Remembering architect John Portman's life, achievements and hotels

As 2017 drew to a close, the hospitality and architecture worlds lost a driving force when John Portman Jr. died on Dec. 29 at the age of 93. His career focused on urban developments, with notable projects such as the Peachtree Center in Atlanta, the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco and the Renaissance Center in Detroit.

Born in Walhalla, S.C., in December 1924 and raised in Atlanta, Portman became interested in architecture as a high school student and studied architecture at Georgia Tech, earning his bachelor of science in architecture degree in 1950. After a three-year apprenticeship with one of the premier Atlanta architectural firms, Stevens & Wilkinson, Portman opened his own firm in 1953. Three years later, Portman partnered with one of his former professors from Georgia Tech, H. Griffith Edwards, to form the firm of Edwards & Portman Architects. When Edwards retired in 1968, the firm was renamed John Portman & Associates.


Architect as Developer

Portman set himself apart from his contemporaries by investing in his own projects, starting with his first commission in 1953 to renovate the Fraternal Order of Eagles Building in downtown Atlanta, on which he wanted to affix a contemporary metal sculpture of an eagle. The client liked the idea, but was unwilling to finance the art, so Portman used his own funds for the purchase of the sculpture. He pioneered the role of architect as developer in order to give himself more freedom in the implementation of his design concepts and to gain greater control of his projects’ destinies.

He drew on a “philosophy of self-reliance” that was strongly influenced by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Portman’s style of architecture was also impacted by the teachings of Frank Lloyd Wright, whom he met when Wright was a guest lecturer at Georgia Tech a few years after Portman graduated. Like Wright, Portman focused on the systems by which buildings were organized and the concept of organic unity as a design ideal. His two private residences, Entelechy I in Atlanta and Entelechy II on Sea Island, Ga., best exemplify Portman’s design philosophy.

Atrium Hotels

In Atlanta, Portman designed three major downtown hotels—the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, The Westin Peachtree Plaza and the Atlanta Marriott Marquis—that anchor the city’s convention district. The Hyatt Regency Atlanta opened in 1967 with a 22-story atrium that earned Portman significant attention. In addition, Henry Ford tapped Portman to design Detroit's Renaissance Center. In Los Angeles, The Bonaventure Hotel initiated the renewal efforts in the city’s Bunker Hill section.

Portman’s use of atriums in his hotels, many built for Hyatt brands, became a signature style, and in spite of some criticism, was widely imitated over the years. The style faced a setback in 1981 when two walkways collapsed at the 40-story Hyatt Regency Kansas City, designed by three local architects with an atrium that evoked Portman’s work. The collapse killed 114 people and injured 216 others in one of the nation’s deadliest structural failures.

But in spite of the setbacks and the criticism, the atrium became ubiquitous in hotels. Hotels like the Grand Hyatt in Shanghai and Burj Al Arab in Dubai were both designed by other architects, but were clearly influenced by Portman, as the New York Times noted in 2006. When the Grand Hyatt was completed in 1999 by architect Adrian Smith (then with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill), Smith acknowledged Portman’s legacy in hotel architecture. “He brought the atrium back into a very popular mode,” he said at the time.  

Portman’s international work began with the design and development of the Brussels Trade Mart in 1975. The Regent Singapore was Portman’s first international hotel, followed by Marina Square, also in Singapore, a major complex that includes three hotels, a retail mall and an office building. Portman entered China in 1980 as one of the first American architects or developers to become actively involved when China resumed business relations with the West. Portman’s pioneer project, Shanghai Centre, a large, mixed-use complex, has been described by China Daily as "one of the five architectural stars in mainland China."

With the exception of Renaissance Center, Portman performed the dual role of architect and developer for these projects. He never retired from his role at John Portman & Associates.

Portman is survived by his wife of 73 years, Joan Newton (Jan) Portman; his children Michael Wayne (Jody) Portman, John Calvin (Jack) Portman III, Jeffrey Lin Portman and his wife Lisa, Jana Lee Portman Simmons and her husband Jed, and Jarel Penn Portman and his wife Traylor; his siblings Glenda Portman Dodrill, Anne Portman Davis, Joy Portman Roberts and her husband Phil; 19 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and a large extended family of nieces, nephews, cousins and other loved ones.

A public service is planned for Friday, Jan. 5, 2018 at 12:30 p.m. in the atrium of AmericasMart Building 3 at the corner of John Portman Boulevard (Historic Harris Street) and Ted Turner Drive (Historic Spring Street). In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, Office of Gift Records, Emory University, 1762 Clifton Rd. NE, Suite 1400, Atlanta, GA 30322. Condolences may be sent in care of Jana Portman Simmons, Portman Holdings, 303 Peachtree Center Avenue, NE, Suite 575, Atlanta, GA 30303.