Creating Architecture for the People

John Portman wrote the book on modern architecture, at least one of them. His firm, John Portman & Associates, was founded in 1953 and one of its primary focuses over the past 57 years has been designing and developing hotels.

Portman explained his philosophy of “architecture for people” in his 1976 book “The Architect as Developer.”

The Park Hyatt at Beijing Yintai Centre opened just in time for the 2008 Olympic Games. (Photo by Paul Dingman)

“Architects in the past have tended to concentrate their attention on the building as a static object. I believe dynamics are more important: the dynamics of people, their interaction with spaces and environmental condition. We must learn to understand humanity better so that we can create an environment that is more beneficial to people, more rewarding, more pleasant to experience. We are naturally interested in the latest structural techniques, in innovative building materials, and the technology of our craft; but we need to be more interested in people. Buildings should serve people, not the other way around.”

— John Portman, from “The Architect as Developer”

Portman & Associates founded an office in Shanghai in 1993 and was one of the first foreign architectural and engineering firms to work in China. Two of the firm’s most recent hotel projects are the Hilton San Diego Bayfront and the Park Hyatt at Yintai Centre in Beijing.

Ellis Katz, executive vice president, director of the hospitality studio, says another three are currently under construction in China. Another, the Incheon 151 tower in South Korea, will be the second tallest tower in the world and include a luxury hotel, office, retail, residential and timeshare components. The master planned development will be built in phases for a cost of more than $11 billion.

Katz recently shared his thoughts on his firm’s recent work and what’s ahead in hotel architecture.

What percent of the company’s hotel work is here vs. abroad?
We’ve been fortunate in that we have been quite international in our work for many years now. Given the recently challenging economy in the U.S., a predominant amount of our hotel work is abroad. We’ve been in Asia (China) for a very long time, so a great deal of work comes our way from having such a long track record in the region. In fact, we are celebrating our 30th anniversary in China.

How tough have the past 18-24 months been?
It has been tough. We had a couple of projects in the UAE that completely stopped. In the U.S., financing is just very difficult for developers to attain at this time. We have been fortunate to be international as we have weathered this economic storm better than many firms, with projects in India, China and Korea. This year has already been a better year than last, and we see a rise in enthusiasm toward new projects.

The guest experience at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront is all about the views. This terrace overlooks the pool, the waterfront promenade and the bay.

How has the approach to hotel design changed in recent years?
We have always been designing with the guest experience in mind. That allows our designs to bridge trends and fashion, and thus become much more timeless. The use of technology and sustainability will continue to grow, but it will be not through gadgetry and cool products as much as using these components to enhance and customize the guest experience.

Hotel design reflects the changing demands of the consumer. What do you see coming next?
Design will continue to strive to create that memorable guest experience. I think the lobby as a place for people to observe and be observed will continue to develop. Technology will be used to enhance the hotel public function space by allowing guests to have a more personalized experience. For example iPads and cellular wireless technology will allow guests to customize their experience. If someone decides to go jogging, he can tell the health club when he is going out, then a GPS device could track the guest’s path, so that when he gets back a towel and the guest’s favorite sports drink could be waiting for him, along with a reserved spot for a massage.

Any specific trends you’re seeing or expect to see?
I think there could be many, but here are just a few: 1) Smart cards and guestroom monitoring tied with guest preference information will allow personalization and customization to grow and evolve. 2) More and more tangible concepts related to sustainability will enhance the guest experience. I can see bathroom technology continue to evolve where the need for fresh towels and soap on a daily basis might change. I don’t mean the typical placard asking for guests to re-use their towels, but rather new technologies that may dry you off in a different manner. Kind of like the Dyson Airblade (hand dryer) for the body. 3) Movement away from the use of desks to work on your laptop to more leisurely methods to connect and work from your laptop. People will be able to more comfortably use chairs, or a sofa or their bed to get caught up on work. Thus, just as the flat screen television opened up the guest room, soon the guest desk may become a dinosaur.

Have things changed as a result of the global recession?
I don’t see any specific lasting impact. Right now, developers are becoming much more careful in terms of spending. The good news is that now is a great time to buy out a job. Construction costs have dropped from 25 to 30 percent.

Explain the idea of “architecture for people” and is it still applicable today?
Our firm’s culture is formed around “architecture for people,” a concept that is absolutely relevant today. Architecture is all about creating places for people. Enhancing the experience a guest has, from the point of arrival to the point where they get to their guestroom, should always be the goal of the designer. t is that emotional response a guest experiences that makes the stay memorable and will ultimately make that hotel a favorite for guests.

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