Think Eichler or Frank Lloyd Wright are the only American architects worth knowing? Well think again. Though his name may not be as recognizable as his forebears, John Portman’s legacy is as prolific as they come. Known in the industry for being one of the greatest architects of the last 50 years, Portman’s greatest achievements include single-handedly revitalizing his home town of Atlanta, as well as the innovation of atrium hotels. Keep reading to find out more.
“Architecture is not a private affair; even a house must serve a whole family and its friends, and most buildings are used by everybody, people of all walks of life.”
Spotlight on John Portman
John Calvin Portman Jr. was born in Walhalla, South Carolina on December 4, 1924. One of six children, his parents were Edna and John Portman. Portman was raised in the city of Atlanta.
Portman first took to architecture as a student during his high school years at Tech High. After a brief interlude in which he served in the navy during World War II, he graduated with a degree in Architecture from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Portman opened his eponymous design studio, John Portman and Associates, in 1953. Based in Atlanta, Portman’s firm went on to design a number of landmark spaces in the city.
The 14 block Peachtree Center complex, which includes the Portman-designed AmericasMart (the world’s largest single wholesale marketplace), Hyatt Regency, Westin Peachtree Plaza, and Marriott Marquis, is one of the firm’s crowning glories. Functioning as a city within a city, Peachtree has been attributed to stimulating trade and tourism in downtown Atlanta. The development was arguably the catalyst which established Atlanta as one of the nation’s premiere convention cities.
After the success of Peachtree, Portman made his name designing a number of urban mixed-use complexes throughout America, Europe and Asia. Projects of particular note include the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, Marina Square in Singapore and the Shanghai Center in China. Throughout this time, Portman co-financed many of his own projects. In doing so, he pioneered the role of the architect as developer, cementing his status as both artist and businessman.
Key Points of Note
The Atrium Hotel
Cavernous atrium lobbies with glass elevators, waterfalls and cantilevered balconies may seem standard for most big name hotels today, but that’s only because of the vision and design daring of Portman.
Traditionally, hotel lobbies were dreary spaces – functional yet aesthetically bleak. Portman wanted to change that, to transform the hotel lobby into a bustling, thriving social space where guests and visitors can eat, read and take delight in the architecture around them.
“You want to hopefully spark their enthusiasm,” he told the Times. “Like riding in a glass elevator: everyone talks on a glass elevator. You get on a closed-in elevator, everyone looks down at their shoes. A glass elevator lets people’s spirits expand. Architecture should be a symphony.”
While visually breathtaking, Portman’s designs weren’t a hit with everyone. Many critics felt that Portman’s lobbies discouraged visitors from venturing outside the confines of the hotel, ultimately contributing to the demise of vibrant urban street life.
Nevertheless, Portman’s atrium hotels proved a big hit with the wider public. At once neo-futuristic and cinematic, his model was imitated by other architects at home and abroad, sparking a revolution in hotel design.
Unsurprisingly, Portman was the recipient of numerous architectural awards throughout his lifetime. Notable accolades include a lifetime achievement award from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat in 2009, the Silver Medal Award in 1981 from the AIA Atlanta Chapter for innovative design, and the AIA Medal in 1978 from the National American Institute of Architects for innovations in hotel design.
After a long and illustrious career, Portman died on December 29, 2017, aged 93.
His legacy lives on through John Portman and Associates, in addition to the wider Portman Holdings corporation – a full service real estate development company vice-chaired by his son, Jack Portman.