The big atrium in the sky

Atlanta architect and developer John Portman dead at 93

Architecture Obit Urbanism
Atlanta architect and developer John Portman dead at 93. John C. Portman Jr. (Courtesy Georgia Tech School of Architecture)
Atlanta architect and developer John Portman dead at 93. John C. Portman Jr. (Courtesy Georgia Tech School of Architecture)

John C. Portman Jr., the Atlanta architect and developer has died at 93. The Georgia Tech–trained architect is credited with developing large downtown projects that revolved around the concept of the the atrium, which he turned into large and dramatic enclosed open spaces surrounded by multiple balconies, hundreds of rooms and capsule elevators rushing vertically from base to upper floors.  Portman—who often developed and partially owned his projects—thought of these megastructures as new downtowns and they were often built in old downtowns that had been decimated by urban renewal and middle class fight. These buildings were often criticized by theorists like William H. Whyte, Mike Davis, Frederic Jameson and others for their lack of context with the historic city, especially the street. However, later in life Portman received praise from multiple sources including Herbert Muschamp, Paul Goldberger and Rem Koolhaas, who praised his work as “a hybrid” of styles and urban relationships. In 2010 Portman’s career was featured at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale and more recently, Harvard Dean Moshen Mostafavi used his designs in a GSD studio, sponsored by Portman, to think of “a new architecture, but one with a lineage.”

Portman’s first large important project was for the Merchandise Mart (now AmericasMart) in his hometown of Atlanta in 1961 and this led to his design for the nearby multi-block Peachtree Center in 1965 where he maintained his office. His development firm created the multi-block complex at San Francisco‘s Embarcadero Center,  the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles 1976, the New York Marriott Marquis in 1985, and the Renaissance Center in Detroit in 1977, whose central tower remained the tallest hotel in the Western Hemisphere until 2013. The Shanghai Centre (1990) was the first of many major projects in China and elsewhere in Asia. Look for a longer appreciation of Portman’s life and career in the next Architect’s Newspaper print edition.

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