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John Portman & Associates principal dissects CODA, new airport hotel, and three ATL places he’d like to reshape

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Sketches reveal origin of projects destined to change the feel of Atlanta

Architect Pierluca Maffey of John Portman & Associates.
John Portman & Associates

John Portman has been a major force in Atlanta architecture for more than five decades.

At 92, Portman remains a fixture in his firm’s office downtown, where a small army of associates carry on his legacy. They’re working on two significant new Atlanta endeavors at the moment: CODA and a hotel planned at the airport.

Leading the Atlanta projects is Design Principal Pierluca Maffey, who goes by Luca. Originally from Rome, Maffey has been practicing architecture since 1994 and was first registered in Italy in 2002. In late 2004, Maffey moved to Atlanta and began work at John Portman & Associates two years later.

For this week’s edition of Field Note Fridays, we caught up with Maffey to hear about his current projects.

Curbed Atlanta: What drew you to Atlanta, and how did you end up at John Portman & Associates?

Luca Maffey: Leaving Rome was not an easy task. All the people I talked to suggested to go to New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Atlanta was suggested to me in 2004 by a developer of the Southeast ... while talking about me considering moving to the USA, he suggested Atlanta as one of the rising cities in the U.S. market.

I started working with Cooper Carry architects, where I learned a lot about how [the] U.S. looks at the architectural industry.

After one and a half years, I joined John Portman & Associates.

Sketches of CODA.
Pierluca Maffey, John Portman & Associates

CA: Working for a firm with such a distinguished history in the city, how do you perceive the role of the firm in shaping Atlanta to this point?

LM: At a time in which the majority of Americans were encouraged to leave the cities and move to the suburbs, [John] Portman continued investing in and developing downtown Atlanta.

It is here that, with the design and development of offices, hotels, retail facilities, and [the Apparel] Mart buildings, Portman was able to keep the downtown alive, even if for only the transient population coming to the city for business reasons.

Unfortunately, when people stop living in an area, the population density drops dramatically and the life and safety of a neighborhood becomes immediately a concern. The “exodus” of people from the downtown areas to the suburbs left a ghost city behind, with streets that were often more a concern than a nice place to go for a walk.

As a result, the introverted urban design of Portman—that was perceived as turning its back to the streets—was responding to the safety conditions of the city of that era.

The fact that finally, after many years, we see a renewed interest in the downtowns of the cities around the nation, is very exciting to us at JPA. The design of the Hotel Indigo at 230 Peachtree St., which we completed in early 2016, is a celebration of this new trend. The redesign and repurposing of this office building built in the early ‘60s opens out to the sidewalk with a design of a public place activated by fountains, including a renovated connection to the MARTA station below.

In the future, I hope we will have more opportunities to contribute to continue shaping the downtown of Atlanta, as we can’t wait to reengage with the sidewalk’s new life brought in by the new offices and residences that relocated in the city.

CA: After a long hiatus from the Atlanta architecture scene in favor of international work, the firm is finally doing work in its backyard again. What has changed in Atlanta since JPA last worked in the city, and what prompted the return?

LM: While our international work is 99 percent provided by third-party clients, our main client in the U.S. market is Portman Holdings, our sister company founded by our chairman John Portman. Our return to the U.S. market is mainly driven by the fact that Portman Holdings started looking at the U.S. market again.

In the last six years, we have been designing buildings for Portman Holdings in San Diego, Denver, Charlotte, and, most recently, Atlanta, with the competition awarded to us by Georgia Tech in 2015 for CODA, the High Performance Computing Center and office facility in Tech Square.

In the same year, we also won the competition for the Intercontinental Hotel at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. The developers group Carter and Majestic hired us to design an iconic hotel that will be the first hotel located right at the airport terminal. This hotel will provide a [repose] from the hustle and bustle of the airport and a world-class destination for many travelers going through what we know is the busiest airport in the world.

We’re looking to work more and more with other third party developers in the USA, just as we have been doing abroad. The 60-plus years of experience of our firm—and the complex design experience we acquired in foreign cultures—has given us the tools and a level of flexibility required of any architect to overcome any type of design challenge.

CA: On your CODA project, what were some of the biggest challenges with the design, and how did they end up shaping the final form of the building?

LM: The biggest challenge on the CODA project was to try to satisfy most—if not all— the items in the wish list provided by Georgia Tech’s Design Vision and Guidelines.

I believe that CODA accomplishes the majority of those desired items, starting with a working environment that encourages connectivity and collaboration between Georgia Tech departments and the tech industries leasing floor space in the building.

In order to do that, we designed triple-height atriums staked vertically next to the central core of the building. The atriums placed at the junction between the south and eastern tower are organized based on themes related to various types of collaboration, from a more focused and formal one to a more relaxed and game-based environment.

All the atriums are then connected vertically by a large spiral stairs that rises up from level 5 all the way to the roof terrace of the shortest tower.

It is here at level 20 that we placed a pop-up soccer [field], with the intent to provide yet another amenity that will foster connectivity by making people from different offices and departments play together.

Pierluca Maffey, John Portman & Associates

An additional stair on south façade of the building will connect the five floors leased by Georgia Tech, providing improved meetings and great views to the city.

At ground floor, we paid the same amount of attention to the importance of providing a creative collaboration environment. It is at this floor that we placed what we called the “Living Room,” a great outdoor space where people can hang out and at the same time, [it will] become a hub for the Georgia Tech community, Midtown residents, and other Atlantans that will consider this site as a destination.

The variety of seating, all equipped with electric plugs and Wi-Fi connection, provides yet another working environment. This space is activated throughout by the food and beverages venues adjacent, but it’s also set up for larger events that can take place occasionally.

This people space inherits the similar design attention given to the legendary Portman Atriums, reinterpreting [them] in an environment open to the city.

Leaving one-third of the project open to public space took some ... commitment from the developer, who agreed to locate all the parking and service areas below grade.

Once the decision of having a relevant public space was [made], the rest of the project composition was very easy to follow.

Respecting the small scale of the existing, historic Crum & Forster Building on our site, we decided to push the tall towers as far as possible from it.

The lower Data Center component, as tall as surrounding campus buildings, was placed right behind the historical structure, creating a neutral background against which the Italianate-style, brick building will be able to shine as the “jewel” of the site.

CA: In the past, much of JPA’s Atlanta work has been characterized as turning its back on the street in favor of grand atrium spaces. How are CODA’s public spaces informed by this history?

LM: The first aspect we look at when we design a site is how to respond to the necessities of its context in order to improve the life of people that will visit it.

As I explained before, much of what was designed in downtown Atlanta was responding to the conditions in which the streets were left at that time. The grand, interior atriums were designed with the intent to provide impressive, uplifting spaces open to the public in the same ways piazzas do in Europe—a place to connect with other people, a place to see and be seen, where you are a performer as well as a spectator. It was an idea that proved to be successful in absence of true great safe public spaces the way you see them in other cities like New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Boston, or Chicago, just to mention a few.

CODA responds to the people’s needs of today. The renewed love for the city, density, sidewalks, public transportation, and places for connectivity has directed the design of this project from the very beginning.

With CODA, we finally had the chance to design a public space that is accessible to everyone without having to go through any doors.

Pierluca Maffey, John Portman & Associates

CA: You are also working on the design of the Intercontinental Hotel at the airport. What has influenced that design, and what are you most excited about achieving with the project?

LM: The design of the Intercontinental Hotel ... is inspired by the feelings and desires that someone would have before or after a long plane ride. We wanted to provide an island of relaxation from all the hustle and bustle of the airport crowds and noises.

In order to do that, we thought we need to be able to start that experience by changing the sense of arrival that a traveler will have once they take the first step outside of the airport terminal.

We proposed a relocation of all the public transportation vehicles on the west side of the Skytrain in favor of a pedestrian area very similar to a piazza, with landscaping, fountains, and areas to hang out. The “piazza” is covered with a canopy made out of a variety of green translucent panels. The design intent is to replicate the unique quality of the light you see passing through tree canopies as you walk in the neighborhoods of Atlanta.

The ground lobby of the hotel is at the center of this piazza. There you will be greeted and then directed toward the pedestrian bridge that will connect to the garden lobby of the hotel.

Once you are up on the bridge, the ambient music and scents of the Intercontinental Hotel will take over and provide you a sense of [relaxation] that is just a preview of what is about to unfold.

The main lobby is a triple-height space with glass walls to the east and west, through which you access the elevated garden above, where the hotel rooms are located. We wanted to avoid guests looking at the top of the cars parked on the site or even just the asphalt of the streets and parking lot that you would see in any other typical architectural composition with similar site conditions.

The elevated garden provides a visual as well as a tangible relief to the guest, and at the same time it’s the roof to the meeting amenities, and the parking levels below them.

The hotel room interlocking blocks rise toward the sky as if lifted by the air, recalling the idea of flight.

The most exciting part of this project ... is to see the people that will use it and to find out if they will receive it as we intended in the very beginning: a place to relax and recharge.

Pierluca Maffey, John Portman & Associates

CA: JPA is responsible for some of the most iconic hotel interiors in the world, with three stunning examples in downtown Atlanta. Will we see elements from John Portman’s hotels (Hyatt, Westin, and Marriott) in the new hotel?

LM: Absolutely! The three downtown hotels are iconic for different reasons.

The Hyatt Regency was the first big atrium hotel that proposed to the public a new idea of urban space, as well as a new typology of hospitality design. Without the help of parametric calculations (still not used in architecture at the time it was designed), the Marriot Marquis then brought the idea of the atrium to a whole new scale—similar to what a gothic cathedral achieved in the Middle Ages.

The design of the Westin, although constrained by the extremely tight site, still managed to be the tallest hotel in the world for a long time. Its pure cylindrical shape is still a very elegant icon in the city skyline.

The Intercontinental Hotel at the airport is not as tall as its predecessors in Atlanta. However, its focus on “people experience” is the element that makes it stand out among the rest of the hotels in the surrounding area, and at the same time connects it with the design philosophy of all the other projects done by John Portman & Associates.

Pierluca Maffey, John Portman & Associates

CA: What do you see as the role of JPA in the future development of Atlanta?

LM: The role of JPA in the future is as big as the projects we will be able to design for our clients.

What I’m sure of is that if we are given the challenge, we will be able to deliver above and beyond what is normally envisioned by our clients. We accomplished this task again and again for Portman Holdings’ co-investors and for our third party clients in the U.S. and around the world.

I would particularly like us to participate in design efforts led by the City of Atlanta, with which we could redesign public spaces around the city.

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

LM: Atlanta is a very particular city.

Aside from what grows on the east and west sides of Peachtree Street, the rest of the neighborhoods are gravitating on single crossroads, which are slowly growing into becoming the center of public life. However, none of them really defines a space of its own.

What characterizes the various neighborhoods is often the type of the houses, or a private commercial location—like a great restaurant or a special retail zone.

I see a lot of potential in places that are still in the “becoming” zone. Among them I can name three that come immediately to mind: the North Avenue MARTA station; the bend on Peachtree Street near the Atlanta Central Library and [the] Georgia-Pacific [building]; and finally the parking lot south of the Fox Theatre where Peachtree Street meets Ponce de Leon Avenue.

This latter one would be ideal for a significant public pedestrian space. It would create an anchor point that marks the connection of two of the most significant roads of Atlanta.

Being from Rome, I miss those awe-inspiring, true public spaces and endless sidewalks, along which you see life unfolding with all of its fascinating and varied aspects.

I do not have a place I love more than the others in Atlanta, but having said that, Inman Park is definitely the place I would like to live in, while the new piazza designed by Renzo Piano at the High Museum is the place I often go back to when I miss Rome.