Ideology and hot towels

America exported its culture around the world with Hilton hotels

"Each of our hotels is a little America," Conrad Hilton announced at the opening of the Istanbul Hilton in 1958. For those of us who spent some part of college tramping through Europe or Northern Africa, even the thought of staying in a "little America" was inconceivable. That, we knew, would insulate us from what we hungered for - that rudeness of the authentic, for places and persons unknown.

Given the events of Sept. 11, the recent release of "Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture," by Annabel Wharton, is poignantly timed. Her book explores the impact abroad of the Hiltons, America's architectural ambassadors in the three decades following World War II.

These "luminous horizontal masses" were symbols of American ideology just as powerful as our lately fallen icons.

Invariably sited to dominate and alter their surrounding cityscape, the glass walls and white concrete frames of midcentury Hiltons International were unmistakably modern. Above all, the extravagant transparency and clear internal design of these Hiltons mirrored the sure-footed clarity of American purpose during the cold war.

As Wharton notes, Conrad Hilton pinpointed the location of the hotels based on their political potential, focusing on economic rather than military aid: "Now, why is Hilton International building hotels in all these key spots around the world?" he asked. "Because there is a job to be done. And I will tell you frankly, satellites and H-bombs will not get that job done.... There you have the reason why, in Istanbul and Baghdad, we are pushing close to the Iron Curtain. We are in Cairo because it is the center of the Moslem world and holds the key to Africa and the Middle East."

The Hiltons abroad exemplified American efficiency and virile capitalism, if not democracy. As a separate subsidiary, the international firm did not own the hotels but derived a portion of the profits. In most cases, they were co-designed with prestigious local architects. Foreign legislatures, eager to reap the benefits of the new "little Americas," underwrote construction costs. Remarkably, sometimes costs were offset by funds from the Marshall Plan, a clear sign of the importance the United States attached to "the materialization of politics."

The hotels instantly became both venues for power-brokering and bubbles of safety for American tourists, whose experience of far-flung cultures could be digested virtually risk-free.

In the chapters devoted to the history of specific hotels, Wharton builds a case for a kind of corrupt "spatial" imperialism imposed by these buildings, which effectually diminished the role of the public citizen in favor of the private consumer. The Athens Hilton, opened in 1963, is a prime example. It instantly became a dominant element in the view from the Acropolis. In turn, seen from the hotel, "the Parthenon was made the ancient foil of the modern Hilton." Thus, a site sacred in Western tradition became a backdrop packaged for well-to-do tourists rather than the apex of a traveler's pilgrimage.

Meanwhile, inside the hotels, space once reserved for promenading, visiting, and being, gave way to interior mini-malls, a Hilton innovation. Cuisine, decoration, and uniforms were all themed as a controlled environment. It is an American gift, apparently, to transform interactions into transactions, as Wharton accounts in her last and most riveting chapter, "The Commoditization of Space."

Wharton is a medieval art historian. When she was growing up, her family often rendezvoused in far-flung Hiltons. It is obvious that she has great respect and affection for Hilton workers, to whom she dedicated the book. She weaves meticulous research into a tapestry full of details as voluptuous as the locales described. In articulating how Americans isolate themselves even when abroad, she has given us a unique tool to understand not only little-known aspects of the cold war, but perhaps also the current crisis.

Architectural historian Barbara Lamprecht is the author of "Richard Neutra: Complete Works" (TASCHEN).

Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture

By Annabel Wharton University of Chicago 249 pp., $45

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