Global Tourism – why it needs Contemporary Architecture

Global Tourism – why it needs Contemporary Architecture

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We have worked closely with Professor Terry Stevens for a number of years, looking at various projects across the globe. These have mostly been tourism, or more accurately cultural-tourism led. The COVID-19 pandemic has stopped leisure travel in its tracks, and the prognosis for the tourism and hospitality industries has been well documented and the immediate outlook, grim.

With governments opening and closing borders overnight, air bridges collapsing and local lockdowns being imposed as mini-epicentres of infection breakout, how can our environments accommodate such rapid shifts in human requirements and statutory regulation?

This article by Professor Terry Stevens and Scott Brownrigg Board Director, Neil MacOmish looks at the constraints but more positively, the opportunities that may arise from these difficult times and circumstances.

'Dweller on the Threshold' is the title of a song by Van Morrison. In the foreword to Lit Up Inside (the selected lyrics of Van Morrison) the great Scottish writer, Ian Rankin says:

"In this song Van is talking to all of us, poised throughout our lives between what we have already experienced and what may lie ahead.”

How prescient for all of us today and a fine call-out as to how architects and designers can help us all in making this transition across the real threshold we currently face.

Never before in the history of tourism has there been a more important time for different disciplines and interests to collaborate to find hybrid solutions involving hybrid thinkers to drive the recovery of the industry. It is clear that we are entering a period of unprecedented experimentation where the post-COVID19 challenge will be to find new ideas that balance economics with the safety concerns of visitors.

The architecture and design professions have a proven track record of creative and innovative thinking. It is now the time to elevate and celebrate these talents to bring forward a new generation of empathetic, relevant and intelligent solutions to all dimensions of re-thinking tourism.

This must go way beyond the simple application of ideas to create buildings and landscapes, however inspiring and full of wonderment. These talents and skills need to permeate a new way of thinking in the tourism industry. The extraordinary tourism visionary, Claus Sendlinger (Founder of the Design Hotel Group and now the curator of Scorpios Mykonos and other playful projects) once said: 

“Tourism needs hybrid thinkers and hybrid solutions. The problem is that the tourism industry is insufficiently innovative and creative to meet this challenge.”

What is for certain is that old business models and traditional ways of thinking and doing business have become less relevant.

So tourism needs a new way of thinking. It might be about radical simplicity. It might be about intuition or based on a philosophical or attitudinal paradigm shift. What is for certain is that old business models and traditional ways of thinking and doing business have become less relevant, even obsolete, in the new world we are entering. Clocks don’t go backwards. Can architects and designers step up to the plate?

In the decade pre-COVID it was increasingly clear that tourism leaders were beginning to recognise the importance of quality as an essential component in all aspects of tourism service and experience delivery at the destination level. This was reflected in the growth of interest in applying high quality design to physical spaces and in the architecture of hotels and visitor centres. Some observers were of the view that it was getting difficult to discuss tourism without discussing architecture. It was becoming a commodity for tourists’ consumption, it was a destination’s cultural capital and enhanced sense of place.

Across the exemplar destinations there was an obvious trend towards the encouragement of investment and the patronage of star-architects producing exciting, innovative, architecture and quality visual interventions as a means of enhancing the overall visitor experience. The obvious indicator of this was the ‘Gehry effect’ as evidenced in the Basque Country. Bilbao has embraced leading architects in many one form or another to acclaimed success since the city first invited Gehry to design the city’s Guggenheim in 1993. San Sebastian, the Basque Country’s centre for gastronomy and film has followed suit. South of Bilbao, in Elciego, the Marqués de Riscal Winery has created the City of Wine by Gehry with the chairman of the company stating that the €66m investment far exceeded their expectations taking 'no place' to a world class, competitive destination.

In ‘Architecture Attracts Visitors’ by Pla’tou (the Platform for Architecture in Tourism established in Austria in 2007) to promote: “The topics of architecture, culture of construction and design are capturing the attention of the public” asserts that: “the innovative potential which lies within contemporary architecture is still hardly used in the tourism industry”. Their research showed that success and enhanced profitability were directly correlated to the use of contemporary architecture. Copenhagen, Aarhus, Oslo, Liverpool, Zurich, Bilbao, Barcelona, Montpellier, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Chicago, Denver, Singapore, Melbourne are taking full advantage of these opportunities.

In rural destinations there are two outstanding examples of destinations where contemporary architecture is now driving tourism. In Bregenzerwald (Austria) a rural area with a once flagging agricultural economy has developed a global reputation as a world class destination by using the power of architecture. In the second example, is the story of Norway's tourist routes (Gustavsen, 2016), which started in 1994 as a trial project to offer motorists an alternative to main roads that gave them access to stunning architecture along their routes. There are now 18 National Tourism Routes (NTR) in Norway, all of which will be completed by 2025. Running along the coast and fjords, through countryside and mountains the routes offer world-class scenery and architectural installations.

Is there a way in which we can keep the climate benefits at the same time as opening up the world for global leisure travel again and re-invigorate local communities and economies?

For me the new challenge is for architects to be in the vanguard of driving cross-fertilisation of ideas between sector. For example, how can hospitals and the health services learn from how hotels and restaurants are organised and designed and, equally, how can the hospitality sector learn from the hospitals and health sector? After all, hospital and hospitality are derived from the Latin hospes, meaning "host", "guest", or "stranger". By metonymy the Latin word 'Hospital' means a guest-chamber, guest's lodging, an inn. Hospes/hostis is thus the root for the English words host, hospitality, hospice, hostel and hotel.

There have been huge environmental benefits that have been documented as a collateral consequence of the pandemic. Is there a way in which we can keep the climate benefits at the same time as opening up the world for global leisure travel again and re-invigorate local communities and economies?

Whilst other parts of Issue 11 of iA: Intelligent Architecture deal with the pragmatics of safe travel, here we try and focus on the actual places (and genius loci) of the destination.

One idea we have promoted is that of the ‘dispersed hotel’. This is not a silver bullet solution to all typologies and whilst the examples offered here are situated in a rural, pastoral or landscaped environment, there may still be pointers to appropriate considerations to urban, more dense locations.

In our project in Rotorua, New Zealand as well as two secret locations in Ireland and Scotland, there are central service buildings with bedrooms conceived as individual units or pods. Even where these rooms are closely joined, circulation is single-sided to promote air flow not only to the movement spaces, but also to the bedroom themselves. As we know, the combination of UV light and natural (passive) ventilation are key contributors to the reduction of spread of infection, but equally critical to the environmental and well-being criteria to any project. Each room has access to a balcony or terrace, or the room itself becomes an inside/outside space from the modernist tradition. These techniques can be equally valid and relevant to dense urban situations if applied in a considered way.

The dispersed hotel has added community benefits. It affords the opportunity to allow guests to migrate beyond its own boundaries, creating the chance to immerse in the local community and culture, rather than the depressing ‘all-inclusive’ offering where one never ventures outside and the experience is limited to only what the facility wants you to have and all that endless queuing to enjoy bland, universal, tepid buffets.

They are also about promoting community or local circular economies, with all of the environmental, social and economic benefits that this entails.

All of the above indicates that there will be, through the demands of the next and future generations, different and perhaps more authentic experiences for travellers to have in their search for new places, spaces and environments to be enjoyed in a new, sustainable way.


Terry has three books being published this month that develops some of these ideas and allows the reader to explore different aspects of the future of tourism. Two of them focus on the art and science of destination management and place-making the other is for armchair travel and dreaming about destinations that you will soon be able to visit as global travel recovers.

The books are:

1. Wish You Were Here - The stories behind 50 of the world’s great destinations (print copy available at end of August) published by GRAFFEG
2. Wish You Were Here – The art and the science of destination management (ebook only available via Apple and Amazon) published by GRAFFEG

Both can be ordered via

3. Tourism Facing a Pandemic: From Crisis to Recovery published by the University of Bergamo and available direct from Terry (

Read Issue 11 of iA: Intelligent Architecture in full here

Feature image: 'The Gehry effect' - architecture spurring regeneration in Bilbao, Spain. Photograph by Jorge Fernandez Salas. 

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