In 1978 I spent 12 months in the USA traveling on a fellowship with my artist partner. We stayed overnight in motels or for several months in sublets. Each time we arrived we felt compelled to customise our surroundings. Even for one night any pictures had to be removed from the walls or if that was impossible we would arrange drapes to cover them over. The lighting too would be customised and a range of nick-knacks that we were accumulating on our travels would be brought out and rearranged each time to make us feel we had arrived.
After six months our first long sublet was on the border of Berkeley near the Bay Bridge. It was the first home of a couple of young artists. Straight away my partner set about conscientiously photographing the walls and thus enabled, we removed everything that was not going to be useful to us – immoveable heavy stone sculptures were wrapped up in sheets and bound with tape. A compulsion to clean took hold of me, although the apartment was not dirty there was the unwanted history of other people’s lives at the back of the kitchen cupboards. Having washed the broom in a final act of extreme procrastination I could delay no longer and was forced to start work. When we came to the end of the stay we got out our photos and restored the rooms in every detail. Even the postcard hanging at an oblique angle having slipped from one of its push-pins was put back exactly as we had found it. In order to live in the apartment and make our work, we had felt the need to remove the identity of the people who lived there before we could make it our home and no trace was to be left of our stay there.
But why were we so compelled to personalise our Motel rooms? By trying not to offend, or by trying to please everyone, the anodyne nature of the incumbant decorations for I cannot call it art, became offensive. They invaded our senses and dulled our brains like a sort of parasitic muzak. Although we were only to spend a few hours in those rooms and hoped to sleep through most of them, we did not want to be in a senseless fog but to engage with the place that was our temporary home.
The best memories of hotel visits are often the views from the bedroom window. When I stayed in Liverpool to make Still Point, a permanent work for the grounds of Sir Frederick Gibberd’s Metropolitan Cathedral, I found that it was only the top corner room in Hope Street Hotel that had windows looking out between the chimneystacks to the Cathedral. Partially obscured, its metallic conical roof reminded me of a fictional spaceship that had landed amongst the chaotic slate rooftops of the intervening houses.
In Japan the Ryokan, a traditional travel lodge, had sliding screens rather than windows, creating a peaceful internal space with no windows which might open up to the landscape possibly via a balcony. The more modest versions that we stayed in had no such views and were entirely constructed of textures and grids with simply crafted details of ornament and pattern based on the natural world. It is worth noting that traditional Japan has no equivalent to the Western hierarchy between art, craft and architecture. In 21’st century Tokyo the floor to ceiling plate glass window, taking the place of the opened screen, provided a vertiginous night-time view of dazzling Shimbuku. Shifting again to earlier decades on the south-west coast we stayed in Hagi’s Grand Hotel and were given a room in the 1950’s circular atrium. From our panoramic curved window we gazed through a blizzard at a view of ramshackle rooftops and orange-laden trees to the white surf and the jade green Sea of Japan.
Like the view from your hotel bedroom window, you might only see the art in your room once but that does not mean it cannot be memorable, you will spend more time with it than if it had been in an exhibition. When we were in America we preferred the lack of character of the 1970’s Motel 6 to less predictable cheap motels. But a beautiful room, a view or some art can lift the experience into something more meaningful. If the only effort made is to hang reproductions of paintings by Rothko possibly hung sideways to fit the available wall space, or some peaceful photos of plants, lovely though they might be you won’t receive an experience that is any different to anywhere else. It’s simply not good enough to use Art mindlessly as part of the decor.
In the Convent of San Marco in Florence, under the patronage of Cosimo de’Medici, Dominican friar Fra Angelico painted a series of frescoes on the walls of the cells. Each room contained a limestone slab as a bed, a window onto the cloistered garden and its own fresco for personal prayer and meditation. The frescoes are painted on the wall that contains the window and are themselves composed like the view from a window – sometimes the activity randomly cut off by the dividing wall, the rest of the scene apparently out of sight. At other times the painting acts like a mirror, the architecture of the building itself depicted as location, thus lessening the separation and bringing the divinity closer to reality. A simple eloquence brought about through inseparable integration of art, architecture, purpose and intent.
Published in RIBA Journal February 2010 © Susanna Heron 10 January 2010