by Scott Marble, Georgia Tech School of Architecture Chair
Shortly after I became chair of the Georgia Tech School of Architecture in 2015, I was invited to visit John Portman in his downtown Atlanta office.
When I walked in, he was surrounded by his entourage of colleagues that included his son, Jack Portman, and long-time advisor Mickey Steinberg. After brief introductions, we sat down in lounge chairs facing each other and everyone just looked at me in silence.
Even though I had already been through intense vetting by Georgia Tech during the chair search process, it was immediately clear to me that this was the real interview.
I passionately laid out my vision for the future of the school—his alma mater—making sure to reference the long legacy of alumni who have defined the city of Atlanta. When I finished, John appeared to be convinced (at least that is what I told myself) and we then proceeded to engage in a lively conversation about the state of architecture. After this exhilarating exchange, I stood up to leave and to my surprise, he offered to show me around the office.
As we walked around, he stopped at each project on display, pointed to specific parts of the drawings or models and described the design ideas. He had just turned 90 years old, yet the enthusiasm and excitement in his voice as he went into detail about each project could have been that of a young architect just beginning their career.
For those moments, I saw a man who was living proof of what I tell students as they are entering architecture school—that architecture is more than a profession, it is a life where work, pleasure and play are intertwined and that each day is a new challenge that can sustain a lifetime of deep dedication, satisfaction and accomplishment.
John Portman was many things over the course of his career—an architect, entrepreneur, artist and developer—but what was consistent in all of these pursuits was that he was a pioneer.
He had a fearless attitude toward pursuing new ideas and directions in architecture that he believed in and that he was passionate about. Driven by his natural entrepreneurial interests, he pioneered the integration of architecture and development early in his career.
This was professionally risky and something that you simply did not do at the time. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) famously ostracized him with claims of conflict of interest, but he moved forward.
As with many things, Portman was ahead of his time as now, decades later, an increasing number of young architects are following in his path in expanding the role of the architect. Architecture schools are offering degrees in real estate development, often in conjunction with architecture. The industry is finally realizing that the integration of the efforts of architects, owners, and builders are essential for successful and visionary projects, something John Portman knew 60 years ago.
Portman is probably best known for inventing a new building type, the atrium hotel. This is extremely rare in architecture and is another visionary accomplishment that has transformed cities around the world.
His first atrium hotel, the Atlanta Hyatt Regency, is a story of creative risk-taking that brought together a radically new design idea with, what was at the time, a small-yet-ambitious hotel operator looking to elevate its brand. The result was a building that is as extraordinary today as it was when it opened in 1967.
Twenty years later (and just across the street from the Hyatt) Portman completed another atrium hotel, the Marriott Marquis that reflected the extraordinary design imagination that Portman applied to this one building type.
When one enters a Portman-designed atrium anywhere in the world, there is always an overwhelming sense of awe. However, in the Marquis—with its curving, stepped balconies, and bridges that wind through 50 stories of layered space—the visual and physical experience is elevated to a new level. It is a synthesis of his art and architecture that combines the spectacle of seeing people move through the vast interior space with the pleasure of just observing the beautiful, sculptural qualities of the forms.
This project also foreshadowed some of the qualities of contemporary, digitally driven design. In a recent conversation with Steinberg, who was responsible for the Marquis’ structural design, he emphatically declared that “this was parametric architecture before there was such a thing.”
Thirty-three years later, the Marquis stands as one of the great American modern interior spaces comparable in its uniqueness to Frank Lloyd Wright’s legendary office building at the Johnson Wax complex in Racine, Wisconsin.
I am writing this tribute the day after Portman’s memorial in another of his signature atriums at the AmericasMart in Atlanta. These were spaces that he envisioned precisely, to bring people together from all walks of life so they could engage and converse with each other.
It was an uncannily appropriate setting with escalators, stairs, balconies and glass elevators moving up and down in his grand space serving as a backdrop as his family and close friends reflected on Portman’s life to an over-flowing crowd of people whose own lives had no doubt been impacted in some way by his work.
Even though Portman created architecture in cities around the world, his impact on Atlanta remains his most important legacy. I can think of few other instances where the work of a single architect is so central to the identity of a city.
Where we go from here was hinted at in the final words at his memorial from former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. Young eloquently evoked not only Portman’s legacy in defining the city of Atlanta that we know today, but also, more importantly, the inspiration and challenge that he leaves behind for all of us to imagine the Atlanta of the future.