New Hyatt Is a Study in Design Contrasts

Most everything about the new waterfront Hyatt Hotel in downtown San Diego is big. The $140-million building, which opens Dec. 15, soars to 40 floors--496 feet. It has 875 rooms, a lobby with a vaulted 65-foot ceiling and tall hand-painted wall murals, and a 25,000-square-foot grand ballroom that can seat 2,100 for banquets.

But bigger is not necessarily better. While the building, designed by blue-chip architects Skidmore Owings & Merrill of San Francisco, has a distinguished tapering top and ingeniously solves some difficult design problems, it also has a boxy, six-story parking garage and an ornate 18th-Century interior that would be more at home in a period revival house than a contemporary high-rise hotel.

The Hyatt is developer Doug Manchester’s latest contribution to the downtown skyline. Earlier Manchester landmarks include the twin Marriott Hotel towers next to the Hyatt and the reflective-glass First National Bank building at Columbia and A streets. The Hyatt is a definite step up in sophistication and quality.

Manchester met architects from Skidmore when they designed a waterfront hotel he proposed in San Francisco that was never constructed. But Manchester and Kip Howard, an architect and former president of Manchester’s company, The Manchester Group, were nonetheless impressed with Skidmore. The company was hired in 1988 to design the San Diego Hyatt, with Brian Lee as project designer.

Skidmore, which was founded in Chicago in 1936, has offices in several major United States cities and London and is known for designing classy high-rises. Other West Coast buildings designed by the company include Symphony Towers in downtown San Diego and the Bank of America high-rise in San Francisco.


The new San Diego Hyatt includes a main ballroom/convention hall, a second smaller ballroom/convention hall, several smaller executive meeting rooms, two restaurants, two lounges (including one on the 40th floor), a gym, 10,000 square feet of ground-level retail space, and huge kitchens for restaurants, banquets and room service. According to Douglas J. Forseth, the hotel’s general manager, the Hyatt’s target market is 70% corporate/convention travelers, 30% small-business and tourist travelers.

Two major challenges faced by the architects were how to orient the tower so that all rooms could have bay views without making the building a looming monster on the downtown skyline, and how to give it a distinctive top.

“We did 15 or 20 different schemes,” Lee said. “The flat slab turned sideways not only gives views from the rooms, but presents its narrow side to the city to maintain views. It also has a slender footprint that allows pedestrian access on the ground.”

Actually, the Hyatt is a mixed bag when it comes to treating pedestrians well. The slender footprint leaves room for a broad open plaza west of the building, facing Harbor Drive, landscaped with strong geometric patterns and palm trees.

But to the east of the plaza, the hotel’s 1,200-space parking structure presents a cold wall to Harbor Drive. The front of the garage is covered with monumental horizontal planters, but there is nothing by the sidewalk--shops, art, display windows--to entice pedestrians.

So with the completion of the Hyatt, Harbor Drive’s fate as a wide, predominantly auto-oriented boulevard has been sealed.

Sheathed in cream-colored precast stucco panels, the tower is set back from Harbor Drive, behind the parking structure. The base of the tower is powerful, Skidmore architecture at its best. Four-story, slanting 60-foot buttresses brace the base, like monumental battered walls of ancient Egypt. Tall banks of steel-frame windows are set in orderly patterns between the buttresses.

Above the base, the tower is defined by vertical bands of stucco between pairs of 8-foot square windows, recessed 2 feet to cast deep shadows, in the same way that deep-set windows in San Diego’s older Mediterranean-revival buildings give a feeling of depth and quality.

Both the slanting ground-level buttresses and the building’s unconventional tapering top are the result of the architects’ desire to honestly reveal the building’s structural system.

San Diego buildings that don’t have sufficient internal means of fire escape must have rooftop helicopter pads, which is why several earlier downtown high-rises have flat tops. But with adequate fire stairs and fire-resistant materials, the Hyatt doesn’t need a heli-pad.

“It didn’t have to terminate like a refrigerator top,” Lee said. “A narrow slab like this tower is very strong in one direction from an earthquake and wind point of view, but not from the other.” The buttresses stabilize the building.

“We had a more exuberant scheme that exposed the steel trusses, but Manchester liked the quieter scheme” of covering the trusses with cream-colored panels, Lee said.

The building’s basic layout takes the form of a central square core with wings of hotel rooms projecting to the north and south, with the wings staggered. The north wing projects from the northeast corner of the central square, while the south wing projects from the southwest corner. This staggered arrangement of rooms helps break up the building’s massive size, and adds to its structural stability.

Passing from the outside to the inside is like crossing a bridge between two different worlds.

Shaded by a steel-and-glass awning, the entry leads into a soaring lobby with a floor of limestone and marble and a long, crescent-shaped reception desk of mahogany and maple, contrasting woods that are repeated throughout the interior. The lobby is well-lit, thanks to tall banks of windows on the front.

Skidmore often handles interior design for the high-rises it designs, but Manchester elected to give the Hyatt’s interior-design work to Warren Sheets of Los Angeles, who has done other projects for him.

“The Hyatt was like taking the best of two worlds, the grandfather and the grandson,” Sheets claimed of his 18th-Century interior scheme. “They both have something to offer, and the end result has more dimensions than you can get from a unilateral source.”

San Diego artist Robert Gabriel Chase painted 18 murals of English pastoral scenes for the interior, including the gigantic pair on opposite lobby walls, and these were reproduced as prints in guest rooms. Wall sconces in the lobby look like giant candles, and there are forest green wall panels trimmed in gold.

This incongruous period flavor continues throughout the hotel. Carpeting is in a variety of floral patterns and wallpaper ranges from floral to vertical stripes. Gigantic chandeliers of beaded glass loom in the convention rooms.

Guest rooms have simple, functional steel-frame windows, and best of all they are operable, but light and views in these rooms and even in the elegant 40th-floor lounge are obscured by drapes of chintz and damask fabric.

Atmosphere within the guest-room corridors is disappointing. Natural light from windows at the ends is a plus, but these halls are cramped, plain spaces without much to offer in the way of interesting design or quality detailing.

About the only interior space that works with the architecture is the new ground-floor Sally’s restaurant and bar, due to open in a few weeks, facing the marina behind the building. The restaurant has a bare concrete floor, an industrial-chic open ceiling with exposed gun-metal gray ductwork, and contemporary halogen lights suspended overhead from steel cables.

The clash between architecture and interior design at the new Hyatt is especially apparent when the building is compared with the Hyatt Regency on La Jolla Village Drive in San Diego, designed by renown postmodern architect Michael Graves and opened in 1989. Graves designed both exteriors and interiors, and the building has a consistent palette of forms and materials inside and out.

Regardless of whether you prefer Graves’ postmodernism, with its neoclassical forms and intense colors, or Skidmore’s simple, straightforward approach, the La Jolla Hyatt conveys pleasing harmony and unity of design lacking in its downtown counterpart, where the 18th-Century battles the 20th for attention.