John Portman (Photo courtesy Georgia Tech School of Architecture)
ArtsATL > Art+Design > Portman’s Complaint: How John Portman built modern Downtown Atlanta and changed the face of Urban America

Portman’s Complaint: How John Portman built modern Downtown Atlanta and changed the face of Urban America

Editor’s note: This story by Atlanta native Steve Oney was originally published in Esquire magazine in June of 1987. Oney granted ArtsATL exclusive rights to reprint the story to commemorate the death of the legendary architect who designed the buildings that define Downtown Atlanta. Portman died December 29 at the age of 93. This story is included in A Man’s World, Portraits: A Gallery of Fighters, Creators, Actors, and Desperadoes, the collection of Oney’s magazine work published last year by Mercer University Press. Portman’s funeral is Friday, January 5, at 12:30 p.m. in Building 3 of AmericasMart.


For as far as John Portman can see in every direction, he is surrounded by his own buildings. Before him towers the seventy-three-story mirrored silo of the Westin Peachtree Plaza, the world’s second tallest hotel. Behind him stands the smaller — but infinitely more influential — Hyatt Regency Atlanta, a structure whose dramatic enclosed atrium was the prototype for what is now one of architecture’s most prevalent clichés. On all sides of Portman loom the skyscrapers of Peachtree Center, a honeycomb-like complex that houses the headquarters of Dixie’s business elite. To the architect’s west are his gigantic furniture and apparel marts. To the east is his monolithic new Marriott. And arching overhead at various dizzying heights are twelve pedestrian sky-bridges. The passageways form a network linking all sixteen of Peachtree Center’s Portman-designed buildings, making it possible for businessmen, shoppers and conventioneers to walk from their cars to their rooms to their meals without ever leaving the environment John Portman created for them.

Portman with a model of his signature project, Peachtree Center in Atlanta (Photo by Tom Hamilton/courtesy

Yet as Portman strolls through his kingdom what one notices first are not his buildings — the largest collection of major works ever erected in the same city by an American architect — but his hair. The man has a sculpture on his head made out of his own hair, an outrageously conceived, meticulously arranged wave that takes off from one fringe of his balding pate like a tsunami and surfs across his skull, breaking and rising in salty brown swells until it crashes over his opposite ear. Everything else about the sixty-two-year-old architect — his wardrobe, his voice, his mannerisms — is understated. But Portman’s do, which dominates a face made up of close-set walnut eyes, a pug nose and just the faintest trace of jowls, is absolutely wild. It simultaneously manages to hide what otherwise would be a shiny dome while calling attention to itself like some kinetic piece by Alexander Calder. In short, Portman wears his design philosophy right atop his noggin.

Security and frivolity, the fortress and the carnival, a siege mentality married to an irresistible urge to shout “Step right up” — these are the yin and yang of John Portman’s approach to architecture, visible, to greater and lesser degrees, in his numerous projects around the country: Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, Renaissance Center in Detroit, Los Angeles’s Westin Bonaventure, Chicago’s Hyatt Regency O’Hare and New York’s controversial new Marriott Marquis at Times Square. But it is in Atlanta, Portman’s hometown, that he has accomplished what other architects only dream of — to build the heart of a city in one’s own image.


On a crisp October afternoon, John Portman is wandering across one of his sky-bridges, this one leading from the shopping level of Peachtree Center to the lobby of the recently completed Marriott. The sun-bathed sidewalks far below are deserted, but in this Plexiglas tube pedestrians pass by in a steady flow. Surveying the scene, Portman pronounces, “I’m building a city that will become the modern Venice. The streets down there are canals for cars, while these bridges are clean, safe, climate controlled. People can walk here at any hour.”

With that, the architect exits the concourse, strides through a claustrophobic, low foyer — he calls these trademark portals to his buildings “people scoops” — and emerges into an immense chamber whose vaulting walls rise toward a skylight forty-six floors above. “Now, I’ve been accused of turning my back on the city,” Portman confesses in his soft, southern drawl. “But what I say is that I’m giving the city new spaces away from the turmoil of urban life. I like to think of this lobby as a new town square. Here’s a sidewalk café. And look over there,” he enthuses, pointing to a man curled up in a chair reading a book. “Name me a public place in a city today where you can sit outdoors without anyone bothering you.”

Portman delivers this last observation as a challenge, but his tone wavers between imperiousness and vulnerability. The architect’s vanity is especially apparent when he’s showing off any of the more debatable features of his work, and this lobby illustrates one of his most frequently debunked notions — the idea that downtowns are dangerous, that what they lack are “oases,” demilitarized zones created by a circling of the architectural wagons and connected with one another by enclosed walkways. Portman has fashioned similarly cloistered spaces all over Atlanta. Inside the castle gates, however, his buildings are anything but paranoid. In fact, they are just the opposite: riotously freewheeling.

Portman’s imprint on Downtown includes Peachtree Center, SunTrust Plaza, AmericasMart, the Westin Peachtree Plaza, the Marriott Marquis and the Hyatt Regency.

On high in the Marriott lobby, exposed crystal elevators adorned with dozens of little lightbulbs rise and fall; fluttering red streamers dangle like Japanese kites; and volume after multileveled volume of crowded pavilion spaces seem on the verge of exploding from the larger cavity that contains them. Approaching the far edge of the room, Portman stops at a small bandstand surmounted by a grand piano. Adorning each corner of the platform are candelabra festooned with gaudy clusters of lights. “This is my homage to Liberace,” he declares without a trace of irony. The bandstand is just the kind of decorative touch that has led Portman’s detractors to accuse him of building Disneylands for adults, a charge to which he pleads guilty. “You know, inside all of us is that kid we’ve repressed,” he says. “I like to go down and release that innocence, that enthusiasm.”

Portman relies on more than razzle-dazzle. Oddly enough, his designs are also informed by a reverence for nature. Staring down into a pool of water at the core of the Marriott lobby, he says meditatively, “You’re never far from the sound of running water in my buildings. And in the lobby of my Hyatt at Embarcadero Center, I installed a sound sculpture featuring tape-recorded birds singing to one another. What I’m doing is exactly what Frank Lloyd Wright did when, say, in his prairie houses, he used stylized wheat shafts in the stained-glass windows. Only I’m doing it with modern technology.”

And with modern financing techniques. Portman is the nation’s premier builder of mixed-use developments, of self-sustaining villages plopped down in the middle of teeming cities. He designs buildings, and he puts together real estate deals. He chooses materials and hustles bankers. It’s as if Donald Trump and Michael Graves were rolled into one. Or as Portman once somewhat more heroically put it: “I’m the Medici to my own Leonardo.”

The offices of the family-owned Portman Companies, a group composed of ten subsidiaries, are only a sky-bridge away from the Marriott. In 1986 these enterprises pulled in a combined $400 million. At the heart of the business is John Portman and Associates, the design arm of the empire, where sixty architects labor in a vast open space reminiscent of a newspaper city room. With more than $1 billion worth of projects currently under construction around the world, it is one of the busiest studios anywhere in the United States. In a brightly lit chamber a few flights below the studio stands a scale model of the downtown Atlanta that Portman envisions for the not-too-distant future.

Portman’s vision for modern architecture was controversial. (Photo courtesy John Portman & Associates)

“We control property on fifteen contiguous blocks,” the architect says as he hovers over his mock-up metropolis. “We’re building a city here. Look there on those blocks to the northwest; we’re going to put real urban housing there. And over there, I’m proposing a shopping center. That’s a hard one, because I don’t own the adjacent lots. I have to woo many competing interests.”

As Portman rattles off his plans, he seems like a latter-day Robert Moses, a man for whom influence — not design — is the currency of the realm. No wonder. In Atlanta, Portman has played the role of urban power broker ever since the early Seventies, when he served as chairman of one of the most important city planning groups, Central Atlanta Progress.

This is not to say that Portman hasn’t been challenged. In a boomtown like Atlanta, fights over turf and policy are inevitable. But Portman has almost always quashed any uprisings. When a group of developers wanted to move the Atlanta airport from its current location in a blue-collar neighborhood south of the city to an affluent northern suburb, Portman led the battle against the plan. The move, he argued, would undermine the economy of a struggling section of town. When MARTA executives wanted to lay a subway line through the heart of the city by the traditional cut-and-cover method of construction — a disruptive technique that can close streets for years — Portman again marshaled the loyal opposition. His reasoning this time was more self-serving: business at his own Peachtree Center would have been damaged by the upheaval. Hence the subway tunnel was blasted hundreds of feet below the sidewalks.

To those who disagree with him, Portman’s style can be exceedingly abrasive. “John is a screamer,” says one Atlanta businessman who’s worked intimately with him over the years. “He rants. He turns the ceiling blue. His approach is, ‘This is how it’s gonna be done because I say so. Period.’”

Portman agrees that he can be a tough customer but claims there’s generally a good reason for his tantrums, averring that unlike other developers, he usually takes the long view. Leaning against a wall of his model room, he confides, “Everything I do is designed to make the city a better place. What I care about most is seeing people smile.”


Tape-recorded birds, master plans, contented urbanites at work and play — these are the obsessions of a utopian. As John Portman walks through his city, expounding on this and that, he sounds not so much like an architect but a peripatetic Sixties savant. In fact, he is positively McLuhanesque: aphoristic, abstruse, all knowing.

What chutzpah! At a time when the primary debate in architecture is between the stalwarts of modernism, who continue to pay homage to the austere forms dictated by the Bauhaus, and the cheerleaders of postmodernism, who mix and match decorative references from bygone eras, Portman is clearly a prophet in the wilderness. And in the eyes of the architectural clerisy, a pretty cockamamie one. Far from winning him respect, his iconoclastic ideas have brought him a reputation as a glitzy philistine.

Oh, a few critics, like Tom Wolfe, have praised Portman. In his 1981 book, From Bauhaus to Our House, he stood up for the architect, and he still does. Observes Wolfe: “More than any other architect, he’s created what we regard today as downtown glamour. His work is great theater.”

Portman designed the Beijing Yintai Centre in Beijing, China.

Yet on the Richter scale of the architectural establishment, Portman barely registers. Wolfe fears he “will be thrown down the ‘memory hole.’ He’ll be forgotten because the people who write the history are in the intellectual compound, and Portman doesn’t know how to play their game.” Indeed, in the architectural department of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Portman’s name is only mentioned in passing in the basic survey course.

Portman’s friends believe that the architect’s failure to garner the approval of his peers grieves him deeply. Irv Weiner, formerly one of Portman’s top associates, says, “Architecture is everything to John. The development business is nothing but a vehicle he uses to implement his ideas.”

But if Portman is wounded by his dubious status, he certainly doesn’t admit it. In fact, he vigorously defends his isolation from the establishment. As far as he’s concerned, the modernist movement was bankrupted long ago by its failure to respond to human needs and scale. As for the postmodernists, he regards them as nihilists whose inability to add new ideas to the design vocabulary is reflected by their need to vandalize the styles of other periods. Prideful to the point of disdain, Portman asserts, “I didn’t just come up with my ideas overnight. My philosophy protects me from hip shots.” What also helps are jobs, which Portman attracts like a magnet. This spring, the first in a chain of Portman Hotels will open near San Francisco’s Nob Hill. Meanwhile, a host of enormous Portman projects in the Far East are in variously phases of planning or construction. Several developments on mainland China make Portman one of the largest American investors in that country. If this weren’t enough, there are his continually unfolding plans for Atlanta — a city that for both better and worse is his abiding work in progress.


Two extraordinary things happened to John Portman on his way to becoming America’s most prolific architectural apostate, and both of them involved acts of heresy against the craft he loves.

Portman’s first sin was to buck the American Institute of Architects’ sanction forbidding members from developing their own projects, and he didn’t waste much time committing it. Not long after graduating from Georgia Tech in 1950, Portman informally apprenticed himself to Atlanta’s two most powerful real estate developers. “I didn’t want to do schoolroom additions,” Portman recalls. “I wanted to leave footprints in the sand.”

Portman’s initial foray into developing was modest — a mart for regional furniture wholesalers in what had once been a parking garage. Almost overnight his mart became hugely popular. Portman had anticipated such success and soon made the decision to undertake his first large-scale development project — the one million-square-foot Atlanta Merchandise Mart. When the new structure was finished in 1960, it was the largest building in the Southeast, and Portman was on his way.

“Because of my work in real estate,” the architect says, “I was able to see how fast the South was going to grow.” In short, Portman foresaw the advent of the Sun Belt and positioned himself as the man who would give shelter to latter-day carpetbaggers when they set up shop below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Around the same time, Portman committed an equally unspeakable transgression by rejecting what was then architecture’s holy writ — modernism. Listening to Portman talk about the decision is akin to hearing a defrocked priest discussing his renunciation of the teachings of Rome.

“In 1960, I flew down to Brazil to attend the inaugural ceremonies for the city of Brasilia, the planned city created by the best minds of modernism.” Rubbing his eyes as if reliving a painful memory, he adds, “At that time in my life I’d never anticipated anything with the kind of excitement I had for this trip. Well, when I got to Brasilia, I was devastated. It was heartless, lifeless, cold.”

The blue dome of the Hyatt Regency was once the most prominent feature of the Downtown skyline.

Portman left Brasilia with his belief system shaken. “Everything my teachers had told me was crumbling,” he says. “Over and over, I thought, ‘We don’t need new cities, we need old cities restructured in such a way that they respond to human needs.’ So I started thinking about how different parcels of land up and down Peachtree Street might work when developed on a master plan. I also started thinking about new forms for buildings. The Merchandise Mart was just a simple cube. There had to be something different.”

For Portman the breakthrough was the Hyatt Regency, his 1967 Atlanta hotel built around an expansive, covered courtyard and punctuated by scores of his patented, “Look ma, no hands” details. Before the Hyatt opened, all the experts predicted failure. But once guests began registering, the occupancy rate never fell below 70 percent. Not only that, Atlantans lined up around the block just to take a peek.

It didn’t take long for political and business leaders in other cities to notice what Portman was doing down south. His projects had brought to Atlanta what Mayor Andrew Young calls a “vital core.” In fact, the mayor now credits Portman’s designs, as much as anything else, with Atlanta’s “peaceful passage” through the violent era of the Sixties. No wonder, then, that shortly after his initial success in Atlanta, the architect was in partnership with David Rockefeller in San Francisco and with Henry Ford II in Detroit. Soon John Lindsay was courting him to revitalize Manhattan’s Times Square. For a brief moment, Portman was a sensation. But this was before anyone actually realized just how fully committed he was to his singular vision.


On a rainy fall afternoon, John Portman is sitting on a white sofa in the corner of his Peachtree Center office. “I’m an addict when it comes to collecting art,” he says, motioning at the numerous pieces around the room. At the door are two five-foot-tall Jean Cocteau glass sculptures. On the shelves encircling the space are, among others, a Picasso and an Arp. But the featured artist here is John Portman. His unsigned canvasses, executed in vivid reds, blues, and yellows, portray amoeba-like swirls dissolving into one another. It doesn’t take a genius to see that their intricately connected shapes are abstractions of the 3-D forms the architect erects out in the real world.

While there’s a desk and a conference table in Portman’s suite, there’s no drawing table — he does most of his designing out in the studio. In the office, he likes to let his mind wander. He speaks in whirling circumlocutions, each idea leading to half a dozen more. But eventually, he always comes back to the notions that have obsessed him since his trip to Brasilia, the fundamental themes of his architecture.

Portman at work on a sculpture named Fertility Goddess in 1998 at Polich Art Works (Photo courtesy The Portman Archives)

Leaning back on the sofa, Portman begins to lecture. “At the heart of my approach is an unflagging optimism. Because we’re moving from an industrial society to a technological one, most people feel a tremendous pessimism. There’s confusion, a nostalgia for the past.”

“Since World War II,” he adds, “we’ve been living in what I call a period of fragmentation-separation. You know, Einstein said that the world would never be the same after the bomb. How this affected cities was that it caused the inner core to explode. This happens in lots of ways. With freeways, the telephone, TV, man just doesn’t need the city. He drives his car out to the suburbs, kicks off his shoes, and shuts himself in.”

In Portman’s view, more than just the distraction of watching the grass grow keeps suburbanites out of town. The most potent force is fear — fear of the arsenal of random assaults that jolt the sensibilities on most city streets. The middle class is running scared.

“My idea was that I just couldn’t see abandoning the cities to the poor,” Portman says. “I want to bring the middle class back.”

In Portman’s mind, one of the keys to an urban renaissance involves getting Americans out of their cars. So he structures his projects in accordance with something he refers to as a “coordinate unit,” the distance he believes a person will walk before climbing into “the four-wheeled monster.” Hence the sky-bridges, the clustering of white-collar labor and fun zones in his developments.

Portman also has some almost Jungian ideas about certain shapes that he feels people gravitate toward. “Some people claim that I built the Atlanta Marriott as the womb into which I could insert the erection of the Peachtree Plaza,” he confesses mischievously. “Now, it’s not quite like that, but I do play constantly with the rectilinear and the curvilinear.”

But Portman feels that his greatest gift to cities — the subject to which he generally returns in most conversations — is that he’s reinjected nature into the urban formula. “I’m preoccupied with nature,” he says. “I grew up in an agrarian society. My grandfather had a farm south of Atlanta, and there I fell in love with the stillness of a lake, with flowers. Those are the things I try to put in my buildings.”

Where do all these twists and turns lead? To Portman World, a place whose far-flung outposts are, in a real sense, terrariums for humanity segregated from America’s mean streets. For a man who professes to love cities, Portman paradoxically hates urban chaos.


As long as John Portman erected his fantasy lands in regional cities such as Atlanta and Detroit, his position as a minor bedazzler of the hinterlands was assured. But in 1985, when Portman finally brought his show to New York City in the form of the Marriott Marquis, the high church of design could no longer afford to write him off as a nuisance building amusement parks for parvenus beyond the Hudson. In the course of a single day, he went from being a nonentity to a public enemy.

On August 31, 1985 — the eve of the Marriott’s grand opening — Paul Goldberger, architecture critic of the New York Times, published a devastating critique of Portman’s first contribution to the Manhattan skyline:

“The Marriott Marquis . . . cost upward of $400 million and it is chock-full of the latest technology. But it is to architecture as the Edsel was to the automobile — awkward, gangling, and out of touch. In the years between the announcement of this project and its completion, almost everything in the world of architecture has changed except Mr. Portman . . . At a time when architects are coming more and more to understand the importance of modest scale and . . . even historical elements, the Marriott moves four-square in the opposite direction . . .”

Portman’s much-maligned Marriott Marquis in New York City.

If the Marriott Marquis had been a Broadway production, it would have shut down the next night. Instead, it stood there like a scorned misfit. Yet, while the architectural nabobs were snickering, the hotel’s 1,877 guest rooms were filling up and have remained booked ever since. Meanwhile, the first play to open in the hotel’s theater — the British production of Me and My Girl — became the hit of the season. Of course, such successes should have surprised no one; Portman’s taste has always appealed to that vast majority of expense-account wielding Americans who wouldn’t know a Philip Johnson from a Howard Johnson’s.

More was behind Goldberger’s dismissal of the Marriott than just a dispute over architectural style. From the start, the project was troubled. Shortly after then-Mayor John Lindsay recruited Portman back in the early Seventies, the hotel’s finances fell through, suspending construction. Then a convention center that was to be built adjacent to the structure was moved downtown. Worst of all, Portman’s hotel called for the demolition of two beloved historic buildings — the Helen Hayes and Morosco theaters. Neither structure went gently into the night, as preservationists mounted fierce campaigns to save them.

“You know, fifteen years ago Lindsay brought me to New York to combat the sleaze factor on Broadway,” Portman recalls. “To do something positive, we decided we had to build a large structure that could single-handedly be a catalytic element. But that was so long ago, and in those years so many things changed. I ended up feeling like Don Quixote.”

Portman sighs then, his voice bristling, adds, “To tell you the truth, if I’d designed the building yesterday, I would have done it the same way. As far as I’m concerned, the Marriott is just what Times Square needed. I’ve done something no one has ever done in Manhattan — I’ve given the city space. So what if I’ve been criticized because the building doesn’t feature a collage of postmodern clichés. I firmly believe that once you stop being controversial, you’re dead.”

The pasting received by Portman’s New York Marriott can be attributed in part to the building’s controversy-plagued gestation period and in part to the architect’s unwillingness to bend to what he regards as the wrongheaded styles of the times. But criticisms pointing up other flaws in the structure — its inaccessibility, its undeniable girth — can’t be so easily dismissed. Such charges have trailed Portman around the country — in Detroit, where the shopping sections of the Renaissance Center, which is separated from the heart of the city by a nine-lane highway, have never worked; in Los Angeles, where the stingy entryways to the Westin Bonaventure isolate the building like a space-age medieval keep. But it is in Atlanta, where Portman has controlled the look of the city for a quarter of a century, that his efforts are most vulnerable to the more substantive attacks leveled at him elsewhere.

As much as Portman would like to believe that he is an architect for the masses, many of his Atlanta buildings are forbidding and cold. In fact, his largest structures, such as the Marriott, weren’t built for Everyman at all but for those hordes of corporate nomads who migrate in vast tribes to the trade shows that are an integral part of the city’s economy. While the architect’s work is user friendly to members of these large groups, it has little to say either to individual travelers hoping to appreciate the South’s charms or to natives who labor downtown, day in, day out.

Inside the Atlanta Marriott Marquis Hotel (Photo courtesy John Portman & Associates)

“The mentality of Portman’s projects,” says Richard Rothman, an Atlanta architect who specializes in small-scale buildings and rehabilitating old structures, “is based on providing space for a homogeneous society that is apathetic to those who don’t share the wealth. What’s worst is that every one of his Atlanta buildings is offensive to the street. The entrances are low and shadowy. And the most terrible thing is all those bridges. Walk around Atlanta, and the town is dead. Everyone is up above in all those glass tubes.”

Rothman believes that Portman has been able to get away with building what amount to urban redoubts because he’s a victim of the very innovation he pioneered. “Because Portman is his own developer,” Rothman contends, “he’s not blessed with what I think is a very healthy check-and-balance system. For most architects, part of the job is to review the developer’s program. Portman never has the advantage of independent analysis.”

Portman has heard such criticisms before, and in recent years he’s attempted to modify his work to answer some of the complaints. In his older Atlanta buildings, he’s knocked down a few walls to install street-front entrances and shops. In the Peachtree Plaza, he’s just completed an inspired redesign of the lobby, transforming it from a dank grotto into a bright space decorated by mauve-and-pink dormers and pediments. In his newer structures, he’s designed numerous street-level spaces where he’ll one day open boutiques.

But such alterations amount to little more than pushing around the deck chairs. Portman is never going to make major changes because he truly believes that he is right. Time and again, he’ll say, “I don’t look back. I don’t question myself. I’m a producer, and what I do is produce.” Portman is to be lauded for having the courage of his convictions, but his assertions, so full of strut and swagger, are also defensive, camouflaging his fear of opening up his buildings to America’s streets and everything they represent: danger, yes, but also the vivifying hustle and bustle that makes cities great.


John Portman lives in a large, tranquil house about fifteen miles outside of Atlanta. From this remove, the sturm and drang of building a city seems unimaginable. The dwelling, which he designed in 1964, sits on a wooded slope, and in a placidly abstract way, it resembles a Greek temple. Supported by twenty-four columns — many of them hollow and containing everything from baths to spiral staircases connecting the two main floors — it radiates order and peace. As in almost all of Portman’s work, water runs through the house, which on the ground level is really an archipelago of living areas separated from one another by the fingers of a man-made pond.

“So much of what I’m all about is evident here,” Portman says, sitting in a butterfly chair in his backyard one warm autumn morning. “This is where I really first brought nature indoors.” He smiles and for a second seems content with the world.

The architect spends a great deal of time at his house, which he named Entelechy (Greek for “potential realized”). He and his wife, Jan, have six children. When Portman is not busy being a father, his favorite thing is to hole up in an atelier beside his swimming pool and paint. “One of the things I’m bad at is chitchat,” he says.

John and Jan Portman (Photo courtesy The Portman Archives)

Not surprisingly, Portman is intensely private, guarding just about every aspect of his personal life. His fortune is considerable, but he refuses to talk about it. (Three years ago, an Atlanta business paper estimated his wealth at $200 million.) His free time is his own, and he’s not apt to share it. (“John hates cocktail parties,” says Irv Weiner, “and I think that’s made it rough for him in New York.”) Again and again, he parries even innocent inquiries by saying, “Architecture is what I’m about.  Let’s talk about that.”

The architecture that Portman is asked about most often these days is a vacation house he has just completed on Georgia’s Sea Island, a secluded haven of old-money WASPs who disdain ostentation and refer to their multimillion-dollar homes as cottages. After Portman purchased three lots and began work on the building he said would contain “everything I’ve learned as an architect” (he’s christened it Entelechy II), it didn’t take long for the community’s tony denizens to mount a hue and cry. A front-page headline in the Los Angeles Times topping a piece about Portman’s beach place said it all: HIS DREAM A NIGHTMARE TO NEIGHBORS.

To say the least, Portman’s 12,586-square-foot bungalow flies in the face of the ersatz colonial style found on Sea Island. There are numerous sculpture gardens, a waterfall flowing alongside the entryway stairs, and a mammoth, white concrete latticework roof topped by gazebos and brightly colored abstract pieces. Portman admits that the house is not like the ones next door — “The rooftop is my homage to Dali,” he says — but he can’t understand the fuss. “I’m an open, straightforward person,” he finally says. “I just hate being a phony, which is what I’d be if I went around explaining it all. See, I’m on down the road, thinking about the next thing.”

Recently, Portman has turned over some of the day-to-day responsibilities of his operations to his oldest sons. Jack, a Harvard-educated architect, laid the groundwork for the Portman Companies’ expansion into China, and Michael has taken over many of the public relations duties that come when working in such distant lands. Meanwhile, Portman has been concentrating on a few projects smaller than those he’s normally undertaken in the past. At Atlanta’s Emory University, he’s just finished a superb new student center and a no-nonsense athletic facility that suggest a new direction. Last year, he and his associates completed the delicate task of redesigning the skating rink and lobbies of New York’s Rockefeller Center. But in spite of the fact that he’s now into his seventh decade, Portman shows no signs of abandoning downtown Atlanta, which he calls “my ongoing saga.”

Wandering the grounds of his estate, he points through some second-growth forest. “See there, you can just make out the skyline,” he says with pride. True enough, the needle of the Peachtree Plaza is shimmering there in the morning light.

What Portman has wrought in the sky above Georgia is one thing, but not long ago he put his imprint in the red clay itself. After much debate, Ivy Street — a thoroughfare named for Atlanta’s first resident that runs by many of Portman’s edifices — was renamed Peachtree Center Avenue. By displacing the town’s founding father, Portman has certainly left his footprint in the sand. Now even the maps say John Portman was here. But why he was here and what he was all about — to understand those things, people will have to look beyond the surfaces, away from the streets. For in the end, John Portman is not an architect who faces the world but one who turns flamboyantly from it.

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