For the first of a new Curbed Atlanta feature, Starchitects Among Us, we take a look at Atlanta's own John Portman. And just in time, too — the documentary on the architect/developer, "John Portman: A Life of Building," will be screened at the Atlanta Film Festival at the Woodruff Arts Center on Monday evening.
John Portman is by all means an unconventional architect with a contentious legacy; nonetheless, we think it's safe to say his personal influence on urban Atlanta's physical growth over the last half century tops that of any politician or community leader. Portman achieved international acclaim by adding a 22-story atrium to his Hyatt Regency Hotel in 1967, and never looked back — with the continued expansion of Peachtree Center, Portman has designed over half of the Downtown skyline.
The ultimate architect/developer-in-one, Portman eschewed the acceptance of the architectural establishment and instead aligned his ambitions and his visions with those of private interest. As a result, as New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote, he has managed to dot the globe with "not only a series of significant buildings, but a new urban type." His knack for producing dazzling, yet pragmatic, hotels and commercial centers helped to put Atlanta on the map as not only a convention destination, but eventually an Olympic contender.
Yet, as Dutch theorist (and fellow Starchitect) Rem Koolhaas writes in a 1995 critique of Portman's influence on Atlanta, "with these two identities merged in one person, the traditional opposition between client and architect — two stones that create sparks — disappears. The vision of the architect is realized without opposition, without influence, without inhibition." His "revolutionary" atriums and commercial complexes owe significant credit to Modern, and even ancient, concepts of urbanism and spatial planning. And though Portman devoted himself to the rejuvenation of downtown Atlanta, he resoundingly rejected the notion that his projects should be built in dialogue with site, context, or any space shared by the larger public — allowances that are widely considered the building blocks of a traditional urban environment. His megastructures, spectacular and functional though they are, allow their occupants (largely transient conventioneers) to completely evade participation in the urban fabric.
Nonetheless, over the course of his career, Portman has almost single-handedly shaped the Downtown we know today. As the documentary "John Portman: A Life Of Building" will most certainly point out, he is one of the most imitated architects of the late 20th century and was among the first to recognize development opportunities in East Asia. The staggering success of his career is an important and instructive lesson about the evolution of the architectural profession, as well as city of Atlanta itself.
Want to take a closer at Portman's local work? Click each pin on the Google Map above for more information on each project. And don't forget, the Atlanta Film Festival Screening of "John Portman: A Life Of Building" is on Monday at 7 p.m. at the Woodruff Arts Center. Tickets are $10, and are available at the door or online. -Sarah Beth McKay