A new exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture reveals what floor coverings can tell us about late capitalism

Magic Carpet

To a certain stripe of observer, it is impossible to contemplate the serried, involuted vistas of a John Portman hotel lobby without recalling the theorist Frederic Jameson’s words on the subject. Analyzing the interiors of Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, Jameson identified the logic of late capitalism at work. The airless atrium was all surfaces that replicated and contradicted one another, producing within people (or as architects like to call them, “users”) feelings of helplessness and confusion. Here was an architecture of control, but perhaps also one of lobotomy.

Interior of the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, Chicago (Assaf Evron)

The theme is elaborated upon in the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s (CCA) latest exhibition, The Design of Carpets That Design Us. Curator Dan Handel extends Jameson’s insight and attempts to show how this architectural pathology—which first emerged in the urban centers of the advanced economies—has expanded across the globe. The twist, of course, is that Handel chooses to illustrate the point solely with recourse to floor coverings.

Interior of the Marriott Marquis, Atlanta (Assaf Evron)

It’s a more capacious conceit than one might guess. Handel has dug up plenty of fodder to exhibit at the CCA, including carpet designs by Peter Eisenman and a few other recognizable names. But by and large, architects long ago ceded this ground to others, Handel suggests, and to underscore the point, he made sure to incorporate the perspectives of manufacturers, hotel and casino operators, and other actors. In a recent interview, he described the approach as a “Rashomon narrative” that allows for “the coexistence of different perspectives that are basically incongruent.”

Interior of the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, Chicago (Assaf Evron)

This is clever if a bit too involved. More impactful are Assaf Evron’s photographs of signature Portman lobbies, including those at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare in Chicago and the Marriott Marquis, Atlanta. The latter features resplendent carpeting with interlocking circles that seem to unlock the truth of … something. The design has even inspired, Q-anon–style, an online Cult of the Marriott Carpet, which might either alarm or tickle Jameson, who, after all, has a humorous side. Buried in his 1991 tome on postmodernism is the following observation: “[T]he very real accomplishments of the postmodernist architects are comparable to late-night reefer munchies, substitutes rather than the thing itself.” Carpets, Handel might agree, function in just that same way.

Header image: Interior of the Hyatt Regency, Atlanta (Assaf Evron)