“The current overemphasis on the intellectual and conceptual dimensions of architecture contributes to the disappearance of its physical, sensual and embodied essence”, argues Finnish architect and professor Juhani Pallasmaa in his landmark architectural theory book, The Eyes of the Skin. In it, the esteemed architectural thinker contests that the visuality of today’s technological and consumer culture has suppressed the sort of multi-sensory architecture that brings with it a sense of integration and belonging.

“This reductive focus”, he continues, “gives rise to a sense of architectural autism, an internalised and autonomous discourse that is not grounded in our shared existential reality.” Going on to lament a general ‘distancing’ in contemporary culture at large, Pallasmaa suggests that the ceaseless bombardment of imagery leads only to those images losing their emotional content. “We are made to live in a fabricated dream world.”

First published in 1996, there’s an eerie sense of prophecy in Juhani Pallasmaa’s words. Over 20 years on, we now live in an age where popular culture has eaten itself, with design blogs – still some years off at the time of his writing – having now risen to such prominence that high-profile interior designers and architects have been roundly criticised for producing work that caters to the trends that those blogs perpetuate over the needs of their end users.

Freehand Chicago
Freehand Chicago – by Adrian Gaut

In a world where form frequently exceeds function – and where cold minimalism oft counters a sense of belonging and the over-saturation of imagery – content and frenetic aesthetics have left us in a state of ceaseless exhaustion. The message is clear: it’s time for a reset. It’s not the hyper-homogenisation of Kinfolk or the overt twee of hygge, that’s needed, though; it is an intrinsic calling for the physicality and sensuality Pallasmaa laments in his essential discourse, a calling for integrity in an age of social swamping and fake news.

They say things go in cycles. It was 1954 when Frank Lloyd Wright noted that “what is needed most in architecture today is the very thing that is most needed in life: integrity.” 64 years after the straightforward honesty of his book, The Natural House, integrity is needed in life more than ever – yet in its absence, renewed principles in design must suffice. A recent wave of hotel openings are thriving in their own sincerity – a sincerity we can only hope might ignite some hope in our wayward cultural collision course.

“We like the fact that it’s difficult for a guest to tell when the hotel was designed”, admits Eero Koivisto of architects Claesson Koivisto Rune, the Swedish studio that has spearheaded a series of earnest renovation projects for De Bergenske Hotels, a group of family-owned properties in Bergen, Norway. “For a guest, it should feel seamless – like you’re staying in one hotel, not an ‘old’ or a ‘new’ room”, he continues of Bergen Børs, the 127-room hotel he helped shape out of the city’s former stock exchange. “Certain parts of the project had beautiful original wood-work; others, artisan-made lamps, beautiful cast windows, or elaborate metalwork. Everything new had to co-exist with this.”

Bergen Børs by Claesson Koivisto Rune
Bergen Børs – by Claesson Koivisto Rune

Neither the overt opulence of palatial luxury (nor the coldness of modernity), this clutch of new De Bergenske properties typify the essence of architectural integrity, and embrace that ‘sense of place’ that so many architects and designers are fond of.

“Architecture enables us to perceive and understand the dialectics of permanence and change”, writes Juhani Pallasmaa, “to settle ourselves in the world, and to place ourselves in the continuum of culture and time.” In rejecting trends and contemporary materials, and in celebrating timeless design details and coalescing them with contemporary touches of indeterminable age, Claesson Koivisto Rune allow guests to settle themselves and contemplate their place in the hotel and its surrounds.

“We transfer all the cities and towns that we have visited, all the places that we have recognised”, Pallasmaa continues, “to the incarnate memory of our body. Our domicile becomes integrated with our self identity: it becomes part of our own body and being.” In perhaps the most concrete elucidation of a ‘sense of place’, Juhani Pallasmaa explains that, in identifying ourselves with these spaces, they become the ingredients of our very own existence. Without connecting on a multi-sensory level, there is no ‘sense of place’. “Architecture”, he continues, “is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world, and this mediation takes place through the senses.”

NoMad Los Angeles – via Dezeen

French philosopher Gaston Bachelard spoke of ‘the polyphony of the senses’: preoccupied by personal and emotional responses to buildings, his 1958 book, The Poetics of Space, is a poetic meditation on spatiality and architecture as a man-made extension of nature. In hotels, developers and designers have the opportunity to stimulate all the senses in the same way nature can. Nooks, crannies and carefully considered details; contemplative shadows or quiet places for solitude; the sensuality of fine linens or a bouquet of exquisite amenities.

NoMad Los Angeles, Photo by Benoit Linero
NoMad Los Angeles – by Benoit Linero

With a deserved reputation for kindling each and every sense, Ron Burkle and Andrew Zobler’s Sydell Group have recently added a series of sequels to three of their award-winning hotel brands – NoMad Los Angeles, LINE DC and Freehand New York. Diverse in their deft ability to nurture singularity; cohesive in their aptitude for sensory stimulation. Formerly known as the original Bank of Italy, historic LA landmark Giannini Place has been reimagined by French architect and designer Jacques Garcia. Much of its original neoclassical glamour – think doric columns, an ornate golden ceiling and marble floors – has been preserved and incorporated into the west coast follow-up to NoMad New York.

LINE DC lobby lighting – via Lighting Workshop
LINE DC lobby lighting – via Lighting Workshop

Through the consideration of light and space; service and amenities; rich materials, plush fabrics and natural hues, the hoteliers and architects alike bring a sense of continuity that ensures a memorable experience. Luxury has held connotations of the flaunting of wealth since at least as far back as the ancient Greeks and Etruscans – here, though, is a luxury redefined, a state of contentedness as you consume this ‘polyphony of the senses’ – senses reawakened by the halting of unnecessary advancement. This is ‘slow living’ without the hubris.

As with their renascence of Los Angeles’s Giannini Place, Sydell Group properties have a tendency toward occupying historic spaces and reviving their forgotten lustre. “The sense of ‘aura’ – the authority of presence – that Walter Benjamin regards as a necessary quality for an authentic piece of art, has been lost”, states Pallasmaa, bemoaning a loss of tactility in modern architecture as structures became “repulsively flat, sharp-edged, immaterial, and unreal.” In giving new life to neglected, but authoritative spaces, developers hoping to achieve a sense of place that can foster a notion of permanence, forming an emotional connection before guests have even crossed the threshold.

Freehand New York, Photo by Adrian Gaut
Freehand New York – by Adrian Gaut

Built in 1928 at a time of rapid development in Manhattan, Flatiron’s former George Washington Hotel is now home to Sydell Group’s latest addition to their Freehand quartet, with ex-Hollywood set designers Roman and Williams on hand to add layers and layers of design drama: tactility through thoughtful materiality; intimacy through intelligent spatial awareness; abundant in touches capable of provoking each of our innate human senses.

Freehand Los Angeles lobby – by Frank Wonho Lee / via Curbed Los Angeles

Developed by Rudolph Rosenberg in 1924, LA’s Commercial Exchange building plays host to its Los Angeles sibling. Among countless incarnations, it is once where American author Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, held his publishing headquarters. Freehand’s debut occupies one of Miami Beach’s illustrious 1930s Art Deco buildings; NoMad New York a turn of the century Beaux-Arts building; LINE DC? A neoclassical church that has retained its 60-foot vaulted ceilings, millwork and brass detailing, and large copper entry doors.

Over in Bergen, De Bergenske’s Villa Terminus sees Claesson Koivisto Rune bring a quintessentially Scandinavian style  to a surprising building originally built in the 1760s. Whilst the Los Angeles LINE hotel occupies an abrasive 1964 building in the city’s Koreatown, reimagined with stark, bleeding-edge élan by designer Sean Knibb, it’s proof that attaining a sense of place is more about igniting emotion than it is restoring a dilapidated property and shipping in some modish furnishings.

Villa Terminus by Claesson Koivisto Rune, Photo by Åke Eson Lindman
Villa Terminus by Claesson Koivisto Rune – photo by Åke Eson Lindman

As is so with the 1950s roadside motels that plug into the romance of the open road and fragmenting American dream, these reinventions hold much more weight than lethargic refits: they are capable of making us feel alive. Engaging local communities, ensuring food and beverage offerings measure up to all that surrounds them; creating a layered experience. The secret to connection is in developing something greater than the sum of its parts.

What Frank Lloyd Wright said in ’54 stands incontestable to this day: “What is needed most in architecture today is the very thing that is most needed in life: integrity.” There has simply never been a more potent time to strive for honesty and connections through design within our existential reality.


James Davidson
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.