by Olaf Bartels, foreword by Britta Krämer. June 2016

ITB Berlin

The world’s largest tourism convention, ITB Berlin, supplies its trade visitors each year with tourism expertise on trends, technologies and marketing on the subject of travel and holidays. For 5 days, the hustle and bustle of the entire planet seems to converge on the exhibition centre, all spruced up and perfectly packaged, to vie for the attentions of tour operators, destination scouts and other likely business partners in the holiday industry. The fact that tourism and architecture are currently in many places entering into a profitable symbiosis that graces many a holiday destination with a very successful and highly respectable USP was hardly to be perceived from the destination campaigns at the stands. If it was to be discerned at all, the references were somewhat oblique. Architectural critic Olaf Bartels, looking round the ITB, felt somewhat in need of a translator.

What do architecture and tourism actually have to do with one another? Are interesting buildings the destination or one of the destinations of a trip, or is it not particularly important for architecture to create the welcome which we expect as travellers and should offer as hosts? What are the characteristics of such architecture? Are there generally valid measures and fixed rules that lead to success, or does it depend on an individual formula, authentic effect and the message of genuine welcome communicated by the architecture, turning it into a real home from home? Should the world’s leading travel trade show, the ITB Berlin, provide answers to such questions? It did! But a little help might be needed to translate those answers.
There was architecture aplenty to be seen and experienced at the ITB. Almost every stand was attempting to offer an experience in itself. Airline companies too, such as Lufthansa and its subsidiaries, had a particularly hospitable presence or, like Turkish Airlines, were powerfully supported by the film and comic sectors and an international network. Cities, regions and countries aimed to present their best side as dream holiday destinations and a foretaste (including in the culinary sense of the word) of their hospitality as well as the particular specialities to be experienced locally.

Architecture as a holiday attraction

But what was I myself looking for as an architect at a tourism fair? The media effect of the trade fair stand is well known and very familiar to many colleagues. Some work on a daily basis to communicate about architecture and to create experiences. And actually, architecture is an important tourist attraction – like the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. At the ITB the city was using that building to attempt to attract holidaymakers not only to the city, but to the whole of the Basque country. Hamburg could only offer a strangely flat (two-dimensional), but nevertheless brilliant cardboard model of its new landmark, the Elbe Philharmonic concert hall. Excessively loud classical music blared from the speakers mounted on top of it. This show was anything but promising of a wonderful concert experience. Nevertheless, the new concert hall was the standard bearer for the Hanseatic city at the ITB, visible from afar. A more modest presentation was that of the representatives of Eritrea, showing, as an attraction on small postcards, the colonial art deco architecture left behind by the Italians in Asmara. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern was showing off its brick Gothic architecture, the Ruhr district its museums, exhibition halls and concert rooms in its former industrial buildings. Other countries, cities and regions might have come up with more of the same, and some did. At the ITB there was no shortage of architecture as a monument, as a landmark, as an experience venue, although here and there I might have appreciated a little more sensitivity towards visitors. Why could I enjoy the hospitality of Lufthansa right there at its stand, but be disappointed by the anticipated acoustic experience of the Elbe Philharmonic Concert Hall? The joyful anticipation of a wonderful concert experience might have dispelled, before the first concert, the effect of the many negative headlines generated during the project. As it was, the poor show at the trade fair only reminded me of the scandal surrounding the construction of the concert hall building.

Architectural holidays

But what about the core business of tourism, the accommodation, the hotels, bed and breakfasts, holiday apartments and their hospitality? Their presence at the trade fair, where it was to be found in momentary tryouts, despite the ubiquitous virtual-reality glasses, was somewhat naive. I had to content myself with merchandising items such as pens and calendars, large-format photos and fluttery videos. These were media that I could have found in catalogues or on the internet – including the pens and calendars. For the most part, however, there was not even that. Many hotel chains had merely rigged up a sort of counter at the stand of their particular country, 50 centimetres wide at most. Here I could have made block bookings, but no impression was given of the temporary home whatsoever. Were tour operators or these company’s other clients ever quite sure what they were actually booking? Or was this ultimately of no importance as it was a brand that was being bought? The brand of a hotel chain that represented a particular type of hospitality; the brand of the city or region ultimately represented by the tour operators themselves. Holiday as a packaged product for which hoteliers ordered architects to produce a specific architecture and a specific room interior.

Architecture as a packaged product

Architecture that offers me the same hotel experience from New York to Beijing and from Moscow to Istanbul – isn’t this just too boring, even for business travellers, especially as airports and airline experiences are becoming ever more standardised? How is a holidaymaker expected to feel, going from Spain through Greece, from Turkey to Egypt, and finding the same hotel surroundings as at the German Baltic coast? Are the surroundings in which these hotels stand perhaps ultimately of no real importance, so instead of going to Turkey, you will simply fly to Spain because it’s sunny there too, and there’s a beach and the hotel architecture is more or less the same? Did I feel so lost, as an architect at the ITB, because I would rather leave this kind of standardisation to marketing managers, designers, drywall builders and vendors of laminates?

Architecture for the individual

But at this trade fair, where were the boutique and apartment hotels for individual travellers, architecture that offers its guests an expression of local culture and lifestyle? Where were the owners of supported family businesses that offer their customers unique, tailor-made and even specifically local hospitality and who need the services of architects who haven’t as yet attained star status? Where were the tour operators and internet portals that have come to specialise in this kind of travel? Even in Hall 4.1., reserved for alternative and innovative travel concepts, there were none.
Is the ITB perhaps an exchange for the tourism industry, where there are no purveyors of unique and innovative concepts? Is that why I felt I was perhaps fighting a lost cause here?

Olaf Bartels, born in 1959, is and architectural historian and critic. His publications include features in Bauwelt, Baumeister and the Deutsche Bauzeitung. He carries out research and teaching on architecture and the history of urban planning. He lives in Hamburg and Berlin.

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