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“a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city”*…

John Portman’s Atlanta Hyatt Regency, which opened in 1967, kicked off a major atrium-hotel-building craze

If you’re craning your neck as severely when you step inside a building as you did outside it, you might be in an atrium hotel, an intensely American structure for sleep, conferences, cocktails, and much more. These are facilities built around a massive central chamber stretching a dozen or several dozen stories into the sky; at the lobby level, you’ll find bars, restaurants, gardens, live birds, and maybe even a boat or two.

We don’t build them much anymore, but Americans invented, perfected and exported this unique building style to the world (where it continues to prosper). Birthed in brash excess, atrium hotels were first seen as too gaudy by the modernist architectural establishment and as too profligate by penny-pinching chain hoteliers. To varying observers, they suggest everything from Disney to dystopia. But in their heyday, these buildings promised — and delivered — a spectacle like no other.

Real estate developer Trammell Crow, the man with the most Dallas-sounding name you’ve ever heard, provided early inspiration for the form with his Dallas Trade Mart atrium, built in 1958. But it was Atlanta architect-developer John Portman, his occasional partner, who adapted and built the form into a colossus. Portman’s Hyatt Recency Atlanta opened in 1967, and was an immediate sensation. Atriums became a signature of the Hyatt Regency brand, and Portman went on to work for a variety of other chains, including Marriott and Westin. Atriums later became a standard feature of most Embassy Suites…

The benefit wasn’t just grand views from the lobby, but from every floor; each hallway was suddenly a balcony. Inside that central volume of space, hotels stuffed a range of embellishments. “One would move through a set of functions and experiences as one might a city: from home, to garden, to urban plaza, cafe, and bar,” wrote University of Technology, Sydney architectural historian Charles Rice in his book Interior Urbanism: Architecture, John Portman, and Downtown America.

The trouble was, some critics saw, that these atrium hotels tended to be creating, as Rice’s title indicates, a new urbanism that was purely inside. Amenities that once faced streets were pulled indoors and replaced with blank walls and hard-to-find entrances. That formula — so irresistible during an era of urban crisis and decay in the 1970s and ’80s — lost some appeal when cities staged a comeback and the streets again beckoned with their own attractions…

Portman’s first atrium wasn’t in a hotel at all, but in the now-demolished Antoine Graves public housing tower in Atlanta, built in 1965. The idea was simple, says Mickey Steinberg, a structural engineer on many of Portman’s early projects. The architect was just trying to provide some sociable space and ventilation to tenants. (The building was not air conditioned.) “If I had a hole down the center of the building,” Steinberg recalls Portman saying, “people could come out and talk to each other and I might be able to get some air through the building.” 

That notion recurred to Portman two years later for the Hyatt Regency. “It wasn’t any grand philosophy about a style of architecture,” Steinberg says. “He was designing for people to want to be there.”

He was also designing for people who might not have wanted to be in Atlanta, whose central business district was in decline. Steinberg recalled Portman’s intention: “I’m going to create a space for them to want to be in, because downtown Atlanta doesn’t have it anymore.”

The Portman-style skyscraper atrium revived a 19th century tradition: the grand hotel lobby, with its adjoining restaurants, ballrooms and other such attractions. In the motel age, these spaces had often been pared back to a mere desk for paperwork. (You’d even usually go elsewhere for that one ineradicable amenity of the ice machine.) Portman bet that guests would embrace spectacle and activity again…

The atrium concept didn’t initially enthrall the moneymen… Bill Marriott had one look and he said, ‘Don’t bother with it. Motels are the thing.’” Conrad Hilton famously called it a “concrete monster.” A then-unknown savior turned up in the form of Don Pritzker, whose nascent Hyatt chain then had only three locations. 

That bet paid off once the Hyatt Regency Atlanta opened: Visits to the hotel in the first four months of operation exceeded their expectation of the first five years. Guests lined up just to go up and down in the glass elevators. And Hyatt ran with the formula, building additional atrium-equipped Regency locations into the 1970s and ’80s…

A consideration of a uniquely-American style and of the social, cultural, and economic forces that birthed it: “Into the Heart of the Atrium Hotel.”

* Frederic Jameson, describing Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, Postmodernism

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As we blow bubbles, we might recall that it was on this date in 1928 that former concert violinist and proprietor of the One-In-Hand Tie Company of Clinton, Iowa, Joseph W. Less, introduced the modern clip-on tie.

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