Fantasyland: The Allure of John Portman Hotels

By | March 3, 2012

“It is not surprising, however, that a child can enjoy news of distant places, for he leads a rich life of fantasy and is at home in fantasyland before adults require him to dwell imaginatively in the real countries of a geography book. To an intelligent and lively child, experience is active searching and occasional wild extrapolations beyond the given: he is not bound by what he sees and feels in his home and local neighborhood.”

Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience

I grew up two hours south of San Francisco and, when I was a child, my family and I would travel to what we referred to as “the city” quite frequently. We had a cousin who lived in the Bay Area so we didn’t need a place to stay. But that didn’t stop us from visiting hotels. Actually one hotel in particular: the Hyatt Regency at the intersection of Market Street and The Embarcadero. This destination remained a checklist staple, even if the primary purpose of our trip was something else entirely.

Interestingly, I can recall the hotel just as vividly as the other cultural experiences my mom insisted were part of our education. Waiting in line to see the King Tut exhibit at the de Young Museum in 1979. Playing with the levitating ball at the Exploratorium. Pondering the escape attempts of prisoners at Alcatraz during a tour of the island. And letting loose in the larger than life playground of the Hyatt Regency. They were all the same to me.

To say that I loved visiting the Hyatt Regency is an understatement. Time and again, I was awestruck at the dramatic architecture of the lobby. The main focal point, a 35-foot high aluminum sculpture known as Eclipse by Charles O. Perry, hovers above a massive black reflecting pool. Water skims off the upper tier in a formation so perfect and soft that is irresistible to touch. Eyes can’t help but gaze upward at the seventeen-storey atrium with its oblique angles and ivy-lined, exposed hallways. It’s like being in the belly of a living organism. Fast, bullet-shaped glass elevators offer thrilling rides through this hyperspace (these days, however, security guards limit the fun). As kids, if we were lucky, we’d be able to disembark at the top and have a Shirley Temple at the Equinox revolving restaurant (sadly, now static), placing a penny on the windowsill and hoping our cheap drinks would last long enough for us to make one full rotation.

Lobby, Hyatt Regency San Francisco, source: Hyatt Regency San Francisco

Architect and real estate developer (Portman Holdings developed the entire commercial complex of Embarcadero Center) John Portman designed the 802-room Hyatt Regency San Francisco in 1973. His influential contribution to modern hotel design, the multi-storied interior atrium, began with the Hyatt Regency Atlanta (1967). Of course, the incorporation of atriums into hotel design was nothing new. The Exchange Coffee House Hotel (1809) in Boston had one. The original Palace Hotel (1875) in San Francisco had one. This architectural element has been enthusiastically reinvigorated as of late, in projects like the Burj Al Arab, Dubai (Atkins Design, 1999) and the Grand Hyatt, Shanghai (SOM, 1999). But I contend there is something unique about a Portman hotel.

As an adult, I worked in downtown Los Angeles and finding new lunch places was one way to break the monotony of 9-5 office culture. The Westin Bonaventure (Portman, 1976) offered a few options. While the food was always forgettable, the excursions were not. Invariably we’d have trouble finding the hotel’s entrance, any entrance I should say, as the Westin has three. The main one on Figueroa Street dumps visitors into a second floor shopping area. The other two are back-door type affairs, emptying visitors into non-specified areas of the hotel. Once inside, visitors become part of a disorienting, ambulatory network. The shops and restaurants, often deserted due to the difficult navigation of space, create concentric rings around the atrium space. Escalators and elevators (similar to those in San Francisco) transport people up and down the vertical shaft creating a sculptural dynamism. It’s this imploded urban environment along with the hotel’s dark reflective glass façade that have spurred countless readings of the hotel as user-hostile.

Lobby, Westin Bonaventure, Los Angeles, source: Trip Advisor

Lobby, Westin Bonaventure, Los Angeles, source: Trip Advisor

Yet I find the Westin Bonaventure, as well as the Hyatt Regency San Francisco, to be among the most receptive hotels to non-guests. I’ve never stayed at either, but I’ve spent hours upon hours in each, from playing hide and seek with my siblings in the latter, to working on the Grand Hotel project in the former. And never once have I been asked to leave.

I suppose this sense of freedom, both spatial and psychological, has impacted my perception of hotels. Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan dedicates a chapter of his seminal book on human geography to how a child perceives his or her environment, becomes emotionally attached to place, and constructs memory and meaning based on those experiences. He differentiates between the purity of a child’s understanding of place and his or her ability to focus on the present, and that of an adult’s, which is loaded with significance and sentiment.

In this regard, Portman’s hotels helped bridge the development of my psyche. Each visit to the Westin Bonaventure or the Hyatt Regency becomes layered in meaning and intensified with associations to time and place. Sure, the experience can be disorienting, but what’s the harm in shaking up my state of equilibrium? The genius of Portman is that, like it or not, he elicits a pure response and if that’s a state of childlike wonder, then I’ll happily turn off my inner skeptic.

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