Posts tagged with "John Portman":

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John Portman was an iconic Atlanta architect who redefined urban interiors

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.’” 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. 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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Through its midtown hub, Georgia Tech is priming Atlanta for an influx of technology jobs

Since the earliest days of the technology industry, home has been Silicon Valley. However, there are some signs the tide is turning and heading towards the east. Attempting to capitalize on an impending Atlanta tech boom is The Georgia Institute of Technology, which is due to move into Coda, a mixed-use development in Midtown Atlanta’s Tech Square, in 2019. Designing a building fit for such a brief is John Portman & Associates. The Atlanta-based firm has integrated a 645,000 square feet of office space, a high-performance data center, retail and collaboration space within the development, all while accommodating a former Crum & Forster insurance house that dates back  1927. Pierluca Maffey, a principal at the architecture firm, said the project was "all about" the Italian Renaissance Revival structure that, upon close inspection, is more than just a rudimentary brick building. Atlanta firm Ivey & Crook worked with New York-based Helmle, Corbett & Harrison to design limestone flourishes, notably three arches topped by owls and a lion, which serve as keystones. "It was immediately considered as a jewel," noted Maffey. Though two-thirds of the historic building was lost in 2012, its iconic features remain. Now the former insurance house is being repurposed as a restaurant. Adjacent will be a slightly taller data center which employs chilled beams along with captured greywater deployed in cooling towers to aid temperature control. Furthermore, the center retains some proportions of its older neighbor and also serves as a stepping stone to the larger massing behind it. This glass-clad part of the project is where most of the program is housed. Across 21 floors will be mostly offices, half of which will be for the university, which owns the whole complex, while the rest of the office space is currently being leased out. Retail and conference areas are located on the first two levels. Connecting all these areas will be what Maffey described as a "collaborative core," intended to drive fast-tracked connections through intentional cross-tenant “neighborhoods,” supplemented by "collaborative lounges" on each floor of the building. For the levels occupied by Georgia Tech, a staircase atrium, intersected at every third level, will indicate the university's presence as the building's hub and connect it visually and physically to other tenants. Externally, a glass curtain wall makes up most of the facade. However, this is divided by a band of glass panes that are each individually calibrated, in lieu of lighting studies, to varying levels of translucency and reflectivity to produce a gradient effect that wraps around the building. Pierluca Maffey will be speaking about Coda in greater detail at the upcoming Facades+AM Conference in Atlanta this January 26. He will be on a panel discussing innovations in mixed-use and residential projects in Midtown Atlanta. To find out more, please visit Seating is limited.
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Atlanta architect and developer John Portman dead at 93

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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John Portman’s Peachtree Center is now a Georgia landmark

Correction 10/2/17: This article initially stated that the Peachtree Center was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It was added to the the Georgia Register of Historic Places, an initial step in National Register of Historic Places nomination process.  For most Georgians, the Peachtree Center is a defining feature of Atlanta. A transportation hub, a shopping complex, and public plaza densely thatched in by hotels and office buildings, the Peachtree Center is a point of reference in the downtown area. The buildings within the Center were largely designed by John Portman & Associates from 1961 through 1988, beginning with the Atlanta Furniture Mart and expanding outward. It is the largest mixed-use center in one of the most populated cities in the South. Now it has been added to the Georgia Register of Historic Places, a first step towards possible inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Spanning 14 blocks, the Peachtree Center includes the AmericasMart (1957), the Hyatt Regency Atlanta (1967), the Westin Peachtree Plaza (1976), and the Atlanta Marriott Marquis (1985), as well as eight office buildings, retail space, restaurants, and parking garages. Taken together, the complex is a constellation of Portman's Southern late modernism and exemplifies the developer-architect approach that Portman, now 92, has built. Visually, the buildings are unified by their precast concrete and reflective plate glass curtain wall panels, as well as poured-in-place concrete elements. Though the Center is criticized by contemporary planners for the 24 suspended glass catwalks that connect buildings but remove pedestrian traffic (and commerce) from the street, the mixed-use, all-in-one typology that Portman pioneered was innovative urban planning in its time. The forbidding brutalist architecture of buildings like the Merchandise Mart and the futuristic cylindrical glass column of the Westin Peachtree Plaza are connected by the infrastructure layering them together. Portman's chilly glass facades and plummeting interiors have proved irresistible to film and television producers. The Peachtree Center is frequently featured in sci-fi and fantasy TV footage, as well as films set in the future, including The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Walking Dead. As the site has evolved over the past 50-plus years, it has continually been redeveloped even when the surrounding downtown area was beset by economic change. Per Portman's plan to design supersize spaces to work at the pedestrian scale, the Peachtree Center is today a busy node of Atlanta's MARTA (mass transit) system and nearby bus terminal, funneling arrivals into an easily accessible network of restaurants, shops, markets, and more.
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A new book explores John Portman’s influence on American architecture with photos by Iwan Baan

In 1995, Ramón Prat and photographer Jordi Bernadó published Atlanta, a book of images of that city on the edge of the 21st century. A generation later, a new volume titled Portman’s America & Other Speculations revisits Atlanta—and American urbanism at large in this not-so-new century—through the work of hometown architect John Portman.

Photographer Iwan Baan traveled to Portman buildings around the United States, documenting his work in New York, Detroit, San Francisco, and, of course, Atlanta.

The images reveal a humanism that’s lost in the Hunger Games films and the Walking Dead television series, which exposed Portman’s work to most of America. Lush shots of Entelechy I and II, the Georgia houses the architect built for his family, coexist among now-classic takes on his supersized atria and their stacked balconies. Amid the drama, Baan’s work captures the everyday: a woman on her phone outside the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, a guy perched on a curved red banquette at the Westin Bonaventure hotel in L.A., and the sculptures and furniture Portman created to enhance the spaces he developed and designed.

Four essays (including one by Portman himself), a conversation between the architect’s close friends and family, plus student work from a Portmanian architecture class at the GSD, complement Baan’s images.

“The resulting photographs,” wrote editor Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), “capture the view as if in a state of distraction; Portman’s architecture, and by extension Portman’s America, is presented as it is today, for all to see.”

Portman’s America and Other Speculations, Lars Muller Publishers, $35, June 2017

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John Portman & Associates unveils a tech center for Midtown Atlanta

John Portman & Associates (JPA) has unveiled the design for a hybrid complex in Atlanta that blends classic Portmanian forms with a distinctly 21st-century approach to urbanism. The Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) asked the Atlanta firm to design Coda, a 750,000-square-foot mixed-use complex with some unusual features. The development is a key addition to the school's Tech Square, a mini-neighborhood in Midtown planned in the early 2000s as a hub for education, operations, and real-world learning. To embody its future-forwardness, Georgia Tech wanted to move away from stately collegiate brick towards a glass-clad mix of education space, offices, and an open-air gathering space that ties Coda to its surroundings. Though firm founder John Portman's work defines the city's skyline, some critics maintain that his theatrical-but-insular designs do little for the city streets. Instead of reproducing the forms for which Portman is best known, for this project JPA extended a core atrium outdoors to create a public plaza and mid-block conduit to nearby development. Furnished with long, zigzagging planters that double as seating, the "outdoor living room" will parallel a multistory indoor piazza where local food vendors and two anchor restaurants should sustain the area's activity even after the office workers go home. "Those Portman atriums in Atlanta and elsewhere were the products of a different era, there were different reasons why those were built," said JPA vice president of design Pierluca Maffey. "This project is a turning point for our firm in opening up—the right thing to do now is open up to the street. We made a commitment to create a place for the people with this project." The development builds on similar context-focused developments, like the revamp of Colony Square, but it is especially well-positioned for placemaking: The nearby intersection of 5th and Spring streets, Maffey said, is the busiest by foot traffic in Atlanta. In addition to its more traditional elements, Coda, bounded by 4th, West Peachtree, and Spring streets, hosts a program not found on the typical campus. To support the high-performance computing modeling, JPA was asked to design a 63,000-square-foot vertical data center that sits behind a cherished 1920s building on the site. Prior to this project, the building's footprint was reduced by a partial demolition, but its Italianate character remained. To honor the remaining structure, the design team arranged the tower's lower massing to dialogue with the scale and proportions of the older building without swallowing it. Across the plaza, a white tulip-shaped column at the base of the tower is an homage to Portman formality, to his playfulness with shapes. "We call it the 'martini glass,'" Maffey said, laughing. "We always tell Mr. Portman his interiors are great for Gregory Peck, walking around with his martini." The reference may be vintage, but the gesture is not. Sprawling Atlanta is doubling down on density at key nodes in the center city, fostering demand for more—and better-designed—public space. There's little demand, Maffey noted, for the enclosed, monumental plazas of the 1960s and 70s, and that attitude will be reflected, he hopes, in the eventual reception of the project. "We're interested in designing the object, yes, but we're much more interested in how it ties into the ground, how this piece fits into the city."
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Emory University to replace a remarkable John Portman building with a new campus center

Emory University celebrated the opening of its new postmodernist campus center designed by hometown architect John Portman in 1986. Today, the school is preparing to knock it down and replace it with a contemporary structure that, according to Emory, aligns better with the school’s founding aesthetic: Mediterranean-style buildings in pink and gray Georgia marble. What does Emory’s decision tell us about aging modern buildings on more traditional American campuses?

In the early 1980s Emory University picked an architect with an oppositional style—Portman—to design its campus center and largest dining hall. Portman, whose Peachtree Center and Hyatt Regency define the Atlanta skyline, merged new and old at the Dobbs University Center (DUC) with the same drama of his supersized work. The three-story, 150,000-square-foot DUC adheres to the rear facade of one of the older 1920s buildings on campus. The two structures meet in the Coca-Cola Commons, a capacious indoor piazza and tiered dining hall that references Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, Italy.

As a campus center (and main student dining hall), the DUC must do the heavy lifting of an increasingly commoditized typology. At American colleges and universities today, the campus center is both a social nucleus and a potentially powerful marketing tool. Emory decided the existing DUC was not fit for either task.

Though some schools like Emory have commissioned progressive architecture (or works by high-profile “starchitects”), universities competing for talent are almost obligated to furnish their campuses with ample, top-of-the-line amenities to lure prospective students. Middle-aged modern buildings—perceived as ungainly or unlikable—are the first obstacles to be eliminated in this fierce race.

Late modern architecture, in particular, can feel totalizing—deeply proportional, but scaled to giants—and outright hostile to context. But where does a school draw a line between saving a semi-dysfunctional building or demolishing it, potentially losing a structure of merit?

Emory studied renovation options for the DUC, but ultimately concluded there was no reasonable way to fix all of its issues, university architect Jen Fabrick said. As a dining hall, the DUC’s service layout makes food delivery massively inconvenient: Pallets have to be unpackaged at the loading docks and lifted in small elevators to third-floor kitchens, a daily labor-intensive task. The kitchen is too small to accommodate a growing student population and, in true Portman fashion, the dining commons is almost completely windowless.

The new Campus Life Center (CLC), designed by Durham, North Carolina–based Duda Paine Architects, addresses the DUC’s shortcomings while honoring its neighbors both materially and in orientation. A central stair divides a dining area, meeting rooms, and offices arranged on limestone plinths and connected by a wraparound terrace. University officials said the $98 million project, complete with a solar panel–clad roof, is expected to cost only slightly more than a renovation of the Portman addition.

In keeping with university design guidelines that honor tradition but don’t necessarily call for strictly traditional forms (there are new buildings with glass curtain walls, for example), the CLC “is very non-traditional in many aspects,” Fabrick said. The new design is tied to a 2005 campus master plan, which aims to “bring back a sense of place and then build on that as we go forward with our newer buildings,” she said. “In the 1980s there was an attitude to do something different and modern—I don’t know that they realized what they were doing.”

The original Beaux-Arts plan for the Emory campus was conceived by Pittsburgh architect Henry Hornbostel, who arranged its first buildings around central quads surrounded by lush ravines. Through World War II the campus retained its classical orientation, but after the war, campus design bent to the automobile. Buildings were oriented toward roads, and according to the college, experiments with modern architecture in the 1970s “ignored the original design etiquettes” of Hornbostel’s positioning, volume, and materiality.

Since then, university officials spent almost two decades determining how, and what, to build. The master plan, initiated in 1998 and updated seven years later, puts pedestrians before cars at every opportunity. To the university, as well as planners Ayers Saint Gross, a walkable campus was a beautiful one, and this included replacing some modern buildings with those that channeled the campus’s original architecture. So far, construction under the plan has added 3.8 million square feet of new space to campus.

Despite the crisis calls of preservation discourse, especially online, American colleges and universities aren’t out to sack every modern building—many have a strong history of stewardship for outmoded, expensive-to-maintain structures that could be easily replaced with lower-maintenance, high-performing alternatives. Off-campus, though, there’s growing concern that hard-to-love buildings of the modern movement are disappearing, only to be replaced with neo-traditional, historicist, or plain old contemporary structures that may be easier to live with but lack the radical appeal of their predecessors.

By choice or necessity, universities are essential custodians of modern architecture, but they also play to the market. “If a campus doesn’t look put together, or have a cohesive atmosphere, students may choose to go elsewhere,” said Barbara Christen, an architectural historian and former director of the CIC Historic Campus Architecture Project. “At the heart of this is an audience issue—there can be valid reasons why people don’t like late modern buildings especially, but by the same token, they might not know about what the architecture represents or how it expresses American culture.”

That’s especially true for Portman. Through the 1990s, he was best known for self-contained buildings in city centers that replaced the city center itself. In addition to his Atlanta work, Portman built his reputation on Detroit’s Renaissance Center, New York’s Marriott Marquis, San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center, and—critic Fredric Jameson’s favorite—the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, each of which offered lavish cities-within-cities that turned their glass backs on a decaying urban core. Lauded at the time for their vertiginous atria and theatricality, today, when walkable downtowns and energetic streetscapes are enormously popular with practitioners and the public, Portman’s holistic work can seem cold, corporate, and downright anti-urban.

The firm Portman founded tracks evolving public attitudes toward his work and its place in history. Walter E. Miller, principal and design director at John Portman & Associates, said he noticed a desire for campus buildings to be more “traditional in appearance” beginning in the 2000s. He added that the trend seemed more prevalent at public schools, with many buildings catering more to the preferences of alums and parents, rather than current students.

The trend plays out broadly: In Los Angeles, the University of Southern California (USC) sold and relocated an International style steel post-and-beam structure to build Fertitta Hall, a historicist new home for its business school, while in New London, Connecticut, Connecticut College redid the facade of its 1961 North Complex (“the Plex”), by Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon (the architects of the Empire State Building) to hide its distinctive modern features. DePaul University in Chicago is replacing its “cheese grater building,” designed by Holabird & Root in the 1960s, with a contemporary music school by Antunovich Associates. While not a replacement, Yale honors a preference for neo-traditional forms with a new $600 million collegiate gothic residential college by former architecture school dean Robert A.M. Stern. In 2011 Ezra Stiles College, designed by Eero Saarinen and completed in 1961, reopened to students after a sensitive $55 million dollar renovation that created more common areas and softened some of the complex’s harsher features. Recollections of veteran preservationists yield countless other buildings that survived, but barely.

To check changing taste, Christen said campuses should think about what the Class of 2100 will see: “The goal for campuses is to not only have a grasp of what their architectural and landscape inventory is, and consider what it represents about their past, but also to have a system in place for good guidance around future decisions.”

Emory cares for a particularly strong portfolio. Its stock of late modern architecture includes contributions from the giants: The Michael C. Carlos Museum by Michael Graves, William R. Cannon Chapel and the Pitts Theology Library interiors by Paul Rudolph, and the George W. Woodruff Physical Education Center by Portman. The school, Fabrick assured, has every intention of keeping these buildings.

Commissioning exciting contemporary buildings is a way for schools to visibly strengthen commitments to new ways of knowing, but modern architecture, especially late modern architecture, has a lot of catching up to do in eyes and minds of the public. What can be done to build appreciation? Christen, Miller, and other preservation experts all emphasize education that brings historical context into the conversation. They praise Docomomo’s education and advocacy work, and Christen noted that her alma mater, Williams College, has a semester-long course on reading the university’s (and American) history through the campus built environment. It’s a start.