cairo, Athens and Jerusalem. The impact of the new architecture was amplified by the hotel's unprecedented siting and scale. Even in cities familiar with the modern, the new Hilton often dominated the urban landscape by its height, changing the look of the city for the distant observer. The Park Lane Hilton, for example, was the first structure in London to be taller than St Paul's Cathedral. For the observer on the inside, the Hilton transposed the traditional luxury hotel's introverted focus on its own marbled lobbies and courtyard gardens, offering instead an extended vista that opened through plate glass windows to control visually the alien space of a foreign metropolis.

Like the great hotels built by Europeans in their colonies in the 19th century, the Hilton embodied the cultural values of home veiled with references to the local. In Berlin and Tel Aviv, work by local artists was prominently displayed. In Cairo and Istanbul, indigenous crafts were similarly deployed to provide Hilton interiors with regional authenticity. These arts might also be sold in the hotel's mini-mall, itself a Hilton innovation that spared the tourist the disorienting experience of the local bazaar and the disempowering trial of haggling - though at considerable cost.

More substantively, the Hilton gave material form to the interests of a new entrepreneurial elite. Through a combination of features drawn from American suburbs and country clubs (lawns, swimming pools and informal dining rooms), from American technology (ice water tapped to guest rooms, individual telephones and radios, and the appearance of the building itself) and even from American popular culture (cheeseburgers, milkshakes and soda fountains), Hiltons dramatically marked the city with the difference between its traditional culture and desired American modernity. The western European city welcomed Hilton as a vehicle for the revival of tourism and as proof of American confidence in its economic potential. In the east, the newly decolonised state sought a Hilton Hotel along with a national airline as an index of its upwardly revised status.

The ideological force of the Hilton was not inadvertent. In his autobiography - once found along with the King James Bible on the bedside table of every guest room in the chain - Conrad Hilton revealed that Hilton International Hotels were constructed not only to earn Hilton shareholders a profit, but also to make a political impact on host countries: "an integral part of my dream was to show the countries most exposed to communism the other side of the coin - the fruits of the free world". Further, the American government played a central role in the international expansion of the chain. The capital for the construction of the earliest Hiltons was commonly provided not by the corporation itself, but by institutions in the host countries (pension funds, joint stock companies, and so on), with occasional subsidies from the American Economic Co-operation Administration with the support of the US Department of State. Moreover, foreign legislatures were persuaded to pass acts allocating prime public property, usually parkland, for construction. The convergence of architecture, politics, the media and international enterprise was distinctively represented in the gala spectacles that marked the openings of new Hiltons: Pan American Clippers were chartered for the transportation of American notables - movie stars, columnists, politicians and business figures - to celebrate the occasion with their local counterparts. The power of the Hilton to represent America in the struggle against communism was reinforced at home by a remarkable advertising campaign.

American modernity of the 1950s and early 1960s constructed Hilton International Hotels as superior expressions of rationality and order. Hilton's modernity was most readily identified in its material forms: the low ceilings and plate glass; the simple lines of Danish-American furniture made in England; the thematised abstraction of the decorative panels in the guest rooms; the non-figurative sculpture of well-known local artists. These formal features were only some of the more obvious effects of the dazzling standardisation of the object of desire that radically changed American society from the end of the war. Hilton contributed to that modernity by giving it an elite form. Like abstract expressionism, Hilton Hotels refined the elementary and the efficient and sold it to the highest echelons of society. Hilton made less more costly than more. The clarity and transparency of the building, its efficient plan and manifest structure gave spatial utterance to the supple forms of American entrepreneurial expansion.

Conrad Hilton's political project depended on his hotels' effective representation of modernity. For him, these hotels, these "little Americas", promised an excellent profit as well as world peace through the economic suppression of communism. The peace that Hilton envisioned was that of universal capitalism. His dream-come-true has been named the globalised economy. But globalised capitalism has its own architectural forms. These forms are most famously rendered in Las Vegas and Disney World, but they have also infected the local supermall and upmarket suburb. These forms - pastiches of historical motifs and high technology - have been adeptly described by Fredric Jameson and others. Classical complexities of pleasurable perversity constructed of Dryvit and draperies have replaced the cool austerity of modernism and its dictates of functionalism and truth to materials. The monumental modernity of the first generation of Hiltons has lost its authority. It no longer bears a utopian meaning. To remain fashionable, Hilton International has had to remodel itself.

The London Hilton is symptomatic. The prestigious site it occupies, equidistant from Harrods and the Royal Academy, and looking down on Buckingham Palace, has helped it sustain its privileged place among the city's hotels. Its exterior remains relatively intact. The owner's anxiety about the hotel's currency has been played out in its interior. The modern, which Hilton introduced as an elite form, became the crude vernacular of the 1970s and 1980s. To distinguish the Hilton from that which it popularised, the modernity of the interior is purged. No ceiling goes unadorned. Elaborate plaster mouldings are everywhere. The transparent space of modernity has been converted to the pseudo-intimacy of the postmodern.

The consistent modernity of the original Hiltons elicited complaints of the "predictable Hiltons around the world". In the 1950s and 1960s, however, that predictability was remarkably different. Modernity distinguished the Hilton from its local setting and gave the hotel its political force and ideological content. The loss of modernity through the embrace of the new eclecticism of the postmodern is an indicator of Hilton International's loss of identity. These hotels no longer represent the technological sophistication and economic power of America. They are owned by a British betting firm and they mask their technologies with ornamental swags and mahogany ionic columns. The changed space of the hotel materially articulates the changed structure of the lives of both those who work in it and those who play there. The felt loss of authenticity and order is a spatial gap that is unfilled by the pleasure of unequivocal imitation and the excitement of apparent luxury. But the cold war is over. The political message, like the architecture of a building, is no longer clear.

Annabel Jane Wharton is professor of art history at Duke University, North Carolina. Her book, Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and modern architecture is published this month by University of Chicago Press (£28.50)

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