Art Nouveau Grand Hotels

Selection_002Selection_004Art Nouveau Grand Hotels: Urban Transformations, Theatricality and Technological Pragmatism – People often use the word combination Grand Hotel, without really knowing that it had a very specific meaning at the Fin de Siècle. The words ‘Grand Hotel’ with capital G and capital H were used by the French for the first time in the mid-XIX century. The boom time of Grand Hotels coincided with the golden time of Art Nouveau, the era of enlightened industrialists and increasing mobility of people, technologies, art and ideas. Railroads and steamers were among those machines, which provided a flow of well-to-do hotel quests and a labour force to service them. Those hotels, almost ‘titanics,’ reflected industrial revolution and the collapse of the world in WWI. Very theatrical and sophisticated, they were packed with technology, which they paraded and hid at the same time. They mixed different classes and ethnic groups, established horizontal and vertical dialogues within cultures and civilizations. They were harbours for elegant adventurists and spies, venues for film productions. They were islands of Europeaness in Japan or China but plunged into the depths of the local life in Turkey. They changed the identities of urban environments in Paris or Moscow, and turned fishing villages into fashionable resorts in Italy or Germany. They traveled to the US and returned to Europe Americanized. Those multi-functional centers paved the road to the internationalization of the tourist industry, the evolution of the hospitality sector and the globalization of professionals in the service industry (managers, engineers and chefs). With strictly a defined public, catering, functional and private areas they had more than 2.5 servicing people per one guest. Most Grand Hotels did not survive the drama of WWI and the ensuing economic crisis, but many recovered and re-branded in the mid-1930s.

The technological revolution in Russia in the late 1890s caused rapid urbanization followed by the erection of the most typical city milestones: train and telephone stations, telegraphs and passages, apartment buildings and boulevards, museums, theaters, and Grand Hotels, all interwoven into the city fabric. Business and cultural links connecting Russia and Europe allowed many musicians, composers, ballet dancers, architects, painters, and entrepreneurs to travel in both directions, enriching and interpreting artistic styles and strengthening technological advancement worldwide.

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La Belle Époque saw several Grand Hotels erected in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Some were built from the ground; others used older constructions, considerably refurbished to obtain a well-recognized European look.

The Grand Hotel ‘Europe’ in St. Petersburg consists of two independent buildings, which in 1883-1885 were merged into one and dramatically redesigned by Swiss architect Ludwig Fontana to attract high level and demanding guests. They benefitted from close proximity to many theaters and museums as well as occasional visits from Peter Tchaikovsky or Ivan Turgenev, who also stayed there. As many other Grand Hotels, ‘Europe’ kept changing its look and services constantly: in 1908 a famous St. Petersburg architect Johann-Friedrich Lidval changed the interiors and added a new pool, reading hall and staircase for guests to parade their wealth and status. Lidval was also the author of another famous Grand Hotel in St. Petersburg, called ‘Astoria’ (1911-1912) in American manner.

Several Grand Hotels were built in Moscow, including the ‘National’ (1903, architect Alexander Ivanov). However it was the ‘Metropol’ which became the brightest illustration of the business initiatives, failures, and economic processes in Russia at the turn of the century. It linked Russian cultural traditions to the best European trends and technologies, thanks to Russian investors, architects, designers, and engineers, who took many trips to Europe and the US to get more education and experience.

In 1898 a railway magnate Savva Mamontov contracted Russian-born British architect William Walcott to erect a giant Grand Hotel and a cultural center, representing the quintessence of Art Nouveau philosophy and of innovative conveniences. In 1899 the glorious Mamontov went bankrupt, ‘Metropol’ was actually built thanks to the St. Petersburg Insurance Company with the help of architect Lev Kekushev. When it was virtually finished, it was so badly destroyed during a fire in 1901 that it took another four years to finish it, at an overall, staggering cost of seven million rubles.

Now dressed in mysterious reliefs by Nikolai Andreev and mythological majolica by Mikhail Vrubel and Alexander Golovin, crowned with sophisticated roofs and pointed pinnacles, the ‘Metropol’ still commands a central position Teatralny Square among other high-rise hotels and theaters.

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