The wrong kind of time capsule: Notes on an afternoon inside John Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel
As a tribute to John Portman, the architect and developer who died Dec. 29 at age 93, I decided to spend a few hours on New Year’s Day afternoon inside the famously labyrinthine and cinematic interior spaces of his Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The hotel, which opened in 1976 at the corner of 5th and Figueroa streets, has a peculiar relationship to L.A.: While its mirrored-glass, cylindrical exterior can easily be spotted from the 110 Freeway, and though it has appeared in a string of Hollywood blockbusters and features prominently in “Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” a 1991 book by political philosopher Fredric Jameson, there is also something elusive about it.
Even now, the only people I know who go there are architectural tourists. And they tend to leave disappointed, because the hotel is less the Super-Late Modern time capsule they expect than an oversized and poorly laid out 1970s hotel that has been serially — though haphazardly and unsuccessfully — updated over the years. As any nostalgist knows, the most depressing kind of architectural space is that one that is slightly and tentatively rather than resoundingly out of date. An architectural sensibility 30 or 40 years old is often intriguingly weird; one 10 or 15 years old is usually just cringe-worthy.
As I’m driving toward the hotel, I spot Andrew Kovacs, an architect and member of the UCLA architecture faculty, on the sidewalk. I pull over and call out to him, assuming that he’s been on a pilgrimage similar to mine and has just left the Bonaventure. But no: He’s walking back to his downtown apartment. Still, as his Instagram and Tumblr feeds prove — he calls them both Archive of Affinities — there are few more enthusiastic champions of 1970s American architecture like the Bonaventure than Kovacs. I take seeing him as a good omen.
I park in the garage across Flower Street from the hotel, leaving my car as close as possible to one of the pedestrian sky bridges that connect the Bonaventure to the rest of Bunker Hill. This is in my view the one and only way to approach Portman’s building: first by private car and then by elevated walkway, keeping contact with the urban realm to an absolute minimum, in the spirit of the hotel’s posture toward downtown Los Angeles.
Cup of coffee in hand, I find a seat in the lobby, next to one of Portman’s signature gurgling fountains. There is something of the casino layout in the Bonaventure’s largely windowless design. Looking up, I can see the hotel’s elevators, another of the architect’s trademark touches, gliding up and down inside cylinders of smoky gray glass. To my right, across the fountain, is the lobby bar, another cylinder. (The interior is a riot of circles and ovals.)
But looking down, I notice that the carpet at my feet features the blue and brown color palette that was fashionable maybe eight or ten years ago. And then realize my chair is a handsome cherry wood. Exactly what I was dreading: the wrong kind of out of date.
Some of the other lobby spaces have been decorated to mark the Rose Bowl matchup between Georgia and Oklahoma, playing out on every television in sight. Directly in front of me, bobbing against the exposed concrete of the hotel’s columns, is a bouquet of helium balloons in the shape of footballs with the Georgia logo on them. A girl of about 3, wearing an Oklahoma shirt, walks over and punches one of the balloons repeatedly.
I open my laptop, plug in some headphones and call up a video essay from 2015 by Colin Marshall about Hollywood’s love affair with the Bonaventure. In moving quickly through scenes from “Heat,” “Her,” “Nick of Time,” “True Lies,” “Strange Days” and “Lethal Weapon 2,” among many others, Marshall gets at the basic contradiction of the Bonaventure’s relationship to Los Angeles. Though he notes that the hotel “has come to stand for the city as no other building does,” it just as often allows downtown L.A. to stand in for somewhere else: New York in “True Lies,” Atlanta in “This Is Spinal Tap.”
Marshall also raises a common complaint about how difficult it is to navigate the hotel’s interior. Unlike Portman’s Hyatt Regency hotels in Atlanta and San Francisco, the atrium in the Bonaventure is crisscrossed by a tangle of walkways, making it difficult to grasp visually. This has a silver lining for film crews, Marshall adds: The hotel’s “retail spaces, often vacant due to the difficulty of finding them, at least offer … plenty of plate glass through which to knock the bad guys.”
I head upstairs to the rotating bar on the hotel’s 34th floor and am directed by the maître d’ to a small table by the window. This seems as good a place as any — seeing downtown L.A. at a dramatic remove — to reread Jameson’s passages on the Bonaventure.
He argues that the hotel’s entire meaning can be read in its separation from the street and the urban realm. In fact, he writes, the hotel “ought not to have entrances at all, since the entryway is always the seam that links the building to the rest of the city that surrounds it: for it does not wish to be a part of the city but rather its equivalent and replacement or substitute.” He also dings the design for its confusing interior layout, writing that hotel guests move through the atrium with what “can only be characterized as milling confusion.”
Not everybody in L.A. found Jameson’s take persuasive: The writer Mike Davis knocked it (rightly, I think) for being insufficiently political, for failing to note that the Bonaventure, funded in part with redevelopment money, rose from the rubble of the old Bunker Hill. Davis found Jameson’s references to the populist nature of the hotel’s architecture particularly galling. “To speak of its ‘popular’ character,” he wrote, “is to miss the point of its systematic segregation from the great Hispanic-Asian city outside.”
I head back to the lobby to experience some of that milling confusion myself. I find a seat at the lobby bar next to an American Airlines pilot who tells me that he’s been staying at the Bonaventure for more than 25 years. He also says he thinks downtown L.A. is a total wasteland — and that like everybody else he gets lost inside the hotel, despite how many times he’s been here.
Here is the Bonaventure in a nutshell, I think to myself: The pilot can’t stand the place, still feels disoriented here, and has been a regular for a quarter-century. Something about the alienation the building offers is familiar, even comforting. Somewhere Fredric Jameson is smiling. And maybe, despite himself, John Portman too.
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