Tourism’s Cold War, Part One

If you ask someone about the Cold War, they’re sure to recognize the nuclear arms race and the space race. They might be able to tell you about the Marshall Plan and the propaganda war between the superpowers (featuring, it appears, such deadly weapons as a miniature edition of Doctor Zhivago). A few will know about the Nixon-Kruschev “kitchen debate” and the great struggle over who could build a better household kitchen. But who has ever heard about the battle between the superpowers for tourism supremacy?

Annabel Jane Wharton has the story, obliquely at least, in her book Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture. Wharton’s book is an account of the brief golden age in which Hilton hotels were “little Americas” introducing the American Dream to world-class cities across Europe and the Middle East.

The Hilton-building boom coincided with the flow of Marshall Plan money into many of these same cities, along with an intense interest in selling a vision of American luxury and modernity. As Wharton observes, Conrad Hilton had no trouble picturing his work as a stern anti-Communist crusade, writing that “We mean these hotels as a challenge … to the way of life preached by the Communist world.” Following a pattern begun by the Caribe Hilton (1949) and the El Panama Hotel (designed 1946, completed 1951), in Istanbul Hilton commissioned a “heroically scaled white slab” of reinforced concrete, surrounded by a grid of balconies for the guest rooms and lifted above glassed-in atrium at ground level by white concrete piers. The architects were Gordon Bunshaft of SOM and Sedad H. Eldem. 40% of the money came from the Marshall Plan, the other 60% from the Turkish Pension Fund.

Even discounting the rhetoric about standing at the gates of the Soviet Union, there really was a competition at hand: apparently the Soviets had made their own bid to build a luxury hotel modeled on the Waldorf Astoria in Istanbul. In 1951, Hilton vice-president John W. Houser reported that “it was interesting to sit discussing the new [Istanbul] Hilton Hotel with the drawings from Moscow on the next table.”

Two months before the Istanbul Hilton opened in 1955, Conrad Hilton announced his plans to build a hotel on an actual Cold War front-line. The Berlin Hilton was designed by West Coast modernists Pereira and Luckman (also the designers of several Cold War aerospace company headquarters) and shared several common features with its Turkish predecessor. In this case, though, above the glassed-in atrium the white concrete superstructure alternated with deep blue window bays: there were no balconies because of local political opposition to full-scale Hilton luxury.

Opened in 1958, the Berlin Hilton quickly became another symbol of West German permanence in the face of Soviet harassment.The Hilton was just a hotel, but it was also a concrete sign of the rebuilding of the city and its world-class connections. The newspaper Die Zeit tied the hotel together with the city’s new highway as a sign of that attitude: “Who in Berlin these days does not speak of the Soviet threat or of the Statdtautobahn speaks of the Hilton Hotel … For the shadows cast by the Soviet threat give all the more brilliant contours to the city’s two special structures and endow them with additional symbolic power of a truly concrete ‘Now it is finally right.'”

Forward to Part Two.

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