His work and influence is not as relevant in today’s hotel industry, but during his career that spanned more than 60 years, John Portman showed architects and hoteliers that new approaches to design could be artistically and economically successful.
At one time John Portman was the most influential man in the hotel industry. That time has long passed, but his legacy as a design pioneer needs to be celebrated and never forgotten.
Portman, who died 29 December at age 93, broke the hotel design mold in the 1970s and ‘80s with a new style of urban convention hotels noted for their soaring atriums, glass elevators and massive amounts of public space. And by incorporating his designs at many of its properties, Hyatt Hotels Corporation emerged during the 1970s as the premier operator of meeting hotels.
Starting in 1967 with the opening of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Portman designed a string of similar hotels in major cities in the U.S. and eventually around the world. Several of them became economic, cultural and architectural touchstones that helped spark urban renaissance in a number of cities. Examples include the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero in San Francisco, the Westin Renaissance (now a Marriott Hotel) in Detroit and perhaps his most important project, New York’s Marriott Marquis, which was a major catalyst in the revitalization and gentrification of Manhattan’s Times Square neighborhood.
His projects most often were integral pieces of larger multiuse urban redevelopment projects that include offices, retail space, sometimes residential and, of course, the centerpiece hotels. And, unlike most architects at the time, Portman was also the developer of many of his projects.
But Portman had his detractors. Architecture critics bemoaned the concrete brutalism of both the exteriors and interiors of Portman-designed hotels. Social activists, notably in Detroit, complained that his projects were uninviting to their inner-city communities. And as more of his work proliferated, many found his designs repetitive and not changing with the times.
His designs received further scrutiny when in 1981 two aerial walkways collapsed above the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Kansas City, killing 114 people and injuring more than 200. A subsequent investigation of the tragedy found flaws in the design of the property, but blame was attributed to engineering and construction firms that worked on the project and not Portman.
The unique look of Portman-designed hotels makes them favored locations for moviemakers. His Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles is perhaps the hotel most often seen on film, including in scenes from “In the Line of Fire,” “True Lies,” “Heat,” “This is Spinal Tap” and others.
Portman’s lasting legacy will be his success in creating economically successful, large downtown convention hotels that can be catalysts for urban redevelopment. His influence is obvious in the renaissance of a number of city centers, including Los Angeles, Atlanta, Detroit, Manhattan, Houston and others. Other architects of his era used Portman designs as inspiration for their projects.
And while Portman will be forever known as the premier hotel architect, his influence is hardly seen in the design of recent hotels. Gaylord Hotels might be the spiritual heir to the Portman design legacy but in a vastly different way. Whereas Portman hotel designs favor height and solid structures, Gaylord properties, while large, are more intimate with multiple spaces punctuated by lots of greenery, water features and walkways. But it’s not a stretch to say the Gaylord Opryland (the chain’s first property) never could have been built without the previous success of Portman.
The hotel industry might never again see a hotel designed in the Portman atrium style and there might never again be a designer who’s had such a profound effect on the hotel industry. And while his influence has long passed, it behooves hotel owners, architects, designers and operators to study, understand and incorporate the mix of factors that made John Portman and his hotels the massive success they were.
Ed Watkins, former editor-at-large for HNN, is a freelance writer with 40 years’ experience covering the business of the hotel industry.
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