Last weekend, I had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco for the first time. As I typically do before a trip, I researched the architecture of the city, plotted some points on Google maps, and sketched out a quick itinerary. San Francisco had a number of stunning buildings – perhaps second only to NYC in the US in terms of modern and contemporary architecture – and I had mapped out the de Young Museum (Herzog & de Meuron), St Mary’s Cathedral (Nervi), the SF Federal Building (Morphosis), a small gallery by Frank Lloyd Wright, and a half-dozen parks and interesting bits of urbanism like Chinatown, but I had somehow missed this: the Hyatt Embarcadero, by John Portman Associates, 1973.





Luckily, a few days before the trip, I was thumbing through my copy of CLOG: BIG, in which Karrie Jacobs positions Bjarke Ingels as inheritor of Portman’s design sensibilities. A number of BIG projects feature the same type of stepped-back balconies evident here, and the tortured formal massing of the Hyatt Embarcadero could be seen as a precedent for Ingels’ diagrammatic approach (and of course Ingels’ client-pleasing attitude seems well-aligned with Portman’s architect-as-developer business model) but to my knowledge, no BIG project yet features the type of stunning public space that has made Portman famous in certain architectural circles.


Portman, perhaps more than any other architect, was able to marry the social desires of Brutalism with the commercial demands of America’s (and later, China’s) hyper-capitalist economy. While in early Brutalist projects, separated pedestrian and auto circulation was intended to free the public life of the city from the congested roads, in Portman’s work grade separation serves mainly to allow for convenient hotel drop-offs, or, as in the Bonaventure, multiple layers of retail frontage and a strategy to negotiate a (surisingly) sloped site. At the Hyatt Embarcadero, the thickening of the ground plane allows for several layers of conference and even space below an elevated pedestrian circulation network that extends several blocks into the city from the waterfront, and situates the first levels of hotel suites above the adjacent elevated highway (since demolished) to allow for bay views.

With the plinth thus elevated, and the two bars of hotel suites turned to face the water and the city (aligning with Market Street, a major thouroughfare), the lobby space that remains is a spectacular atrium.



While Portman’s typical atrium hotel towers feature relatively narrow atrium spaces that maintain, roughly, their square dimensions up through their full height, here, the triangular tapering atrium does some interesting things. One one side, the level lines of the banded interior facade underscore the potential of human drama, as we voyeurs imagine a door-slamming farce playing out on the screen. Across the way, the levels step back a seemingly unsafe distance on each subsequent level, like an inverted Tower of Babel – or Hanging Garden of Babylon, an effect amplified by the (seasonal?) presence of foliage or other decorations. Here, the effect is somewhat different: from the opposite side of the atrium, the whole thing feels precarious – with no apparent structure it looks ready to topple over, from the stepped side, a guest can step out their doorway and peer directly down to the atrium floor, high above the commons (and commoners) in a seeming position of power. At upper levels of the atrium, the sense of enclosure and privacy becomes palpable, while at lower levels, the open-air corridors feel more akin to the public space of the lobby. It would be interesting to see if these relationships map to the room rates of the hotel.

At any rate – well worth a stop if you visit San Francisco, another excellent piece of architecture from an under-appreciated master.

(Also maybe of note: I didn’t really plan on writing about this, but I had some photos already transferred to my iPad and thought i’d give the WordPress app a test. A little clunky, but it seems to do the job.)


  • Good read (and great shots) – but I do get a little stuck at “marry[ing] the social desires of Brutalism with the commercial demands of the […] hyper-capitalist economy.” To some extent that seems like a contradiction in terms, but anyway it also seems a little different than what you’re arguing here – isn’t it more like he takes the formal language of Brutalism and punts the attached social project, using the same devices to these now more theatrical ends which dovetail with the requirements of late capitalism? (And doing so quite spectacularly?) Not to just rehearse Fredric Jameson’s take on the Bonaventure – just seems like that’s where this argument is going.

Leave a Reply