Tia Miller

Confronting and Caring for Spaces of Service 

Hotel service spaces have existed as a typology of willful erasure and strategic manipulation for centuries.  Within this philosophy,   As criticism around unfair labor practices continues to grow in the post-pandemic world, how can we better confront the necessity of service space while also caring for those who maintain the buildings we design? 


The two worlds of front of house and back of house are something I’ve also experienced from the perspective of a worker and the perspective of a hospitality designer.  Working in service space within a restaurant, I encountered as many workers in these spaces do, injury from cramped and poorly designed working conditions, verbal and physical violence from angry guests, and general burn out from the job as there was no real space to take a break during a shift.  
As a designer, I experienced the root of why some of these spatial conditions exist the way they do.  After working predominantly on front of house hotel guest spaces as a junior designer, in the downturn of the pandemic, I was moved to the back of house spaces and handed a thick binder of hotel standards from the brand and told to follow them to a minimum.  There was no visioning or user meetings like I was used to when working on hotel public space.  We never spoke to workers in the back of house to understand their needs or what wasn’t working in their workspaces.  I was told that this is the way things have always been done and not to stray away from it. 

Historically, the erasure I encountered and designed for within labor spaces is not unique to modern day hospitality service design.  In comparing Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello House with the underground service system at Walt Disney World known as the Utilidors, we see 4 main methods employed to maintain this separation of spaces and illusion of luxury: a cramped spatial footprint, basic or minimum materiality, the use of secondary circulation or concealed service, and a lack of natural lighting (often as a result of being placed underground). 


Two floor plans of Monticello and Walt Disney World Utilidors with 8 callout images of service spaces in the plans.

Identifying four elements of erasure in service spaces located within Monticello and the Walt Disney Utilidors 


These four elements can also be applied to the modern day hotel back of house spacesl.  Through conversations with past co-workers and mentors  in design, I cataloged their imagery of back of house spaces from site visits and completed projects.  In dialogue over these images, we talked through their experiences navigating the status quo of designing service spaces. Unshockingly, we were able to locate at least one of the 4 elements in the space of every single image that was provided. 


Figure 02: Residential Toronto Neighborhood Rewilded

An index of back of house imagery highlighting different elements of erasure within the spaces.


With many of these colleagues, we also talked at length about the process of designing for service spaces. Typically, the brand works directly with the designer and rarely interacts with workers for their personal insight or user experiences.  A narrative of “this is the tried and true method”  permeates the process and leaves designers exclusively following the binder of standards and only getting  direct feedback from hotel management. 
However, after many of these conversations I was left questioning how this process could be challenged to look more like the process for the front of house, where the guest or client was very much brought into conversation with management/ the brand and the designer.  In other words, how could I leverage conversation with the laborers to help design a back of house space that worked better for the laborers?  Could following this more user centric method of design also serve not only workers, but help aid a hotel brand in challenges of turn-over or injury?


Two separate bubble diagrams demonstrating design processes where hotel management works directly with the designer only vs the addition of service workers into the design process as a second strategy.

Process diagrams demonstrating the commonly followed design process for back of house spaces versus the proposal of a different process that includes the voices of the workers into the design process with management and the architect. 


Its clear in these studies that the primary purpose of designing service spaces in this way is to maintain structures of power and luxury, but rarely to consider the needs, health, and safety of those who exist in those spaces.  As we’ve increasingly come to terms with labor within the pandemic and in the face of economic instability, what is “essential”, what is not, and how people are treated in the spaces they inhabit is encountering a reckoning. Is it time to better question or confront these spaces and give more consideration to those who inhabit them?
With this design process in mind, I sought to find ways to connect with service workers in the hospitality industry to ask about their experiences.  What worked, what didn’t, what made their job better or worse?  What would make them stay at a job or what was a dealbreaker?  I completed a series of interviews with workers in hospitality willing to take the time to speak to me. I also found my way into several social media forums for hospitality workers on platforms like Reddit and Facebook where I staged questions and gathered information from posts.  Some of the interviews pushed me to further explore comments addressed in the interviews through diagrams and further research, such as entrances and spatial allocations.  The following are some of the quotes and results from these interviews. 


Walking away from this research and interviews, I had a fuller understanding of service spaces as a typology of willful erasure and strategic manipulation in the hospitality industry.   Looking at a common analogy of back of house spaces and front of house spaces being compared to the theater main stage and backstage, there is a relevant opportunity to harness these spaces within this language as theater sets. With this strategy of erasing service spaces in hotel design, it's rare we as guests or even designers get to confront them as important spaces that support the function of a hotel or experience.  

In practice we develop detailed renderings and drawings of the front of house to demonstrate how the space is carefully choreographed to support the needs of the user.  Yet rarely, if ever, do we render or detail out the back of house or the ways in which it ends up being realistically used.   What can be learned or observed if these front stage and back stage spaces are fully revealed next to one another?


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