Portman's Hyatt Regency San Francisco
Iwan Baan Portman's Hyatt Regency San Francisco

Like many of us who obsess about American cities, I have mixed emotions about John Portman, the Atlanta-based architect and developer who died last December at the age of 93. On one hand, he made it his life’s work to reinvigorate our urban centers at a time—from the late 1960s through the 1980s—when conventional wisdom had written them off. And yet his signature building type, the atrium hotel, was so antithetical to the idea of genuine urban vitality that it’s hard to classify him as a savior.

In New York, we couldn’t forgive him for the Marriott Marquis (1985), a fortress of a hotel deposited in the middle of Times Square. For years, it was a dead spot, a composition of blank concrete and smoky glass amid the native razzle-dazzle. Now, of course, its exterior holds a state-of-the-art eight-story-tall LED billboard, and the hotel’s Broadway façade, once largely lifeless, has been rebuilt and filled with stores.

Portman was pro-city but also anti-city, or simply uninterested in the virtues of street life as espoused by Jane Jacobs. “What am I going to relate to, Howard Johnson’s across the street?” That was Portman’s retort when Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, then of The New York Times, criticized the obdurate design of the Marriott.

Portman was an architect for an America that didn’t have much use for architecture: He positioned himself as a humanist rather than a formalist. His model was not Brasília, which he’d visited and rejected, but Tivoli Gardens. He understood the value of grandeur. “Here we are, living in an age of 8-foot 6-inch ceilings and asphalt tile floors,” he wrote in a 1976 book, The Architect as Developer, co-written with urban planner Jonathan Barnett, FAIA. “We forget that architectural space can affect us emotionally.”

His work clearly had an emotional impact on me. I fell in love with one of his signature works, the San Francisco Hyatt Regency, when I was too young to know better. I was 18, on a 1976 road trip to San Francisco with a college friend, one of those unplanned adventures in which we spent nights in frightening crash pads in Berkeley and Haight-Ashbury. A ragtag group of us were hanging out at Fisherman’s Wharf and somehow made our way under the Embarcadero Freeway, an oppressive elevated highway that darkened a long stretch of the downtown waterfront (until, that is, it was rendered structurally unsound by the 1989 earthquake and demolished). We rode the escalator up from the street into the lobby of the Hyatt, completed about three years earlier.

The Hyatt Regency San Francisco atrium
Iwan Baan The Hyatt Regency San Francisco atrium

What I encountered was a marvel, a vertigo-inducing 17-story atrium, 350 feet long by 150 feet wide, with tiers of balconies angled every which way and capsule-shaped elevators zipping up and down a freestanding core. In the middle was a large aluminum sculpture surrounded by the first zero-edge fountain I’d ever seen. People were sitting on low rectangular cushions around the fountain and sipping piña coladas through extra-long straws. All I wanted at that moment was to linger in the place. Whoever these people sitting around the fountain were, I desperately aspired to be one of them.

I’ve revisited the lobby of the San Francisco Hyatt Regency a few times over the years. But I’d never stayed there—until this past April. As an homage to Portman, I booked two nights in what I still believe is his greatest creation. I found, upon inspection, that the building is even stranger than I’d believed it was when I was 18, and almost as cool. I came away thinking that even if I don’t entirely approve of the hothouse urbanity cultivated inside his developments, there was a genius to it that doesn’t always get the respect it deserves.

Creating a City Within a City
Portman began his professional life in the 1950s designing a string of unremarkable buildings: public schools, bus garages, YMCAs. His breakthrough was a project called the Peachtree Center, a cluster of buildings in downtown Atlanta that included a merchandise mart, parking garages, office towers, and three hotels. Notably, Portman was, with a variety of partners, the developer of all the projects, including the 1967 Hyatt Regency Atlanta—which, according to The Architect as Developer, “was Portman’s first conspicuous success as an architect-entrepreneur.”

It also marked the birth of the atrium hotel. As Portman told Atlanta magazine in 2014: “The foundation of the entire project was trying to understand how people experience space and how space can have an effect on people. It’s like creating a symphony. You use space as the notes, and then you take people through it.”

The Architect as Developer reveals that the typology has less lofty origins. The atrium hotel was an outgrowth of a project Portman had done for Atlanta’s Housing Authority—the Antoine Graves Highrise (1965), low-income housing for elderly tenants: “In this building he had grouped the small apartments for the elderly, which are not unlike hotel rooms, around interior courtyards. Each apartment was reached from a balcony-corridor that looked into one of the two courts, providing a sense of community and some sheltered interior spaces that could actually be used for communal purposes.”

The Hyatt Regency San Francisco atrium
Iwan Baan The Hyatt Regency San Francisco atrium

Over the years, I’ve spent time in a number of Portman-designed hotels, including the Westin Bonaventure in downtown Los Angeles, a confounding and surprisingly gloomy place, and the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center that, unexpectedly, I liked. The complex was originally car-centric to the point of absurdity—financed by Ford, and boasting a public esplanade dominated by an automobile showroom, it was difficult to access on foot until a 2004 renovation connected the rear of the complex to the riverfront. And yet the building was the outgrowth of Portman’s belief that “cities ought to be designed in a cellular pattern whose scale is the distance that an individual will walk before he thinks of wheels.” His ideal was “a total environment in which practically all of a person’s needs are met.” This sounds remarkably like something an urban theorist might say today, except that Portman believed it was his calling to create the total environment himself: a city within a city.

“Everything is Around a Corner”
On the first night of my stay in the Hyatt Regency, I flew into San Francisco and took BART to the Embarcadero station just outside the hotel. In my jet-addled state, it was a little difficult to figure out how to get inside. A blockade of hedges in planters (part of a 2016 renovation) had been set up to keep pedestrians from wandering into the porte cochère, funneling them instead onto a crosswalk leading to a central revolving door.

After getting my keycard, I ascended in the capsule elevator and realized that for the first time I was going to experience what it was like to be on one of those angled tiers, to be inside the spectacle rather than looking up at it. As it turned out, my “Bay View King” was at the far end of the building from the elevator. It was a surprisingly long walk—an entire football field—along an open corridor with a slightly dizzying view. The wallpaper in the corridor was striped beige on beige. The balcony walls were plain concrete, illuminated by lights underneath a handrail. The greenery that once lined the edge of each tier—and that provided the color that Portman used “sparingly and always deliberately”—had been removed in 2008. My immediate surroundings were so bland that I felt as if I’d been dropped into early virtual reality, when there wasn’t enough computing power to generate anything resembling verisimilitude.

The Tulip, a 1981 Portman-designed sculpture (and walkway) that connects the hotel to the Embarcadero Center
Bryan Costales The Tulip, a 1981 Portman-designed sculpture (and walkway) that connects the hotel to the Embarcadero Center

My room, when I finally reached it, was around the tip of the triangle, on the side of the building that would appear to face inland. I opened the door believing I had been cheated out of my water view. I couldn’t see all way into the room because of the way the layout angled, and then angled again. “Everything is around a corner,” I later scribbled in my notebook. Once I was fully inside, I saw an armchair positioned next to a single large window that did indeed offer a fine view of the Bay Bridge and its pulsating light sculpture.

The journey from the lobby to my room, and from the entrance to my room to the window, gave me more insight into the eccentricities of the building than I’d ever learned by gazing upward at it. It felt like my room, and every room, had been fit into the building envelope with a shoehorn. It made me wonder if matters of conventional hotel design, like room layouts, had even occurred to Portman.

The next morning, after a run along the Embarcadero and breakfast at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market—exactly the kind of urban experience that Portman couldn’t have hoped to fabricate—I began a methodical inspection of the hotel, a study of the topology. Standing in neighboring Justin Herman Plaza, I could see that my room was the first in a series running west from the water, perfectly staggered so that the lone window in each room affords a bay view. The staggering continues inward for about a dozen rooms. Then the façade cants slightly southward and the angle of the wall changes. It faces inland, toward the city, and the rooms appear to cascade down the side of the building in diagonal rows. It’s a very Aztec pyramid. And then the façade alters direction again and the rooms all face due north, looking directly into the adjacent Embarcadero Center. Then all the angularity stops cold when it runs into an archetypal 1970s rectilinear slab of concrete that follows Drumm Street, and that forms the base of the atrium’s triangle.

The Tulip
Iwan Baan The Tulip

Some of the hotel’s form is understandable, informed by a triangular lot created by the angle of Market Street; the need to boost the rooms above the level of the former freeway; the desire to maximize water views. But there’s also an endearing illogic to the place. Take, for example, the interface between the hotel and the rest of the Embarcadero Center, an urban renewal project, mainly office buildings, that was also designed by Portman. The idea, according to The Architect as Developer, was to make it “possible to walk from one end of the project to the other without ever going out on the street.” The hotel is connected to the other buildings by a three-story-tall concrete flower, a 1981 sculpture by Portman called the Tulip. The flower’s petals consist of loops of concrete, and the stem, also concrete, is surrounding by curving paths that climb from the lower level of the center to the lobby level of the Hyatt. While much of Portman’s work in concrete falls under the heading of Brutalism, the Tulip is so sweetly off-kilter that it makes me think he’s actually unclassifiable.

An Unfortunate Remake
I came away from my visit amazed—still—by the geometry of the atrium. But I also became better attuned to the hallmarks of the hotel’s alienation from the city outside, like the way it turns its back on Market Street. By design, it’s difficult to get in or out of the building on the side that offers the easiest access to the waterfront, which is now the area’s most significant draw.

The other problem is the décor. I’m not convinced that anyone at Hyatt quite knows what to do with the place. Though I’m told by management that the rooms were renovated in 2014, the furniture seems awfully dated. But the bigger problem is the most recent lobby makeover, from 2016. Early photos from the 1970s show dining areas under low trellises, and long lines of modern tables and seating arrangements, in bold reds and blues, set up in the main space. (The current general manager tells me there was originally a discotheque called Happenstance.) Today the aesthetic is best classified as the all-too-familiar shabby-chic-meets-Modernism. Curvy chairs, including some that could be Saarinen’s but aren’t, and boxier chairs that look like knockoffs of the lobby’s original furniture but without the bold colors, are joined by tchotchkes like lamps made from toy robots. Predictably, the bar is backed by an array of big screen TVs.

Curved stairs near the Tulip's base
Iwan Baan Curved stairs near the Tulip's base

The Hyatt’s general manager told me that the remake was “reinvigorating the interior with an industrial modern flair.” And maybe it is. But it’s more a reflection of current trends in hospitality design than anything particular to Portman’s vision. What’s missing is the boldness that made the original décor a worthy partner to the architecture … and that off-kilter je ne sais quoi.

Imagine if the hotel had been designed by Breuer, Mies, or Saarinen; my guess is that not only would the décor be more respectful of the project’s original intent, but that the Hyatt would be aggressively promoting the architectural pedigree of the property. I guess we should be grateful that Portman doesn’t inspire that kind of reverence, but whatever you think of him (I’d characterize my stance as tortured ambivalence) he was an original, the matchless impresario of a kind of placemaking that we may yet learn to value before it’s too late.