After all: Hotel Hi... and lows

Too much technology and experimentation at a hotel can be off-putting, E&T investigates.

As I was relaxing in the bath, wild Yakuza gangsters, clutching short samurai swords, kept jumping at me with ear-piercing combat screams from all four corners of the room, only to be promptly dismembered - at times beheaded - by the magnificent Uma Thurman, all in front of my eyes…

'Kill Bill' was probably not a good choice of a house movie for my 'Techno-corner' room in Nice's Hi hotel - equipped with, among other button-operated gadgets, a cinema-size screen (with digital sound) that could be watched from either the bed or the bathtub. It felt as if I had to share the room with all the bouncy and noisy 'Kill Bill' characters, although perhaps I wouldn't have minded so much if it was just Ms Thurman - perhaps accompanied by on-screen nemesis Lucy Liu - provided they promised not to exercise their ninja skills for a while.

Designed by Matali Crasset, who wanted to create an "alternative upmarket hotel", Hi has been characterised by reviewers as 'urban, innovative and daring' and compared with an experience from another galaxy. That all may be true, but would you fancy relaxing overnight at a high-tech digital cinema, a museum of modern design, and a cutting-edge technology show - all in one?

It is a fact that technology-assisted masochism has become a feature of modern hospitality industry. Luxury suites, candle-lit dinners and first-class flights are no longer enough to satisfy the demands of discerning travellers, now looking for danger spots (even if imaginary), where their nerves and egos can undergo some pleasant titillation. They need trials, hardship, horror-stories, which could be later recounted to friends in the safety of their lounge-rooms, or - at the very least - some real technological challenges. This trend has already brought to life all sorts of survival manuals and guides to 'the world's most dangerous places' - hotel rooms replicating cabins of the Titanic, and even guided tours of Chernobyl (I foolishly went on the Ukrainian soujourn a while ago - friends still tease me that my body glows of an evening).

One such place was Hotel Sittavia in the outskirts of the East German town of Zittau, on the Czech border. Its owner, Guenter Ziemann, went out of his way to recreate inside the atmosphere of the former GDR. That lovingly engineered hospitality establishment was stuffed with Communist memorabilia and samples of GDR products - from Vita Cola (a politically correct 'Communist' version of Coke) to Tutsi tooth-paste and 'F6' - foul-smelling 'proletarian' cigarettes. The walls were adorned with photos of tin-shaped Trabants, the much-ridiculed East German cars, and the hotel's 'Best People': Herr Ziemann himself, his wife and two receptionists.

Each room had its own East German theme. Mine was dedicated to ORWO - a factory that used to produce low-quality films and photographic paper. There were rooms celebrating German-Soviet Friendship Society, Young Pioneers Organisation, Union of German Communist Youth, and victorious East German athletes (where they probably served you steroids for breakfast). No wonder - just like East Germany itself - the hotel went bust several years ago.

Looking north, you might take Stockholm's Hotel Langholmen - a converted maximum-security prison on the little island of the same name in the centre of Stockholm. Over two-and-a-half centuries of its tempestuous history (1736-1975) it earned itself the notoriety of being one of the world's most feared penitentiaries.

The hotel was incorporated into the existing prison structures in the late 1980s. Its rooms, still referred to as 'cells', are, understandably, somewhat grim and claustrophobic. Each has a copy of the old inmates' daily routine on the wall. Striped black-and-white T-shirts, plastic shackles and other jail memorabilia are on sale at the Reception, located in the former prisoners' intake area.

The trend keeps growing. The glossy Hotel Innovations & Technology magazine runs articles on taking the 'in-room technology' even further. At the recent World Travel Market event in London they were talking about 'pop-up hotels' - pre-built units fitted into steel frames, which can be easily dismantled or demolished.

Back up Hi

Intergalactic wonders begin straight from the lobby where you are greeted by 'modular armchairs' (whatever that means), hardly audible murmurs of calming electronic music and young staff in specially designed funky uniforms.

In the beginning, you may be forgiven for thinking that everything in Hi is transparent: walls, partitions between them, lifts, closets and even bathroom and toilet cubicles. Yes, in my 'Techno-corner' a vast bathtub was located in the geometrical centre of the room and the toilet cabin was see-through. In another room, called 'Strate', both shower cabin and loo were translucent-yellow and on elevated platforms - like pedestals of the monuments to some unknown loo users ('loosers'?).

A staff member explained that, from the Hi point of view, using a bathroom was not just a bodily function, but a statement. By that he probably meant the statement of Matali Crasset herself, who once wrote that toilets were like huts, and when lighted, should glow like lanterns.

I stopped short of lighting mine. There was no need to: my girlfriend could clearly see me sitting on the loo (greatly against her wishes, I hasten to add) without any additional glow; perhaps that trip to Chernobyl had an effect after all...

Matali Crasset saw hotel guests as "actors, not prisoners of décor" and the hotel itself as "an emphatic space based on activity and modularity"; but when I am staying at a hotel, I don't want to act. I want to relax, to chill out, to unwind, to be left alone - anything but acting!

Again, I am not sure about 'modularity', but activity-wise it took me a while to get to grips with all the buttons in the bed's headboard, which were designed to operate everything in the room: from the giant TV and DVD player to lights and curtains. A degree in mechanical engineering (which I don't have) would have come in handy. At night, the buttons were blinking intimidatingly in the dark - like the dashboard of some intergalactic spaceship.

In general, I would only recommend Hi to those couples who had been in a relationship for at least three years. To others, the sight of a loved one sitting on a high-tech transparent loo and making a statement (big or small) can prove unexpectedly off-putting...


Vitali Vitaliev's latest book 'Life as a Literary Device' is published by Beautiful Books

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