Photoessay: Portman

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As you can probably imagine, I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels in my time – some memorable, some less so. Some newer, some older. But one of the most architecturally interesting has to be John Portman’s Hyatt Regency in San Francisco. I’m sure there’s a proper classification/ term/ era for it, but it felt nothing so much like a representation of the neofuturisitc optimism of the late 70s or early 80s; from the inverse pyramid to the ‘turbolifts’, funky lighting and exposed buttresses, almost like stepping into a Star Trek set. You almost expect to hear a klaxon and see the whole thing flash red at times. It also retains some sizing traits I associate with mid-century architecture – long, narrow-ish corridors, largely unadorned surfaces, none of the grandiose scale and ornateness of the earlier part of the century, and none of the bare expansiveness of space of the 2000s. Whilst the rooms have undoubtedly been redecorated countless times, they still manage to retain a sort of southwestern charm. At the right times of day the skylights project interesting shadows, too – more so thanks to the hardness of light and relative lack of clouds in this part of the world. MT

This series was shot with a Nikon Z7, 24-70 Z and my custom JPEG picture controls.

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Prints from this series are available on request here


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved


  1. Reminds me of the Singapore Pan Pacific.

    Great photos!

    • Now I know why. John Portman designed that too!

      I stayed there nearly 30 years ago, and I still remember it well. A real standout design. Makes you feel alive, yet alienated. Very unusual.

      Interesting. Thank you!

      • I was about to say – I think they shared a creator. The ‘alive but alienated’ feeling is probably the contrast between lightness and openness of the space and the strangeness of the forms…

        • “probably the contrast between lightness and openness of the space and the strangeness of the forms…”

          I agree, but I’d add the height.

          At least at the PanPac. There were skywalks across the atrium that felt dizzying. That, within the strong forms, was intoxifying. I had to stay there for about 10 days on business, but couldn’t help but cross the skywalks often, even though I didn’t need to. Felt like the future. Not one I really liked, but one that was certainly interesting.

          I hate heights, but am drawn to the heightened (no pun) emotion they provide.

          Much like Ronda in Spain. One of my favourite places. Scared and levelled-up sense of being.

  2. Tom Brand says:

    I’m an architect and stayed at this hotel in late January and early February while in town on business. John Portman designed a number of Hyatt Hotels with large atriums with natural light being provided by skylights located above the atriums.

    This hotel was the hotel Mel Brooks filmed a portion of his first movie “High Anxiety” in and based on what was shown in this movie, the interior has been remodeled, likely more than once, but the starship themed elevators have remained.

    Great photos as always!

  3. Casey Bryant says:

    What a phenomenal set. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Have you been to the Grand Hyatt Shanghai (Jin Mao tower)? It is late 90s, I believe, but obvious an evolution of this style. You might find it interesting if you havent been there!

  5. Steve Gombosi says:

    This style was almost a signature of Hyatt in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The Hyatts in Dearborn, MI and Kansas City were very similar in design. Right down to the elevators. The Dearborn Hyatt was sold to another chain (Stash Hotels) and they sealed up the open atrium. The interior is completely different now.

    You really have a very distinctive personal style. I’d recognize these images as yours immediately. As Bill said, lines, angles, and shadows are all things you excel at.

    • Thanks! Didn’t realize the Hyatts were this similar…but now you mention it, the one in Shinjuku, Tokyo, also has this diagonal thing going on with the big open lobby…

  6. Lothar Adler says:

    Perfect pictures of a place in which a human being, a human soul shouldn’t live in, because it’s so unorganic, so cold, so rigid in it’s appearance, so far from nature that this whole thing is frightening. We humans are part of nature and not of rectangles and straight lines. Such a place can’t be healthy to live in, mentally. If one is forced to stay there overnight, ok, but …

    • Steve Gombosi says:

      The almost identical Hyatt in Dearborn used to have a piano bar in the lobby that was active until 2-3 AM. The design of the hotel was perfect for reflecting that sound (as well as even the quietest conversation in the lobby) through the entire structure, making it almost impossible to sleep. I suspect this hotel isn’t much different.

    • The hotel was pretty nice, but I don’t think I’d want to live there long term. They’re office buildings anyway (and I suppose that’s not really healthy either). But what about bauhaus…? That’s almost as bad as the brutalism we have here…

      • “The Bauhaus is not what it seems” it went through quite a few phases under different heads of school. Surprisingly hard to find something on the internet though. This piece mentions some of it.

        Bauhaus was at times very much into rather expressionist, nature loving and folk art inspired stuff.

        The future had it’s peak in the 50’s. Much of what we associate with the future is still based on the visuals from that time. The hotel above is a mix of 50’s futurism, 70’s mall design and concrete brutalism. A forerunner to the generic ‘modern’ that covers the globe.

  7. Perfectly composed pictures!

  8. love all the photos, except now I gotta go check this place out.

  9. Bill Walter says:

    Three of the things you excel at are lines, angles & shadows, and they’re all exhibited right here. Very stimulating and really well done!

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