Contemplating rituals of non-places

The Breakfast Room


Nefeli Makrynikola

Place and non-place are rather like opposed polarities: the first is never completely erased, the second never totally completed; they are like palimpsests on which the scrambled game of identity and relations is ceaselessly rewritten. But non-places are the real measure of our time; one that could be quantified – with the aid of a few conversions between area, volume and distance – by totaling all the air, rail and motorway routes, the mobile cabins called ‘means of transport’ (aircraft, trains and road vehicles), the airports and railway stations, hotel chains, leisure parks, large retail outlets, and finally the complex skein of cable and wireless networks that mobilise extraterrestrial space for the purposes of a communication so peculiar that it often puts the individual in contact only with another image of himself.
-Marc Auge, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, 1995

The Hilton hotel of Stockholm is situated by Slussen, one of the most central locations of the city, with public transport connections to almost everywhere, and a view over Gamla Stan, Norrmalm and Kungsholmen. It was originally owned by the Scandic hotel chain and was bought by Hilton in 2002.

Breakfast is an everyday ritual, and one of the most important. Therefore hotels, especially those which are part of big chains, provide a large variety of breakfast items to their customers. Breakfast usually takes place at the main dining hall, a large space with a lot of tables. This is attached to the kitchen area, which constantly supplies the buffet with food. At the Hilton Stockholm Slussen, the food is located in the center of a big hall with expansive glass windows looking out over the city and its infrastructure, including the metro lines and multiple roads. The customers enter the dining area where they are greeted by the manager, who suggests a table for them to sit. The servers are tasked with serving coffee and tea, and the customers have to take their own food from the buffet. Then the servers are responsible for taking the empty plates and resetting the table for the next guest. During breakfast, the tables with a great view are in high demand, which means that they must be set multiple times. The buffet is constantly being refilled, and coffee or teacups are never empty. The breakfast room offers a totally different experience depending on whether you are a ‘guest’ or a server. For the first group, it is the performance of an everyday ritual, a relaxed beginning to the day; for the second group, it is a working environment that is stressful, fast paced and physically demanding. Most of the time, the first group is unaware of the second, which only becomes visible when it is needed.

Big hotels, as Marc Auge suggests, are non-places; they are extraterrestrial structures at the same time as being part of the real measure of our world. In my opinion, hotels could be viewed and examined as a spatial expression of the colonial matrix of power. The clear division of space into two areas; the flow of goods and services from one space to another; the scripted performances as well as the spontaneous shared experiences: all these could serve as reference points to the real distribution of power and goods in the world. Even the different ethnicities – and the way the roles are distributed among them – are a direct depiction of colonial history.

The hotel, by being a symbol of the colonial matrix of power, has also created its own vocabulary where meanings and concepts are being appropriated. The idea of hospitality, of the guest and the host, are distorted and take different meanings. For example, hospitality becomes a paid service that is provided by workers who are called hosts, to customers who are being addressed as guests. Big chain hotels provide an environment that feels familiar by including design and service elements that have international, homogenised attributes, at the same time as trying to provide a unique experience for their customers in order to gain their recurring preference. It is a world that tries to elevate everyday rituals into something memorable, by abiding with colonial ideals of the modern world pertaining to travel, tourism and service.

As Auge describes: “A paradox of non-place: a foreigner lost. In a country he does not know [a ‘passing stranger’] can feel at home there only in the anonymity of motorways, service stations, big stores or hotel chains” (Auge M., 1995). Could a hotel be considered as a potential place of shared knowledge? It is a place of shared experiences and cultural exchanges through rituals such as breakfast. It is a complicated space where experiences differ depending on the role of the person: a workplace for some, a refuge/shelter for others. A hotel is a place where shared knowledge is not self-evident, hidden behind a colonial mentality. This in my opinion is worth exploring, with the question: how could a structure like the big hotel be delinked, reimagined and finally redesigned as a place of filoxenia?