Architect John Portman, Whose Soaring Hotels Sparked Awe and Controversy, Dies at 93

The architect-developer, who invented the modern atrium hotel, passed away late last week.

John Portman obituary
John Portman in his Atlanta office in 2016. Courtesy Iwan Baan

John C. Portman Jr., the Atlanta-based architect and developer known for iconic hotels with bold forms and vertiginous interiors, died on Friday, December 29, at age 93.

Portman, who was born on December 4, 1924, in Walhalla, South Carolina, was a trailblazer who took on the business of real estate development at a time when such a role was proscribed by the American Institute of Architects. What some considered a conflict of interest became a commercial juggernaut for Portman, whose companies have carried out dozens of projects in 60 cities around the world.

In 1953, three years after receiving his architecture degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Portman established his own practice in Atlanta. Soon after, he took on a business partner, and by the end of the 1960s the growing firm had completed a convention center, in addition to several schools and housing projects in the area. The year 1967, which saw the completion of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, was a watershed for Portman. The 22-story downtown tower, with its soaring atrium and a saucer-shaped revolving restaurant on top, introduced the hallmarks of the distinctive style he would continue to develop throughout his career.

The building was the first example of the modern atrium hotel, a concept that would quickly become ubiquitous and inspire imitators. The Pritzker Prize–winning architect Rem Koolhaas, writing at the end of the 1980s, credited Portman with reinventing the modern atrium, his work “single-handedly perfecting a device that spread from Atlanta … to the rest of the world.” The visual appeal and drama of Portman’s buildings are a couple of reasons for their popularity. Many of his works have even served as filming locations for movies and television. Most recently the Atlanta Marriott Marquis was a set for the Hunger Games films, with the atrium doubling as an interior in the capital of a totalitarian state.

Portman’s architecture, while featured in popular culture, has had its detractors. In a 1985 review of the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York, New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger called the building “a gargantuan mass of concrete and glass, looming over Times Square like an upended bunker.” Others have alleged that many of Portman’s buildings are disconnected from the cities they inhabit, their contexts treated like hostile environments to be fortified against. The Marxist cultural critic Fredric Jameson wrote in 1984 that the Portman-designed Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles “does not wish to be a part of the city, but rather its equivalent and its replacement or substitute.”

Still, the tenor of public opinion has changed in recent years. Many architects and critics now celebrate the baroque exuberance of Portman’s buildings. A recent book, Portman’s America, edited by Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, revisits the Portman oeuvre and offers new frameworks of interpretation. Coming amid a resurgence of interest in Postmodern architecture, the publication represents a renewed legacy for an architect who had practiced continuously since the 1950s.

Until the end of his life, Portman worked in his Atlanta office, in a building he designed at the Peachtree Center. Employees of the firm, which today is led by his son John C. “Jack” Portman III, have said they enjoyed regularly seeing the elder Portman in the office, where he continued to have a hand in design. When Portman was asked to choose a favorite project from his considerable body of work—a common question posed by journalists to the prolific architect—he was fond of answering, “The next one.”

You might also enjoy, “John Portman is a “Renaissance Architect,” Says Harvard GSD’s Mohsen Mostafavi.”

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