It has become blood sport among many architects and critics to disparage the late John Portman’s buildings and enumerate their shortcomings — insular, inward-facing, anti-urban, street-grid-denying, fortress-like — regardless, the influence of these buildings on 20th-century architecture is enormous. If you’ve been fortunate enough to actually visit them and look at them as buildings and spaces, you’ll find they offer many delights and rewards for your time and observation. Portman’s buildings were instructive and inspiring to me as a young architecture student, and I was much saddened by news of his passing.
It is difficult to identify an architect who had more influence on American architecture in the late 1960s and 1970s than John C. Portman, Jr., FAIA. The 1970s were particularly demoralizing years for America, and Portman was a true hero. Uncertainty was his constant companion in that troubled era — surely due in part to his choice of career: The U.S. economy was in recession and in many parts of the country building activity had largely come to a halt. My parents were part of the successful, post-World War II generation that enjoyed a broadly expanding economy and an assertive and strong America that had become the leader and the model for the world. The shadow of the Cold War and the existential threat of nuclear war were ever-present concerns, but overall things were good. Vietnam and rampant inflation were ongoing issues, but the real brick wall to the surging American dream was the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, which rocked our nation’s financial and cultural values to their foundations. We were dependent on cheap, mostly foreign oil in ways we never understood until then. It fueled not only our cars, but our lifestyles. The embargo brought geopolitical forces out of the newspapers and into our homes (and wallets).
I was going to college while this economic turbulence shook my parents and many of their friends, and certainly my classmates. My architecture professors at Auburn were often former practitioners who had been laid off from various firms and were teaching in the relative security of academia. Much design learning focused on the nascent use of solar energy, of maximizing resources, of making do with little. American architecture was not being practiced with “the hog stomping baroque exuberance” that Tom Wolfe identified in “From Bauhaus to Our House”; architects were focused instead on austerity. They hunkered down and waited, hoping to last the recession out.
But there was at least one architect who was creating his own path using his own sensibility, seemingly ignorant of the plight of the world around him, and it was John Portman: a Southerner, working in the New South’s de facto capital city of Atlanta, making big plans and — even more importantly — getting them built. He titled his flagship downtown development Peachtree Center with its Rockefeller Center-esque ensemble of high rises and trade marts organized around a sunken open court. No ice rink, but Peachtree Center’s collected buildings incorporated restaurants, shops, sculpture, lots of plants, and a Tivoli-inspired march of twinkling lights. Just a short drive down the road from Auburn (where I was a student), Portman’s work was easily accessible, filled with dramatic ideas (and overlooked nuance), and fun to visit. Other architects took notice. My teachers professed to hate all of it. I think they were jealous.
Of course, the 1967 Hyatt Regency in Atlanta — a cornerstone of Peachtree Center — was the building that made Portman’s reputation. Its 22-story atrium was praised and lauded by critics at the time, and as it was daringly original and new, little was made of its internal focus and lack of connection to the urban fabric. That criticism would come later, when other atriums, often not as deftly handled, proliferated across the country. A soaring atrium became a virtual requirement for hotel design. Interestingly, the Hyatt was not Portman’s first use of this feature; the atrium had its genesis in a remarkable public housing project that Portman designed in 1965: the Antoine Graves building (now demolished). Admiring the way it organized the access to the housing units and created a successful interior space (a secured space, as important for a low-income senior housing project as it would later be for a hotel), Portman adapted it for his then-operatorless hotel. Turned down by every major national chain, he ultimately came to a deal with Hyatt, at that time a company that operated airport motels. The phenomenal success of the project not only elevated Hyatt, but made Portman and what we would now identify as his brand the go-to model for hospitality.
The Hyatt’s atrium was my first great space. You can laugh, but I grew up in North Carolina and we didn’t have a lot of innovative structures at hand to compare it to. When I last visited, in 2015, it still gave me chills to walk in and look up. Of course, I’ve been to other buildings since I first visited, spaces that are arguably better and more complex, but the Peachtree Center Hyatt will always be the place where I first understood the power of architectural volume and how it could affect and move you. Additional lessons could be drawn from the way Portman handled natural light in his spaces. Architects talk about light in a very special way, but modern examples were few in the South at the time. We didn’t have any Lou Kahn buildings to visit to experience “architectural light” and how it filled and modeled spaces. It was an abstract concept when my teachers talked about it, hard to glean from photos in books or slides in lectures and somewhat incomprehensible. Visiting the Hyatt, with its cascading light streaming through the vines on the balconies and casting shadows on the deeply recessed walls, gave me a powerful and vivid example: That atrium had a tangible heft, and other architects were drawn to it for inspiration. I’ve often wondered why Richard Meier’s first major museum, the High in Atlanta, has as its most memorable space an atrium. It seems obvious to me that the atrium was a typological part of Atlanta architecture, and consciously or not, Meier included one in his building.
It is impossible not to recognize John Portman’s impact on Texas architecture. His example was absorbed and followed here, especially as the economy recovered from the oil shock, which benefited Texas cities greatly. He completed one building in Texas, the Fort Worth National Bank Building in Fort Worth (now significantly altered), but he influenced a number of others as well. A list would include at least one atrium building in every major city in the state: The 1972 Hyatt Regency in Houston, by JV III (a joint venture between firms Caudill Rowlett Scott, Neuhaus & Taylor, and Koetter, Tharp & Cowell); The 1978 Reunion Hyatt Regency in Dallas, by Welton Becket and Associates; the Plaza of the Americas in Dallas, by HKS; and the 1981 Hyatt Regency Riverwalk in San Antonio, by Ford, Powell & Carson and TVS are a few obvious examples. It is also arguable that Houston’s Galleria, perhaps the most popular public space in the state, owes its expansiveness and layering to Portman’s example of the power of interior spaces to gather and collect people, focus them, and encourage them to participate in collective life.
Portman continued to work until his death at 93. After the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, he did a number of other hotels, all variations on the theme of the first hotel, in places as far-flung as New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai, and Singapore, with the most distinct (and celebrated) being the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco. But it was in his work at Peachtree Center that Portman seemed to best capture and execute his imagination, which allowed him to create a complete vision of his ideas. In 2010, Peachtree Center and its history were presented at the Venice Biennale as a part of the U.S. Pavilion — a high-toned setting for a mere developer and his commercial buildings. I think Portman knew his buildings were architecture first, as did anyone who paid attention.
Michael Malone, FAIA, is the founding principal of Malone Maxwell Borson Architects in Dallas.