I Left My Heart at the Hyatt Regency

Our columnist went to San Francisco, rode a glass elevator, and experienced a design epiphany.

What I remember is this: in the summer of 1976, perhaps as an attempt to escape the bicentennial celebration, some friends and I drove to San Francisco for an adventure. Aimless, disheveled, and broke, we meandered from Fisherman’s Wharf up the Embarcadero and drifted into the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, completed some three years earlier. I was amazed by what I saw: the 17-story atrium angled in such a way that it appeared to defy gravity, the capsule-shaped glass elevators zipping up and down an off-center core, and the zero-edge fountain—water as smooth as glass—surrounding a giant sculpture that looked like the Woolmark label.

At that point I had no language to describe the experience. I didn’t associate this place with the important Modernist buildings with which I was most familiar: the Guggenheim and Whitney museums. And I certainly didn’t make a connection between the concrete structure of this spectacular building and the prosaic poured-concrete campus of the college that I attended. All of my available metaphors—at age 18—were either drug-related or M. C. Escher-dependent. But in retrospect I think of this moment as my first conscious embrace of Modern architecture.

I tried hard to convince my friends that we could chip in and buy one elegant, long-strawed pi–a colada, believing that sharing a drink would allow us to temporarily own a little piece of this marvelous place. My friends didn’t go for it. I had no clue that the Hyatt was an example of a new typology—the atrium hotel—and that the original contemporary model, the 1967 Hyatt Regency Atlanta, was also designed and developed by an ambitious architect named John Portman. A decade or so later, after I immersed myself in the culture of architecture and design, I learned that I wasn’t supposed to like these hotels. Because they focused most of their energy inward, ignoring the street in favor of the interior plaza, they represented bad architecture and bad urbanism.

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My own adult opinion of Portman’s work was strongly influenced by his Marriott Marquis at Times Square, completed in 1985. While the architect regarded his hotel as the beginning of the revival of Times Square, I saw its massive blank concrete walls—a reproach to the jingle-jangle aesthetic of the neighborhood—as more of a death knell. In a 1988 talk between Portman and Paul Goldberger (then the New York Times architecture critic) at the 92nd Street Y, Goldberger asked the architect about the lack of connection between the Marriott Marquis and everything that surrounds it. “Paul, there was nothing there to relate to. What am I going to relate to, Howard Johnson’s across the street? …In Times Square there was no texture….What I did was to recognize that the character of Times Square certainly was surface. So, without taking the surface away, I added substance.”

Over the years my trips to San Francisco have been marked by moments nearly as revelatory as that first glimpse of the Hyatt—tantalizing peeks at buildings and phenomena that for a minute or two represented the future. In the mid-1990s I would drop into the Bay Area on the trail of the technological revolution and regard the small Web-design shops and big developments like the Metreon, the retail and multimedia complex near the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, as harbingers of things to come. In the late 1990s I visited the headquarters of Palm and Silicon Graphics, and thought tech-industry tics such as the use of whiteboards as tabletops in the employee coffee bar were evidence of a new age of enlightenment.

By 1999, when I actually moved to San Francisco, it was surely the city of the future. The old streetscape—full of Victorians painted cheerful colors—hadn’t gone away, but it was glazed over by symbols of a new era. A lot of it, of course, was surface. You couldn’t buy billboard space in town to advertise an ordinary product because every single sign was plastered with the logo of some go-go dot-com. Even the risers on the staircases in the BART stations had been pressed into service, announcing the existence of unimagined new technologies. Daily life was for a moment as dazzling as my first glimpse of the Hyatt atrium.

I left San Francisco in late 2002 and have been back only twice since. On my most recent visit I did see evidence of forward momentum. The wonderfully civilized BART connection between the airport and downtown has opened. George Lucas set up his corporate campus in the Presidio. Herzog & de Meuron’s new de Young museum was nearing completion in Golden Gate Park, and the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street had been converted into a magnificent foodie temple. Change had occurred. But walking around town, I was struck by how much it looked as if the future had been leached out of San Francisco. The streets had a dull, forgotten look. The optimistic electronic utopia of the 1990s had been erased more by September 11 and its aftermath than by the crash of the NASDAQ. The future—a cold, hard-edged Hobbesian one—had picked up stakes and moved to another location.

Very early on a Saturday morning, I walked to the farmers’ market outside of the Ferry Building and bought a coffee from Peet’s. Then I strolled across the Embarcadero, a wide street that separates the waterfront from the city center. I saw the Hyatt sitting there and observed that its distinctive angular exterior compares favorably to its bland Market Street neighbors. Suddenly Portman didn’t seem like such a bad urbanist. I decided to go inside. Surely I’d walked through the lobby a couple of times since I was 18. I’d taken the elevator up to the revolving cocktail bar once or twice. But during my tenure in the city, I mostly thought of the Hyatt as a good place to find a taxi.

I sat down in the lobby and looked up, amazed to discover that I was still impressed. Sitting there I was able to put aside the baggage of the intervening years—especially the Marriott Marquis but also brief unpleasant encounters with Portman’s Westin Bonaventure, in Los Angeles. And as I gazed at the narrow skylight that runs along the top of the atrium, it occurred to me that this lobby is the one bit of San Francisco that still feels unequivocal in its enthusiasm for the future—even if that future has come and gone. The audacity and dynamism of the architecture is still powerful, even if the philosophy that created it—the belief in perfectible, controlled urban space at epic scale—has only recently come back into favor after a long period of disgrace.

Some of what I like about this atrium hotel is that the shape is so boldly asymmetrical. Its form is so complex that it still makes me think of Escher. Portman has written that the Hyatt’s dramatically angled shape was necessary to lure hotel guests to what was then a remote part of downtown. But that one crazily raked interior wall also exists, I imagine, because the architect needed to configure the structure so that the maximum number of rooms had water views. And the building’s surprising brutalism must have more to do with local seismic codes than aesthetics. Even the height of the podium on which the hotel sits must have been calibrated to compensate for the elevated freeway that used to run along the Embarcadero. All those factors conspired to distinguish this atrium from all the bland atria that followed, by Portman and his imitators. What I see when I sit in the Hyatt lobby as an adult, with all my architectural references neatly lined up, is a stepping stone from Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry. I’m not sure that Portman understood San Francisco’s waterfront any better than he understood New York’s Times Square, but I believe that San Francisco’s peculiarities helped shape a great space whether Portman wanted them to or not.

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