Airbnb was founded in San Francisco but it was made for Berlin. A visitor can pad around a post-industrial mega-studio for a relative pittance, such are the strange economics of the one European capital that is poorer than its nation’s average. Yet even there, with Kreuzberg’s tasteful lodgings agape, I choose a generic hotel each time.
Why such a 20th-century choice? Why the smile as I read of recovery in the hotel sector — or of Airbnb, so earnest in its “sharing” ethos, advertising hotel rooms?
Willing the survival of a disrupted business model has become a quirk of otherwise hardened globalists. For some, it is the London taxi that needs rescue. For others, the bookshop. For me, the hotel. Some of it is the wonder that comes from not having stayed in one until well into adulthood. Some of it is the hotel’s economic — almost social — role as employer of the low-skilled. Even if it is bunk that Ritz doormen educate their sons at Harrow with their tips, there are lots of cooks, receptionists and bellhops earning a wage in there. Airbnb, rentier capitalism incarnate, has no work for them.
Hotels have romance by association with great art. Consider the (now defunct) Grand Hotel des Bains, shot by Luchino Visconti as a kind of lush prison in Death in Venice. Anita Brookner’s Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac has the same sad premise: a person coming to terms with a disappointing life amid carefree transients and beautiful surrounds. With respect, a short-lease apartment movie has yet to enter the canon. All of these are respectable arguments for the hotel over the modish alternative. But more potent than any of them is the psychic benefit of hotel life.
Leaders of the sharing economy assume that corporate impersonality is a bad thing — that we all want, for example, a more human form of travel accommodation. “It’s not just millennials anymore,” Jeroen Merchiers, Airbnb’s managing director in Europe, told Quartz this year. “It’s pretty much everybody.”
That “pretty much” is doing a lot of work. For some of us, the impersonal touch is not a bug. It is a feature. A hotel is a microcosm of the urban experience in that it grants you precious anonymity. You can check in as Tina Turner if you want. The staff nod their salutations as they do to a thousand others each day. The furniture, art and muzak are chosen for their non-specificity. Housekeeping creates the daily impression of untouched space, as if you yourself are not staying there. You need not even check out. Just leave. If there are outstanding charges, they have your debit card details.
The French writer Marc Augé invented the term “non-places” to describe such venues. The Ballardian prologue to his 1995 book of that name follows a man from a cash machine to a motorway to a car park to a shopping arcade to a departure lounge to an airline cabin, where even the onboard magazine (“the hippopotamus — lord of the river”) washes over him in its blandness.
Prolonged exposure to non-places is bad for us. I know enough corporate professionals who flit between Hyatts and Marriotts to understand the emptiness of that life. I no longer aspire to live in a hotel like a Mayfair dowager. But to dip in and out of non-places feels like escapism in an intrusive world.
The same anonymity is unavailable in a rented flat — filled with the host’s decor and mementos — or even in a boutique hotel. An establishment needs scale and a transactional atmosphere to let you blend into the mass as just another customer. Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands, where you could lose a giraffe, and probably buy one, is almost an anti-place.
The sharing economy predates Airbnb, of course. There was always a bohemian preference for the rented home over the hotel. The classified sections of upmarket journals still tell of rentable farmhouses in the Dordogne. What is new is the aggressive theology of sharing, the very Californian idea that all of us all the time want to be plugged in to some networked oneness. Give me the plastic card key and the endless carpeted corridor.
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