1924 - 2017

John Portman was an iconic Atlanta architect who redefined urban interiors

Architecture Obit
John Portman was an iconic Atlanta architect who redefined urban interiors. John Portman at work (Courtesy The Portman Archives, LLC.)

John Portman told me that when he was a little boy, he was so poor that he didn’t have any toys, so he played in his backyard by making imaginary cities out of mud piles and old glass Coca-Cola bottles. I recall going with him to the incredible artist’s foundry Polich Tallix in upstate New York to check on the progress of a sculpture he was creating for one of our projects in India. This massive sculpture was underway, and after looking it over, Dick Polich took Portman over to some clay forms he’d set up, and Portman started playing with them. He was like that. He just loved to create, and was in his zone when he did.

There was a movie made about Portman by Ben Loeterman called A Life of Building, and in it, Portman kind of dramatically says, “It’s about life!” He’s obsessed with creating and sustaining life, in his architecture and in his way of being. Going down to his house Entelechy II, on Sea Island in Georgia, you can see it there, everywhere. The building is essentially a big trellis with a lanai under the front half and a sculpture of indoor and outdoor spaces in the back. But the entire home is teaming with life, plants, vines, blooming, living material everywhere. The building is probably his most formally complex project, but it almost seems foremost like an armature for the plants.

It’s pretty well known among Portman’s family and the people in his companies that he was inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frank Lloyd Wright. The story of how a young John Portman went to see Wright when he came to Atlanta was told when he was eulogized last week. Portman told me that story about ten years ago, but he told it differently. And the difference tells you a lot about his personality. Portman said, “I heard the Great Master was coming to Atlanta. So, I went and stood in this huge line for hours and hours to see the Man. Finally, my turn came. He was sitting there, and I inched up to him and said, ‘I want to be an architect. What should I do?’ and after all this time in line, he looked at me and said, ‘Go seek Emerson.’ Pause…‘Next.’”

The Beijing Yintai Centre (courtesy The Portman Archives, LLC.)

Portman was funny, and humble, self-deprecating, and had a real admiration for people, like Wright and others. At the memorial, they left out the “Next,” and maybe that was appropriate for the somber nature of the event. But when you hear Portman tell the story, it’s funny and endearing to imagine him, this Great Master in his own right, being shooed away by Wright all those years ago. But he did seek Emerson. He found a way of living that was rooted in self-reliance, and an ecumenical appreciation for life that permeated his architecture and his relationships.

He took a group of us to see Wright’s Fallingwater in 2012. I think it was his way of pointing us toward Emerson and Wright and helping us to see, feel, and experience firsthand some of what he knew. It was raining, and the house is pretty deep in the woods, and the one iconic view that you get in all the photos is from down in a ravine. Portman must have been 88 at the time, but he went blazing down there, all over the property. We spent time taking it all in, and then that evening he’d arranged a dinner where we all went around and talked about what we got out of it. He ran things that way, provoking everyone to bring their ideas forward and then guiding, editing, and compiling the best ideas from each person into a cohesive project.

Portman was always soaking up ideas. He was curious. He had stacks of magazines on his desk and liked to stay current, but eschewed anything he considered a “trend.” Atlanta was his favorite city and the place he drew his power from, but Venice, Italy, was his second favorite. We went there to be part of the Venice Biennale in 2010 and see what was new. I recall Portman being very interested to see the exhibits and, in particular, what was in the Japanese pavilion. We got there and it was a very cacophonous installation that is almost the polar opposite of what I would consider “Portmanesque.” He looked in, puffed out his cheeks, kind of shrugged his shoulders and smiled as if to say, “What’s this crazy thing?” But then he went in and soaked it up and talked at length with the curator with a film crew in tow.

(Courtesy The Portman Archives, LLC.)

He was open-minded and always respectful. He never criticized anyone and was thorough in giving the reasons for his decisions. It would have been easy for him to say, “Because I said so.” But he never did. I think he remained open to the idea that others would see things that maybe he hadn’t considered. One time when we were walking through the skyway of Sun Trust Plaza Tower after I crashed and burned in a meeting, he put his arm around my shoulder and said, “You know, if you have a great idea and you’re trying to persuade someone to do it, it’s usually better if they think it’s their great idea.” Portman understood people, how they think and feel, and was generous in sharing what he knew.

Portman always looked to the future. He kept moving forward, even as we weathered the Great Recession, during which time he did not lay off a single person. He told me once that it’s easy to be positive when you’re up, but it’s more important to be positive when you’re down; advice he got from his mother, whom he revered. John Portman touched the lives of many people over the course of his long and productive career. He had an artist’s heart. He painted outside the lines, and we’ll miss him.

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