The Atrium Effect


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By Charles Rice

This article is excerpted from Charles Rice’s newly-published book Interior Urbanism: Architecture, John Portman and Downtown America (Bloomsbury). The book uses Portman’s architecture, and in particular its famous ‘atrium effect’, as a lens through which to reconsider key issues of the 1960s and 70s: the expansion of a commercial imperative in architecture and urban development; growing social and economic instability in cities; and debates about the form and role of public space.

John Portman and Associates, Peachtree Center, Atlanta, 1961-present. Interior view of pedestrian skybridge. Photograph by Charles Rice, 2009.

Just to the north of Atlanta’s historic downtown is Peachtree Center, a mixed-use complex of connecting tubes and spectacular spatial set pieces stretching over 17 city blocks.1It creates another urban order within the existing city, its above-grade pedestrian skywalks literally stitching the buildings together, and with them the very idea of Atlanta’s center. It began in 1961 with Portman’s development of the Atlanta Merchandise Mart, and 1967 saw the completion of the building for which he is best known: the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, its 22-story void reinventing the atrium hotel as a globally proliferating genre.2Portman developed two further atrium hotels, office buildings and parking, as well as commercial, entertainment and leisure space, forming what he called a ‘coordinate unit’, a linking of complementary functions within a walkable distance of about seven to eight minutes.3The Hyatt Regency is at the core of the success and sustained growth of Peachtree Center, which has acted as a laboratory for Portman’s practice of architecture and development.

A Sunday supplement in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution newspaper devoted to the newly-opened hotel, originally known as the Regency Hyatt House, documented its impact on the local imagination. On the front page, Portman was effusive about the hotel and its significance, commenting that:

The Regency is a complete reversal of the typical hotel. Up to now the downtown hotel has been typified by the meagerness of space – offering a small, low-ceilinged lobby, enclosed small elevators, narrow room corridors and a small room with one outside window. The Regency on the other hand represents a total explosion of space. On entering the Regency you emerge in perhaps the only space of its type built since the Renaissance, 500 years ago. This is the largest hotel lobby in history. Glass elevators allow you to enjoy the view all the way up. A corridor with one side open to the vast space leads you to your room where you find a complete glass wall looking out to the private balcony. The entire concept is built around space in an elaborate manner.4

A spot just inside the entranceway was nicknamed ‘profanity corner’ due to people’s reaction on stepping through to the atrium from a low-ceilinged, tunnel-like entrance way and gazing upward in astonishment; in a hotel of 800 rooms, 14,000 visitors were reported to have entered the atrium on one of its first weekends in operation.5A new hotel on this scale hadn’t been built in Atlanta since 1924,6and the supplement lavished attention on the hotel’s luxurious features, its variety of eating and drinking places, including the revolving Polaris Lounge perched, spaceship-like, above the roof, as well as its advances in hotel management. To avoid queues at the check-in desk, hostesses would greet guests on arrival ‘with envelopes containing keys to their room and all the data they will need for their stay.’7The supplement also pointed to the infrastructure needed to sustain the human, plant and bird life in the atrium environment. It reported that there were ‘macaws, two types of parrots, and cock-of-the-rock birds’ in a ‘three-story aviary’.8A natural-gas-powered air-conditioning system circulated three million cubic feet of air through the atrium, and a full-time gardener was employed to tend to the exotic plants filling the atrium9and cascading from the internal balconies.

Edwards and Portman, Hyatt Regency, Atlanta, 1967. Reflected view of façade. Photograph by Charles Rice, 2009.
Edwards and Portman, Hyatt Regency, Atlanta, 1967. Interior view. Photograph by Charles Rice, 2009.

Progressive Architecture praised the audacity of the atrium, and the kinetic appeal of the novel gondola elevators that rose its full height. The review recognized the step taken in design terms beyond the ‘safe, monumental commercial architecture’ that marked the Merchandise Mart, and noted that this audacity was clearly evident in Portman’s proposal for Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, which had just been publicized, anchored by another Hyatt atrium hotel.10

In Architectural Design, Peter Cook described Peachtree Center as a ‘Rockefeller-type complex’ – at the time Portman was in partnership with David Rockefeller in developing Embarcadero Center11 – and singled out the Hyatt’s elevators for particular praise, suggesting that ‘little more could be wrung out of the business of raising one up a building, which is a clue to its success.’ Though he did worry about the excessiveness of some of the spatial moves, in also citing Embarcadero Center, he remarked that ‘developers are rarely as imaginative as John C. Portman, and by wishing that he had more taste (our taste), or more discrimination (and to reject, maybe, the whole directness of the invention), we are throwing away his value to us.’12

Questions around the value of architecture, and the ability of architects to address the problems of the contemporary city, were very much on the agenda at this time. A 1971 feature in Fortune entitled ‘Architects Want a Voice in Redesigning America’ began with an immersive description of the Hyatt atrium, a ‘triumph of artistic showmanship, which has propelled U.S. hotelmen into a flurry of imitation.’13The article linked this showmanship to Portman’s role as the hotel’s developer, arguing that architectural quality (or audacity) is deliverable through good business sense. Along with Portman, the Fortune feature discussed other key players who were changing the game in terms of architecture’s relation to large-scale urban development: the publicly-floated Houston firm of Caudill Rowlett Scott;14Archibald Rogers, architect of much of Baltimore’s Charles Center, which resembles both Peachtree Center and Embarcadero Center in terms of urban strategy;15Robert Hastings, the reforming president of the American Institute of Architects; Los Angeles-based architect Charles Luckman, who had designed an early example of a mixed-use development, Prudential Center in Boston, and who merged his architecture firm with a conglomerate wanting to enter the development business;16and Texan real-estate developer Trammell Crow, Portman’s development partner from the 1960s to the mid-1970s. Each individual or team was cast as a harbinger of new ways of structuring practice and practicing architecture.17

John Portman and Associates, Peachtree Center, Atlanta, 1961-present. Pedestrian skybridge connecting Merchandise Mart to adjacent office building. Photograph by Charles Rice, 2009.

Despite singling out these ‘pioneers’, the article as a whole painted an alarming picture of architectural irrelevancy in the face of contradictory forces, including idealism about what constitutes significant architecture, undue constraint from clients and developers, the effects of uncoordinated urban planning, and spiralling construction costs: ‘the gap between architecture’s potential and its performance has created a profound crisis within the profession.’18

In Fortune’s terms, Portman’s work could be seen to close that gap, but it is not so straightforward to accept the elision of spatial exuberance and good business sense until one understands the organizational structure which in this period underpinned Portman’s projects in their architectural and business development. To address the reality of the atrium is not to address exuberance as architectural whim; it is, rather, to address a circumstance where architectural design related directly to its structuring as a business proposition. Of course, architecture has always been an investment or business proposition in one way or another. Yet Portman’s conjoining of architecture and development aligned business processes and architectural design at every step. It moved well beyond a fee-for-service model of architectural practice, and well beyond the idea of running a practice as a profitable business. This alignment brought the geometry of architectural organization into the metrics of property development. Not simply reducible to ‘artistic showmanship’, here the atrium emerged at the core of a strategy for urban transformation.

Charles Rice is Professor of Architecture at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. He is author of The Emergence of the Interior: Architecture, Modernity, Domesticity (Routledge, 2007) and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Architecture (Routledge/RIBA).


1. Kelly Morris and Rachel Bohan (eds), John Portman: Art and Architecture (Atlanta: High Museum of Art and University of Georgia Press, 2009), p. 26. For the phasing of the different components of the center over time, see Emily Abruzzo (ed), Workbook. Official Catalog for Workshopping: An American Model of Architectural Practice. The U.S. Pavilion for La Biennale di Venezia, Biennale Architettura 2010 (Atlanta and New York: High Museum of Art and 306090, 2010), pp. 90-93.
2. I am describing this as a reinvention because examples of hotels with large internal atriums exist from the nineteenth century, e.g. the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver (1892) and the Great Central Hotel (now the Landmark Hotel) in London (1898); however, what Portman set in place with the Hyatt Regency Atlanta was a spatial development that related to a historically new set of urban conditions.
3. John Portman and Jonathan Barnett, The Architect as Developer (New York: McGraw Hill, 1976), p. 130. While the last major building, the commercial tower at One Peachtree Center, was completed in 1992, Peachtree Center’s development has been ongoing, the latest extension of the mart complex, now known as Americas Mart, completed in 2009.
4. Atlanta Journal and Constitution, June 25, 1967, p. 1-R. See also Portman’s description in Portman and Barnett, The Architect as Developer, p. 28.
5. Diane Thomas, ‘Walk into the lobby, look up … bet you’ll say something’, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, June 25, 1967, p. 2-R.
6. Harold H. Martin, Atlanta and Environs: A Chronicle of its People and Events. Years of Change and Challenge, 1940-1976, vol. III, (Atlanta: Atlanta Historical Society and University of Georgia Press, 1987), p. 393.
7. Atlanta Journal and Constitution, June 25, 1967, p. 16-R. Many of these details and observations are included in ‘Building with Air’, Time, June 2, 1967, p. 54. Due to the hotel’s sale to the Hyatt corporation just prior to completion, the interior design of the hotel was carried out by Boston-based designer Roland Jutras.
8. ‘Building with Air’, p. 54.
9. Atlanta Journal and Constitution, June 25, 1967, pp. 6-R, 12-R, 14-R. For a further discussion of the air-conditioning system, see Engineering News Record, July 29, 1965, pp. 26-27. For a study of conditioned atrium environments in New York in this period, see David Gissen, Manhattan Atmospheres: Architecture, the Interior Environment, and Urban Crisis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
10. ‘The Rise of Atlanta’, Progressive Architecture 48, 7 (1967), pp. 160-162.
11. David Rockefeller himself likened Embarcadero Center to his father’s development of Rockefeller Center in New York. See David Rockefeller, Memoirs (New York: Random House, 2002), p. 491. The San Francisco development was initially known as ‘Rockefeller Center West’, the title of a business item in Time, February 24, 1967, p. 57.
12. Peter Cook, ‘The Hotel is Really a Small City’, Architectural Design 38, 1 (1968), pp. 90-91. See also Bodil W. Neilsen, ‘Back to Babylon’, Interiors 126, 12 (1967), pp. 68-77.
13. Gurney Breckenfeld, ‘The Architects Want a Voice in Redesigning America’, Fortune 84, 5 (1971), p. 144.
14. On Caudill Rowlett Scott, see Avigail Sachs, ‘Marketing Through Research: William Caudill and Caudill, Rowlett Scott (CRS)’, The Journal of Architecture 13, 6 (2008), pp. 737-752; Paolo Tombesi, ‘Capital Gains and Architectural Losses: The Transformative Journey of Caudill Rowlett Scott (1948-1994)’, The Journal of Architecture 11, 2 (2006), pp. 145-168.
15. Charles Center’, Architectural Forum 130, 4 (1969), pp. 48-57.
16. On Luckman, see Elihu Rubin, Insuring the City: The Prudential Center and the Postwar Urban Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 172-182. Rubin notes that the merger of Luckman’s office with the Ogden Corporation was short-lived, Luckman buying back his architectural firm after five years (p. 238, n. 39)
17. The Fortune feature also noted that involvement in grassroots activity, advocacy planning and political engagement represented moves to make the profession more relevant in tackling the major urban problems of the period. See the account of the rise of urban entrepreneurialism in David Harvey, ‘From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism’, Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography 71, 1 (1989), pp. 3-17. More broadly Jason Hackworth sees these conditions as the context for the rise of what he calls the neoliberal city. See Jason Hackworth, The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology and Development in American Urbanism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007). It is worth noting that Peachtree Center did not benefit directly from urban renewal funding or related development mechanisms, as did Embarcadero Center.
18. Breckenfeld, ‘The Architects Want a Voice’, p. 146.