John Portman, FAIA, the man who shaped downtown Atlanta, passed away Friday at age 93, leaving a towering legacy behind.
Portman, who designed and developed the Peachtree Center complex—including the Hyatt Regency, Westin Peachtree Plaza, Marriott Marquis, AmericasMart, and SunTrust Plaza—was not only an architect, but a developer and artist as well.
Through more than six decades of work, he redefined downtown, bringing new industry and density to an area few other invested in during the 1960s and 1970s.
The combined title of designer and developer was nearly unheard of (and somewhat controversial) when he started his career in Atlanta.
In 1957, Portman began his major influence on downtown when he founded the AmericasMart; in the subsequent decades, he grew the trade mart into one of the largest of its kind in the world, covering four blocks and drawing tens-of-thousands of visitors to the city each year.
Building off his success, Portman designed the Hyatt Regency—and revolutionized urban hotel design.
While hoteliers were skeptical of the radical, soaring atrium, the hotel proved to be a major success, helping put Hyatt—and Atlanta—on the map. (The Hyatt Regency is still wowing visitors five decades later).
From there, Portman’s success grew.
While downtowns across the country suffered from continued suburban flight and the rising dominance of the car—and the need to park those cars—Portman saw an opportunity for investment and renewal in Atlanta and afield.
A year after the opening of the Hyatt Regency, construction began in San Francisco on Embarcadero Center, which would ultimately grow to encompass nearly 5 million square feet. Simultaneously, he began to build out the similarly sprawling, and borderline Brutalist, Peachtree Center in downtown Atlanta; today his masterplanned vision covers 14 blocks, connected by tunnels and skybridges.
Peachtree Center, Embarcadero Center, and Detroit’s Renaissance Center all embodied Portman’s bold vision of large-scale, self-contained cities within cities. Portman focused on the human scale within, creating moments of compression and release into grand atriums. It’s a design technique he mimicked from one of his idols, Frank Lloyd Wright.
However, while the interior spaces were astounding, critics took issue with the often insular designs, which turned blank walls to the street in favor of cloistered, curated experiences.
While his style may be controversial, the impact of his contributions to the city is indisputable. It’s no overstatement to say Portman shaped the physical form of downtown Atlanta more than any other single person.
By the late 1970s, Portman made a leap across the world, opening an office in China. For the next few decades, much of Portman’s time was spent designing and developing projects in Asia, though always keeping his office in Atlanta.
The last building Portman designed in his hometown was SunTrust Plaza Garden Offices, which opened in 1999, adjacent to Portman’s iconic SunTrust Plaza.
Today, his firm’s offices are housed in the building, which includes his signature light-filled atrium, complete with plantings to bring the outdoors in.
After a long hiatus, Portman’s firm has returned home, so to speak, with a new project under construction and two more planned.
Coda is rising from a prominent site at Tech Square, while work is slated to soon begin on a new office building for Anthem on the adjacent block. Plans are also in the works for a new Intercontinental Hotel at the airport.
Though Portman is gone, his legacy will live on in Atlanta. His built works, like his architecture and development firms, will continue to shape the city, its visitors, and the lives of those who call it home.
Also carrying on Portman’s legacy of design development will be his children, who include developer Jarel Portman of JPXWorks and Jack Portman, who serves as the Vice Chairman of both John Portman & Associates and Portman Holdings.
On Friday, a public memorial for Portman is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Fittingly, it will be held in the soaring atrium of Portman’s AmericasMart.
- Neofuturist architect John Portman bet on cities just as people fled them [Curbed]
- John Portman’s Legacy [John Portman & Associates]