The architect and developer John Portman, who died late last December at the age of 93, created some of the most iconic buildings of the late 20th century. He opened his own office in his home city of Atlanta in 1953, and it wasn’t long before a few house commissions turned into a series of megaprojects that redefined that city.
In 1961, the Atlanta Merchandise Mart opened downtown and was immediately the largest building by floor area in the city. That same year, Peachtree Center, a 14-block area continuously developed to this day, debuted. In 1965, he opened his first and only public housing project, the eight-story Antoine Graves senior center just outside downtown Atlanta. The humble structure, which was demolished in 2009, was the first of his to include an atrium—something he soon became famous for when he applied it to his design for the Hyatt Regency Atlanta.
In his unique position as an architect and developer, Portman then expanded his portfolio across American downtowns with several spectacular projects—San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center, L.A.’s Westin Bonaventure hotel—that became synonymous with ‘70s- and ‘80s-style downtown redevelopment; later, he and his family-run business shifted their focus to China.
Before his death, Portman established a relationship with Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), creating a professorship with the university and paying the occasional visit to studios to see student work. He also collaborated with GSD Dean Mohsen Mostafavi on a book project, Portman’s America & Other Speculations, published just months before his death.
Mostafavi served as editor for the book, which explores the architect’s life and ideas through a revealing interview and is illustrated throughout with Iwan Baan’s photographs of Portman’s work. It also includes a section devoted to student work from Harvard professor Preston Scott Cohen’s “Portmanian Architecture” 2015 studio.
CityLab met up with Mostafavi shortly after Portman’s death to discuss the book project and what he learned about the man in his final years.
How did the idea of Portman’s America come about?
We have a professorship here at Harvard called the Portman Professor of Architecture, which we set up with John and his family in 2012. The idea of the professorship is to bring people to the GSD whose scope of work and research in some way parallels the work of Portman; that would mean we could bring in architects who are interested in questions of architecture, real estate, sculpture, furniture design—the scope of Portman’s practice. Essentially those people spend a semester at the GSD and do what we call an “option studio” where they work with 12 graduate students and set up a hypothetical subject, but it doesn’t have to have anything to do with Portman’s work.
We’ve had Patrick Schumacher, David Adjaye, Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, Jeanne Gang, and, currently, Rem Koolhaas. Two years ago, we asked Scott Cohen, who’s full-time faculty, to use the concept of the studio. He’s the only one who used Portman as material for it.
Essentially, he took some of the early projects, the students analyzed them, and through their analysis they created new formal possibilities out of the analysis. The students went to Atlanta to meet with Portman and visit his buildings, then came back and made their own work. Essentially, they spent the whole semester creating new versions of Portmanian architecture. It’s like taking a Picasso, analyzing it, but then doing a Picasso-esque painting that still feels distinct. The origin is important, but the time spent discussing the formal transformations of what you’re doing and the consequence of that detail are what make the final product.
It was interesting to use Portman as material for investigation and not just placing him in context of the history of architecture but in the future of architecture.
Have you sensed a renewed interest in his ideas or designs in recent years?
Rem touched on the bigness of Portman’s work in his Atlanta essay before the ‘96 Olympics. That left a mark on a lot of people, myself included. There’s always been both a kind of constant awe about his work and a level of critical reflection, but even more so in the last 10 years as buildings like Rem’s CCTV tower in Beijing and even some of Portman’s own work in China have made the large-scale building a prominent subject again. People are enthusiastic about the sense of amazement that comes with his work.
When I was speaking at his service, I was thinking that in the last 50 or 60 years in the States the only two significant architectural figures between Wright and Gehry, besides Kahn, are probably I.M. Pei and Portman. From the ‘60s through the ‘80s they had such productive outcomes. Gehry never really operated the same way at the urban level as those two—if you want to look at someone who’s doing both architecture and urbanization, Portman’s the one. Pei was still dealing with developers and individual museum buildings. Portman was his own developer.
Speaking of that, I came across an old quote from Pei saying that Portman “has left architecture for development. You can’t be both. The interests are different.” Do you have any insight into how established architects typically regarded the integrity of Portman’s work?
No, but Pei himself spent the first part of his life working for a developer. You could argue the beginning of his work was from real estate, he did that for quite some time. There is a certain similarity in the beginning between the two.
I only got to know Portman during the last seven to eight years of his life, but he was such a great person. John was in some ways the opposite of Pei, who doesn’t like to say much. He didn’t come from a wealthy background, but he was driven, intellectually curious, and confident. He would say things that were against the grain in a way where you couldn’t be sure that he was even right. He probably believed in what he was saying but the evidence might have other layers of interpretation.
He would talk so much about people, users of buildings. He’d say “architecture is about life, it’s about people.” When we had these studios, I would invite John to come and do a two-hour master class with the students. It was a way for him to be connected to the younger generation and way for our students and faculty to see John. He never liked staying away from home so he’d come in from Atlanta in the morning and fly back in the evening. In those two hours, there was a sort of performance of reacting to student projects, trying to see the humanity in them. But it was genuine.
He was very focused on the consequences of ideas. In his own work he was trying to create a sense of totality. He’s doing the hotel, the sculpture, and the furniture. He’s choreographing—it’s like a stage set and he’s staging the whole experience.
Originally, I wanted to do a book about the two houses he designed because they’re more unusual in how they encapsulate his persona, his relationship to family, his idea of how one lives, and his inside-outside design. He was so into interpreting things but that’s less visible when you’re dealing with something like Peachtree Center because it doesn’t have the same scope as when you’re designing a house. With a house you can pick up more on the minutiae of its details and arrangements. It’s also more connected to the cult of personality.
Did you notice a shift in his big works Atlanta to China?
I think you would have to look more at the relationship between him and his son Jack, who deserves credit for what they are doing in China. They’re probably the first big U.S. practice to work in China and to then set up an office there and be able to work with Chinese developers while being developers themselves.
Jack has been doing more of the traveling, but John was on top of that from Atlanta, going from desk to desk at the office every day, discussing designs. His hand was in every project but I think the Chinese projects are dealing with a situation that’s particular to China, so they don’t present a role of experimentation that their earlier projects produced in the ‘60s and ‘70s. One would need to study their Chinese projects differently: What’s it like being a foreign architect? How do you interact with the locals? What are the rules of the game? How can you invent within those rules? What are the innovations given those limitations? You can’t just look at them as purely formal objects.
But my focus was to say that in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they did something in a moment when the relationship between the setting up of the practice, his ideas, and their success produced a certain body of outcomes. They have a product and a formula. They not only know about a certain body of architecture, scale of building, and what works financially, but they also know how to do it as real estate. The concept of how that’s being configured and then exported is interesting. But I was dealing with the question of how you arrive at something innovative at the intersection of architecture, real estate, and design.
John really loved this book; he was keen on seeing additional volumes. I didn’t have a lot of time and I wanted this to come out when he was still alive. It was important that we have him be involved and to have his voice. I think that some of these other issues need more serious work and will take longer.
Did you get a sense of which architects he admired or individual buildings or architectural ideas he was really fond of?
The architect he always mentioned was Frank Lloyd Wright, who he had 10 seconds with when he visited Georgia Tech while John was studying there. In our interview with him, there are references to Kahn, but he was drawn to Wright as a persona, someone with declarations.
John’s work was all about simple declarative statements. It’s not a complicated or hesitant thing. He mentioned a book on philosophy he had read that was influential to him but it’s just a general book on philosophy. He didn’t think you needed to read 100 books on philosophy because you liked philosophy. There was a sense of, like, “What can I get from this one architect? What can I get from this one philosophy book?” Sometimes if you read a lot of things you become hesitant. The confidence he had was important for acting on his ideas.
John also mentioned something about Hugh Stubbins, who was another Harvard grad. There was a Stubbins exhibit at Georgia Tech when John was in school. He said [after seeing the exhibit], “I don’t want them doing that to me”—regarding the archiving and documentation of Stubbins’s work. They were collecting current student work and he says he went to borrow his own work in the archives—he called it “The Morgue”—just before graduating and destroyed all of it.
Wright was about geometry and proportion, pressure and release, opening and closing—so was Portman. He’s conscious of building proportions and spatial understandings. But Wright also loved low ceilings—Portman was about grandeur. His hotels are all one big atrium! Stubbins did the Citicorp Center in Manhattan and some work in China. Stubbins’s work stayed with John into his 90s. There are interesting similarities between the two. Stubbins is known at the GSD but not so much outside. In terms of scale and grandeur and use of concrete, they’re very similar. If I was doing the project now, I’d look at those two together.
In your interview in the book, Portman gets into the partnership he had with Atlanta’s corporate presidents and how the downtown avoided the kind of unrest that happened in a lot of urban centers in the late ‘60s. Did you get a sense of what Atlanta meant to him and how he felt seeing it continue to grow long after his first big projects there?
He was very close with people like former Mayor Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis, and the black business community. You could sense how proud he was to be a part of Atlanta. He was very connected with the developers there and the hotel people. In our interview he talks about how from the very beginning his company was integrating their buildings. He seemed like a person who believed in the community and believed in the role of his work, his architecture, as something that was about the community.
He wasn’t that keen to sit down and talk to other architects about architecture but he was very keen on sitting down and dealing with large-scale issues of investment, the city, the future. Portman was more in touch with the people who make the city work from a business and political perspective. The way all of these people were talking about him at his memorial service, it was like they weren’t just there to pay respects to a well-known architect but to someone they personally felt strongly about. He helped improve Atlanta, and Atlanta was proud of him.