Sheltered among the pine forests of southwest Finland, the Paimio Sanatorium was designed in 1933 by architect Alvar Aalto. With tuberculosis spreading in Finland and across other parts of Europe, Paimo was one of the many remote buildings created to house patients struck with the deadly disease.

A tall rigid structure with long corridors, large square windows and protruding balconies, Paimo was built to feast on air and light – two things that, at the time, were believed to help ‘cure’ suffering patients. With its ribbon windows, bright and airy interiors, and wide roof terrace – built to bring sufferers closer to the ‘healing’ effects of the sun – Paimo shares some of the trademark features of the modernist movement.

While Le Corbusier and other architects birthed structures with clean lines, and hygienic interiors that sought to promote healthier forms of communal living, the Finnish designer took things further. The building itself, Aalto said, could literally function “as a medical instrument”.

It’s a mantra that is being revisited as the Covid-19 virus spreads across vast swathes of the world, forcing architects and designers to rethink how buildings, and public spaces can be altered or rebuilt to cope with the destabilising effects of the pandemic.

With hotels now opening their doors after many months without customers, the need to rethink existing spaces and redesign new ones is reshaping hospitality, as social distancing measures and sanitation protocols become staple parts of the hotel experience.

These changes range from the implantation of enlarged dining spaces and contactless check-in booths to sheltered hideaways or isolated cocoons, and specially calibrated ‘quarantine hotels’ for those faced with the unenviable task of self-isolating in a different country.

A vision in three parts

To avoid any confusion, Tom Ito, hospitality leader at Gensler, believes that this new approach to hospitality design is best envisioned in three parts. “We’re looking at what’s existing right now, addressing some of the immediate concerns; how that will evolve during the ongoing process of the coronavirus; and what we call the ‘reimagined future’ – what happens afterwards,” Ito explains.

Since launching Gensler’s Hospitality practice in the late 1990s, with the renovation of the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel, Ito has developed a diverse range of hospitality ventures across the US and worldwide; including an 18 million square foot city centre development on the Las Vegas Strip, the awardwinning Shore Hotel and the Waldorf Astoria in Beverly Hills.

Currently holed up in his Los Angeles home, the architect is overseeing an eclectic mix of design projects and – much like the rest of us – doing his best to adapt to remote working, and new forms of online collaboration. “We are actually more connected than ever because technology allows us to communicate in real time,” says Ito. “We’ve been inundated with meetings and that’s been difficult. I think we’re working more and longer than before.”

Much of that work is now focused on safeguarding a current crop of new builds from the threat of the virus by expanding public spaces and implementing social distancing measures.

While technology and the ‘Instagram generation’ have been influential, the changes brought about by the pandemic will “fundamentally alter” how hotels are designed, Ito predicts. Although, quite how these changes are manifested in the long-term is still unknown.

“Right now, it’s all about safety protocols and making sure that we’re communicating clearly to our guests that it’s safe, because the biggest concern is for guests to be able to feel secure,” Ito says.

Short-term changes take a fairly predictable form. Sanitising stations have become ubiquitous; dining spaces are expanded where possible; the table count has fallen; screening measures, such as temperature scanners, have been installed; and the traditional hotel buffet has been culled.

In a Covid-19-stricken world, the most obvious driver of change has been technology as many hotels do away with the traditional concierge check-in model, opting for contactless devices that limit interaction. While for some – particularly luxury brands that pride themselves on a personalised service – this could feel like a radical new departure, for others it is merely an acceleration of a growing trend.

A smooth transition

Inevitably, as hotels around the world experiment with contactless check in and other seamless new technologies, some are better placed than others to make the transition run smoothly.

“A lot of things being hailed by the hotel operation guys as ‘Covid measures’ were already happening,” says James Dilley, director of Jestico + Whiles. “Remote check in, ordering room service and so on was becoming digitalised, it’s just intensified. I think citizenM and those guys are ahead of the game in having iPad controls, ordering room service via apps, controlling lights and so on.”

With technology in mind, one aspect of hotel design that does feels particularly vulnerable right now is the hotel lobby, the lifeblood of many traditional luxury hotels and a space that has found a fresh creative impetus as the lifestyle segment has grown. For Dilley, that unique sense of place the lobby gives has been a key facet of the hotel experience in the past 15 years and it could be in danger of losing its humanity.

“A lot of things being hailed by the hotel operation guys as ‘Covid measures’ were already happening. Remote check in, ordering room service and so on was becoming digitalised, it’s just intensified.”
James Dilley, Jestico + Whiles

“The lobby was not just a place to get a key and go up to your room. If I arrived late to a hotel in Vienna in the old days, I would certainly have had a beer in the lobby bar and just absorbed a bit of the location,” Dilley says. “Personally, I don’t think Covid will stop me doing that as long as there’s space, but I don’t think other people will bother.”

Such anxieties could be enough to kill the lobby as a focal point of the hotel experience, but it could also become a more fluid and transformative space. When it comes to the pressures this new generation of designers and architects are now facing, Ito recommends jettisoning the idea of standalone spaces. Instead, he argues, it seems likely that the traditional lobby will become part of a burgeoning trend towards multiuse environments.

“Spaces need to be evolving over time and we’ve always designed [in that way], but now when we design a lobby or a restaurant, we’ll design it for smaller groups but then enable it to expand later,” Ito says. “So, I think this notion of flexibility in spaces really is going to be key. Even more so [than] before.”

A clean, new look

As cleaning becomes front and centre of the hotel experience like never before, and hotels around the globe rush to promote intensive hygiene protocols, these operational changes are not only changing how hotels are run, but how they look.

“We’ve already seen a movement towards a much more simplified design aesthetic with lighter materials, seamless surfaces and fabrics, and materials that can withstand all the cleaning protocols that now happen,” Ito explains. “But it’s also important to give the perception that things are less cluttered and clean.”

“Design can be clean and simple, but it can also be about the materiality, the colour and it can be those other pieces that bring a local flavour into the project. That’s going to be the key differentiator in the future.”
Tom Ito, Gensler

Biophiliac design principles and building to engage with a hotels’ natural surroundings, rather than on it, will now form a vital part of that aesthetic experience. Although, as Ito says, good design should really “be doing that anyway”. A cautionary tale can be spun here from architects that worked to overcome past pandemics. As a consistent aesthetic emerges, hotel designers will need to avoid their buildings looking too similar – like those now outdated relics of the Sanatorium movement in the 1930s – and fight to standout in an age of clean lines, screening and sanitisers.

“It’s about how we do that in a way that’s still elegant, sophisticated and friendly. That’s where we come in,” Ito says. “We’ve seen that in the past with pandemics. I think that there seemed to be a movement towards design that did that, [but] we want to learn from health and wellness in terms of how we design things in a way that doesn’t look institutional.”

To avoid homogeneity, Ito believes that the emphasis will be on keeping things simple and local, as small details such as artwork and visual motifs will play a crucial role in “uniting guests with the cultures and customs” of a location. He cites a pre-Covid-19 project as instructive in this regard: Hotel Chaco in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which was built with local materials including traditional Chacoan stone masonry, and its design was informed by conversations with local artists and sculptors. “Design can be clean and simple, but it can also be about the materiality, the colour and it can be those other pieces that bring a local flavour into the project,” Ito says. “That’s going to be the key differentiator in the future.”

Shape the design

As the focus turns towards these visual experiments, one thing that hasn’t been talked about much is how the act of remote working is going to shape the designs themselves. Whereas in the past, mind maps or redesigns were conducted in the confines of a trendy office or barista studio, a new generation of hotels is being orchestrated from the home kitchen or office. Inevitably, this new way of working has taken some getting used to.

Moreover, with travel now a luxury in itself, the ability for architects and designers to draw inspiration from the local environments, and cultures in which hotels are situated has been greatly reduced.

“You do Zoom calls and you go through the points. It’s all a bit sterile and perfunctory,” Dilley says. “[I miss] the bonding aspect and speaking to people, the bits in between meetings, because I’ve always thought that’s what builds a good project.”

As the world struggles to adapt to the effects of a virus it didn’t saw coming, and adjusts to new ways of working and living, some minor teething problems are to be expected. With the long-term effects of the virus still unknown, a cohort of renowned architects and designers are plugging away over Zoom, hoping that out of this chaos comes innovation.

As Aalto once declared, a building can be a medical instrument. But it can also be so much more than that. Amid conflicting aims and briefs, a plethora of talented hotel builders seems united on one point. An endless charade of sterile unimaginative hotels is not what the world needs right now.