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Mr. Villalon

Architecture & Design

When Does Being Authentic Become Inauthentic?

Does It Matter?

By Joel Villalon, President, Brayton Hughes

I pulled out my phone from my day bag and took a photo of the Sacred Valley in Peru on my way to Machu Picchu through the roof as we slowly meandered past that cliff. The three capsules attached near the side of a cliff looked alien, but I couldn't take my eyes off them. Friends had stayed in the capsule only a month before. They scaled the cliff up a ladder with guides, and they arrived to a 300 degree view from the glass room. Sleeping up to eight people, the capsule was 8' tall, 8' wide, and 24' long. The unit was ventilated, lit at night, had an ecological toilet and sink, but had no shower. A delicious Peruvian meal was served with a bottle of wine, and breakfast was brought to you the following morning.

The room décor design was not particularly sophisticated nor was it decorated with any nod to the beautiful textiles and handicrafts that are particular to Peru, but there you were, suspended in air, surrounded by cliff and sky in your eagle's nest. Do you truly need the exquisite Peruvian textiles and handicrafts to remind you of where you are, or is this particular experience without any of the cultural cues the purest form of experiencing Peru and its nature from that vantage point?

When I finally arrived at Machu Picchu, I checked into the hotel at the entrance to the Inca site. The original hotel was constructed as a lodge in the early 1900's that catered to the wealthy and to researchers. Although the room rate was more than I typically spend on a room, I chose to stay here because of this: when the last buses of tourists leave at 3 pm in the afternoon, the hotel guests practically have Machu Picchu to themselves for two hours before the park closes. Likewise, the following morning, hotel guests can enter the park at 6 am to watch the sun rise, a full hour before the first tourist bus from Agua Calientes arrives.

The interiors of the lodge did loosely nod to a lodge aesthetic with a few wood beams and stone columns in some areas, but again, there were very few references that you were staying in a hotel in Peru directly adjacent to the most iconic architectural symbol of the country. The interiors of the hotel could be placed almost anywhere: nondescript carpet patterns, the small limestone bathroom, drapes and bedding fabrics that you might find in any American hotel. If a gesture to Peruvian culture, art and architecture were to be placed anywhere, I thought this would be the one hotel that should celebrate that fact, even if only in a subtle, abstract and elegant manner.

Mild controversies arise in design when people feel a line has been crossed between reflecting the local/regional culture and appropriating a culture. Marfa, Texas, a town of 1,800 inhabitants, is located a little over two hours east of El Paso in the Chihuahua Desert. At one time, it was mostly known as the place to view the Marfa Lights, but in the 70's, the artist Donald Judd bought several structures to help create his and other artists' art. For the past few decades, artists, writers, and actors have moved to Marfa to help invigorate the local economy by creating an artistic destination for people from around the world.

Bunkhouse, the hotel operator that operates and owns several boutique hotels, such as the Hotel San Jose and Hotel Saint Cecilia, created El Cosmico, a rambling collection of trailer homes and tents located in the outskirts of Marfa. The motor homes are refurbished and outfitted as hospitality units. The tents vary in size and style, replete with campfires, and are decorated in an eclectic variety of textiles and furniture from around the world. Some of the tent structures are tepees, and these structures have upset some people who feel that the hotel has appropriated the Native American culture. Are these concerns warranted? Does the fact that a guest relaxes and sleeps in a tepee, and for perhaps the first time, recognize that West Texas was once inhabited only by Native Americans? In this vast landscape, does the guest, for the first time, experience and admire the architectural structure and spatial volume of the tepee? Does the guest enjoy a connectedness to the earth that comes from this camping experience?

Tepees were constructed by nomadic tribes that needed to disassemble and resurrect these structures quickly; they couldn't be too heavy to transport, and they needed to provide protection from the elements and wildlife. Under the stars, is this reminder of a history of a past architecture that was the beginning of human life in the American landscape necessarily a bad thing? Do the ice hotels of Scandinavia also cross this line by creating igloo-like structures, or are these structures the perfect creations that provide a guest with an experience that can occur only in the northernmost regions of the world where guests travel to experience the Northern Lights? I understand that constructs regarding cultural appropriation have much to do with the power dynamics of one culture over another, but does that mean that we, as owners, operators or designers, should never create environments or be inspired by the lessons provided to us by others? And what of the trailer homes? I was raised in Texas and had friends who lived in motor homes. Should they also be offended that someone has chosen to celebrate these structures by creating a unique hospitality room?

Not that long ago, most American hotels across the country looked and felt very much the same. The bathroom experience was utilitarian, and the bedroom experience was predictable and expected with the polyester bedspread, the loop carpet, and the rubber or carpet wall base.

Today, many owners and operators challenge us as designers to help create a more authentic guest experience that helps place the guest in a certain country, region, or even a neighborhood within a city. Visual, textural, and cultural cues make their way into the designs of our hotel structures and interiors hoping that what we create provides the guest with a memorable experience. As designers, we look at the place in the world where the hotel is located. Does the building architecture speak to us in a certain way? Does the owner or operator have a strong stylistic direction that they perceive is the right direction for that hotel? Should the specific culture in the region be reflected in the design, service or maintenance of the project? When in Puerta Vallarta, should the hotel's style need to literally or abstractly reflect the city's colonial past? Or are the bright, clean lines and details of modern Mexican architecture more appropriate? Or should a wholly new Mexican architecture and interiors arise from the city's surrounding jungles and mountains?

As owners, operators, and designers, we are either asking or being asked to appropriate culture given today's trend of creating these authentic experiences. A hundred years ago, hotels, usually small in size, reflected the local architecture, interiors, customs, and culture. A hotel on the seaside of Mykonos looked and felt differently than a roadhouse in the American Wild West, which felt differently than a hotel in the middle of Paris. The homogenization of the hotel experience in modern times began to steer away from a more local and regional hotel design aesthetic to one that had a more international appeal. As hotel chains began to grow and dominate the hospitality landscape, the confluence of what we now call the 'boutique hotel' began to dissipate. With this more recent trend of going back to a more home-grown design aesthetic, we are in a way, reverting to a more 'authentic' design model paradigm.

The question is - how do we create that authentic, or incredible, or comfortable experience for the guest that is memorable? Is the approach the minimalist, futuristic glass capsule suspended in nature; a design that imagines a new aesthetic? Is the experience very similar to the more modern, international approach that incorporates fabrics, colors, and regional details to create a different experience that has a regional taste? Does the experience revert to a time past by introducing design elements in a literal or an abstract and contemporary way? Appropriation will happen in design as we continually learn and borrow from each other those great or unique characteristics from a certain place, people or time. One of the overarching, unique constructs of our American society is that we are a melting pot; a nation of many nations. And from these many nations, we have shared, merged and taken the best each has to offer. Some of us will delicately and beautifully create places with these shared experiences, and some of us will not be successful. Some of us will create spaces that ground us closer to the earth and others will create spaces that perch us near the sky. That is what I call the tapestry of life.

As a child, Joel Villalon discovered beauty during many summer vacations. Whether he was hiking in the painted Grand Canyon or driving through the magnificent Centro Historico of Mexico City, his fascination the differences he noticed in space, light and architecture in different parts of the world began to take form. He still retains that focused eye and attention to detail in each of his projects. After receiving his degree in Architecture from the University of Texas at Austin, Mr. Villalon honed his skills with Larry Speck in Austin, Rafael Vinoly Architects in New York City, and SOMA in San Francisco before joining BraytonHughes in 1992. Mr. Villalon can be contacted at 415-291-8100 or jvillalon@bhdstudios.com Please visit http://www.bhdstudios.com for more information. Extended Bio...

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