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Q&A: John Portman architect talks firm's influence on downtown Atlanta and the world

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VP weighs in on experiences working at home and abroad with one of the most influential firms — and architects — in Atlanta history

Every Atlantan should know the name John Portman. An architect, developer, and native son — well, almost; technically he's from South Carolina — Portman arguably has helped shaped the downtown we know today more than anyone.

Still practicing architecture in his 90s as the head of John Portman & Associates, Portman recently embarked on the reinvention of 230 Peachtree. More than 50 years after it was first completed, Portman was on hand to christen it the Hotel Indigo at the beginning of this year.

Of course, Portman has help. On 230 Peachtree, that came largely from architect Rob Halverson, AIA, a Vice President with John Portman & Associates. Since moving to Atlanta in 2007, Halverson has worked with the firm on a range of projects.

A Yale and Syracuse-educated architect, Halverson has more than 20 years experience in the profession. We asked him to join us as we dust off Field Note Fridays.

CURBED ATLANTA: You came to Atlanta almost a decade ago — just as the city was about to hit the recession — to work with John Portman & Associates. Emerging from the recession, how would you characterize development in Atlanta today versus when you arrived?

ROB HALVERSON, AIA: The financial landscape is very different now from when I first moved to Atlanta, as well as property opportunities. Our sister company Portman Holdings is very experienced with investigating development opportunities in the U.S. and around the world. The building industry is cyclical and our office is optimistic for Atlanta as well as other areas in the U.S.

CURBED: A lot of the work you've been involved in with the firm has been oversees in Asia. What's different about designing over there versus in the U.S.?

HALVERSON: Designing and developing projects in Asia is very different than in the U.S. Due to legal issues to "chop" drawings for construction, John Portman & Associates acts as the Design Architect with an "LDI" (Local design institute/Architect of record). Our office develops the design with the owner and the LDI. We then present to the city committee consisting of 30 to 40 people from various disciplines for review and approval.

[Our company] has been practicing in Asia for more than 30 years and has developed a great many projects and relationships. One of the major differences between working in Asia and working in the States has to do with size of the projects in which we are involved. Typically in Asia the projects are very large. The first project I was involved with in Korea was Incheon 151, the second tallest tower in the world at the time, a 151-story tower on reclaimed land.

All clients desire great design, but not all clients think the same with regard to building systems, how these large projects will be sold independently, tenant customization, etc. Projects here in the states are typically smaller in scale, but just as important with regard to design excellence and execution.

CURBED: And what lessons do you bring back with you from those experiences?

HALVERSON: Working in Asia has taught us to examine our drawings as communication tools in addition to beautiful imagery and animations conveying design intent. Projects in Asia are in some ways bi-polar as they allow more design freedom from a concept point of view, but can also be more restrictive with respect to code compliance, seismic zones, and compartmentalization commonly used for life safety.

The interesting challenge is bridging the gap between limitations and great design and achieving the unique iconic designs John Portman & Associates is famous for. Achieving the best design possible with all of our projects is always our intent with all of our clients.

CURBED: You recently wrapped up work on the Hotel Indigo at 230 Peachtree Street in downtown. What was it like?

HALVERSON: I was very fortunate to work directly with Mr. Portman on his new design, reviewing original drawings and details and investigating what was actually built. The real challenges began when we started to figure out how to modify the existing building to accommodate the new design. The goal was to make the final design integrated and seamless with the existing shell from the 1960s. We encountered many surprises along the way, but found several solutions working with Holder (the general contractor) that we felt complemented the original building and the new design intent.

Mr. Portman was very involved with the transformation and new vision for the Hotel Indigo Atlanta Downtown as well as the signature restaurant JP Atlanta. Mr. Portman understood the opportunity and risk presented to him in advance of the purchase to transform a half-century-old building from office to hotel.

The advantages this property offered, from its site location downtown, connected to AmericasMart and MARTA, to the large floor-to-floor height dimensions, particularly for the ground floor, created an opportunity worth investigating. Ultimately, the realized design response is an embodiment of 50 years of history, as well as contemporary moments in the space, that comes to life as occupiable sculptures. The result is a truly unique space in which Mr. Portman was directly involved with all aspects from start to finish.

CURBED: What were some of the challenges associated with the conversion of a 50-year-old office building into a hotel?

HALVERSON: There are challenges as well as advantages in converting an existing office space to a hotel. The basic challenges start with the core and shell and mechanical systems. The existing elevator lobby for the entire office building could not serve double duty with the hotel check-in functions and security issues. The solution centered around creating an identity on the ground floor away from the office lobby, and adding two shuttle elevators to an upper transfer lobby to relieve the cross circulation. The shell of the building had been compromised by age, cracking seals and single-paned glazing, all of which need to be addressed in a careful manner.

The mechanical system for a hotel is very different than that of an open office space and where vertical duct risers were eliminated, floor space was generated and used as part of the hotel guest floors. The vertical plumbing system needed to be updated as a hotel uses many more fixtures than a typical office space per floor.

These are some of the challenges, but the advantage of office lease spans and floor-to-floor height provide an enhanced experience to the guest room floors that would not be cost effective in new construction. The guest rooms are larger, ceiling heights are taller and the ability to create an enhanced guest experience was achieved in a space once occupied by several small, open-concept office tenants.

CURBED: John Portman & Associates has helped shape downtown Atlanta for more than five decades, and in that time, things have drastically changed. How can the older buildings, which were more insular, be updated to engage the street of a now more bustling city core?

HALVERSON: The urban core needs a variety of spaces, both inside and out, to offer relief from the hustle and bustle inherent in a vibrant city center. Open exterior plazas, like the one in front of the revitalized 230 building offer an urban oasis with an engaging sculpture and the calming, whispering white noise of a sparkling water feature. The same is true of the hotel atrium spaces. These soaring public spaces tantalize people’s senses to offer a retreat from the bustling city streets.

CURBED: With all the changes going on, what does the future hold for downtown Atlanta?

It's a very exciting time and the future looks very bright. Atlanta is moving into a unique position with regard to technology development and attracting international companies to make Atlanta their home.

With the increase in industry, other infrastructures will need to become enhanced such as housing, parks, and urban transportation. It will be fun to be a part of this transformation.

CURBED: Finally, what places in Atlanta do you love the most?

HALVERSON: My favorite places in any city are those spaces that are discovered, unique, or revealed in some way, shape or form.

There are two examples and scales I can think of: The first would be Ponce City Market’s rebirth and connection to the Beltline as a large-scale urban redevelopment, and the second would be the small scale redevelopment of 230 Peachtree with the plaza redesign, Hotel Indigo, and JP Atlanta restaurant.

The echo of the past in urban design as well as a look toward the future of public art and its connection to AmericasMart and public transportation below reveal the potential of the urban core as an asset.

Hotel Indigo Atlanta Downtown

230 Peachtree Street Ne, Atlanta, GA 30303 Visit Website