hyatt regency san francisco via david weibel

A Critical Reassessment of John Portman? No, His Buildings Were Resolutely Anti-Urban

When the architect and developer John Portman died last December, the somewhat predictable accolades streamed forth—like a waterfall inside one of his celebrated hotels. His iconic structures, with soaring atria, glitzy glass elevators, hanging gardens, and revolving rooftop restaurants, were celebrated by obit writers and positively “reassessed” by architectural scholars. While it’s admirable to speak well of the recently departed, the glowing recalibration of the Portman legacy is completely misguided.

Some critics even went so far as to credit Portman’s developments with the eventual revival of the downtowns in which they were located—a stunningly false assertion, since Portman buildings stood resolutely apart from their home cities and had the opposite effect.  

As someone who was around for the rise of Portman, I think an urban history lesson might be in order. In the 1970s, Portman was the country’s architectural wunderkind. He designed and in some cases helped develop huge and splashy hotel/office and retail complexes in Atlanta (the Hyatt Regency and Peachtree Center), San Francisco (Hyatt Regency/Embarcadero Center), Chicago (O’Hare Airport), Los Angeles (the Bonaventure Hotel), and Detroit (Renaissance Center). Portman was welcomed by hard pressed cities, desperate to find any developer willing to invest and build downtown. For a while, his ideas seemed fresh, when architectural creativity was anything but. To his credit, Portman was willing to take on the urban challenge when many viewed cities—especially their downtowns—as a lost cause. His hometown of Atlanta was seen as an exception, a rising urban star, and the architect one of its leading players.

Like the suburban malls being built during the same era, these inward-focused projects tried to put inside four protective walls what real and flourishing cities offer outside. And while many of Portman’s projects were built when cities were at their lowest ebb, ostensibly as acts of urban redevelopment, for a long time they actually stunted the potential for revival, and in the case of Detroit (see part 2, next week), perhaps stalled it forever. Portman’s buildings were huge, alien islands, drawing the city’s lifeblood in, just as the suburban shopping centers drew it out, beyond the city limits. They were like casinos: hermetically sealed environments that substituted architectural flash for authentic urban vitality; their goal was to bring you in off the street, and hold you there.

The atrium at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco, via Wikipedia.

The Portman approach left room for nothing but what was decreed from a central, corporate drawing board. As a result, these projects reflected the impersonality of a development formula and, for all of their admitted flash, were rigid and predictable. Devoid of even a hint of localism, they were exclusionary, sanitized packages that ultimately felt like Any City, U.S.A. And that was just on the outside!

Inside the Portman formula was equally problematic. As atria-oriented design proliferated in the 1970s, keener eyes recognized confusion and deception beneath the glitz and glamor. The most complicated cities in the world could seem easy to grasp in contrast to the confusing public and retail spaces of Portman-designed developments. For years getting lost inside a Portman hotel was practically an urban rite of passage. As far back as 1982, columnist George F. Will, writing in The Washington Post, in a piece entitled  “The Great American Lobby Crisis,” noted the difficulty of navigating these spaces:  

“Indications of decadence are rife, but nowhere more so than in modern hotel lobbies. In such lobbies it is possible to suffer vertigo as a result of the architecture and décor..Atlanta’s Peachtree Plaza has a lobby that Lewis and Clark could not have found their way across.”

In the years since, expensive adjustments were made to many of these buildings, fixes that would not have been necessary if they were initially designed to fit in and connect well with their cities and neighborhoods.

Distinctive hotel and office lobbies, however, have a long and venerable tradition. But they were once designed to be a sort of welcoming extension of urban life. They didn’t work in opposition to the street, as Portman’s interiors did, but in concert with them. Worst still, Portman’s dramatic lobbies are even more suspect today, due to the high energy loads required to heat and cool these vast interior spaces. Given our very real planetary challenges, they veer on the edge of the environmentally immoral.

But in the 1970s and 80s, the Portman message was clear: we’ve given up on cities; the suburban lifestyle and the enclosed mall were the future; real cities, with their street-level commerce and walkability, were the past. This was the only way to get people downtown again, the experts contended. But Pike Place Market in Seattle, Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, the lively green markets in New York City, were telling a different story.

In the mid-1970s, in contradiction to the prevailing experts, Quincy Market opened in Boston and to the shock of those same experts enormous crowds flocked to it, to walk the cobblestone streets, to shop among the mostly small businesses and individualized pushcarts, to sit at outdoor cafes, and eat, drink, and people watch. What that seminal project initially proved was that cities could revive again if done in genuinely urban ways.

Quincy Market and similar projects all over the country accomplished virtually everything that the Portman projects didn’t. They left room for continued, organic change, for new ideas to grow into maturity, for the eccentricities and individual expression of tenant merchants, for the age-old phenomenon of pushcarts offering a try-out for a new business that might eventually occupy a storefront. It was old-fashioned urbanism, exactly what the Portman advocates were afraid of. But it sparked real urban rebirth in adjacent neighborhoods where new businesses, restaurants and restored historic residential buildings emerged organically in modest steps.

The Quincy Market in Boston, via Wikipedia Commons.

Contrasting Portman to Quincy underscores the anti-urban character of the former. Both were happening at the same time but only one led to real revitalization, in ecological ways in which the whole draws strength from the sum of its interconnected parts. The contrast is revealing: one approach responds to its site and context, the other creates its own; one is intimate and personal, the other is the product of a formula; one reflects a fluctuating degree of localism, the other is stripped of it altogether; one embraces the city, the other fears it. The differing approaches symbolize the two extremes of a period when the rebirth of cities was still not thought possible—at least not by the experts.

Sadly, Quincy Market also turned into a formula that many places tried to replicate, a more urban form, but still a mall, singularly developed, owned and controlled. Everything, in other words, that a real urban neighborhood isn’t. But despite its flaws, Quincy Market sparked a renewed interest in fitting the new comfortably with the old and reinforcing pedestrian life, in small changes making big differences. Portman’s designs could not begin to claim the same benefits. As is often forgotten in determining architectural merit, buildings are not stand-alone sculptures; they profoundly shape the urban landscape around them and can mean the life or death of a downtown…As we’ll see next week, in my piece on Detroit.

Featured image: Hyatt Regency San Francisco, photo by David Weibel. 



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