His hotels may have soft centres but the architecture of John Portman is as brutal as the late American capitalism that created it
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When John Portman talks about his buildings he invariably talks about ‘people’. When cultural theorists get hold of them they talk about ‘bunkers’. Aficionados on Facebook view his buildings rather like Spandex trousers, espousing some long-lost virility, while the business community has always, presumably, cheered, for Portman adopted their language. Most of us just go ‘Wow!’ There are few figures in architecture that so completely represent the futility of words.
Now 92, Portman is quite content to trot out the platitudes while theorists fire their blanks. It’s tempting to swap words for figures, but business is business. Biographically, after a modest upbringing he entered the Naval academy in the Second World War, where he set up, aptly, a hairdresser’s and joined the boxing club. Somebody suggested architecture. He went into practice with one of his mentors at Georgia Tech, succeeding as principal in 1968.
Portman says he learnt from Brasília, paying a visit in 1962, but not from the politics of benevolent socialism. Instead he learnt the language of the pension funds and risk. Portman has always made deals, never the ‘creative type’, never interested in ‘fads’. Just out of his starched dungarees it was straight to Brooks Brothers.
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His first major commission, in 1953 when he was 29, was for Atlanta’s Fraternal Order of Eagles. He went on making connections to develop its Merchandise Mart and linked in his first Hyatt Regency in 1967. So where Jane Jacobs saw the death of the American city, Portman saw opportunity. Downtowns still functioned as notional centres and practical transport hubs, they were ripe for redevelopment, and perfect for hotels. The context might be parking garages on three sides (nothing to gawp at), but by turning the hotel form outside you got a soft centre, the atrium.
Ten years later came his mature style, with atria like southern belles bustling under circular totems: the Bonaventure Los Angeles (1977) and the Renaissance Center Detroit (similar, but twice the size). Since the business consensus is that such buildings act as catalysts for growth, he became beloved of downtown civic leadership. Atlanta’s Peachtree Plaza main thoroughfare was renamed John Portman Boulevard in 2011.
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Early on hoteliers weren’t convinced by these atria; a double-loaded hotel corridor is more efficient in housekeeping terms and there are certain qualms regarding guests throwing themselves off into your crab salad. Conrad Hilton declared the Hyatt Regency Atlanta a ‘concrete monster that wouldn’t fly’. But Portman was convincing; these being the fresh interpretations of ‘town squares’ the like of which nobody had seen before, with their twinkling panoramic lifts and swooping gestures; their extraordinary art pieces (sometimes by Portman himself), space-age lounges, rooftop revolving restaurants and shopping arcades. Moreover the idea was catching. The last time I was in a ‘Portman’ hotel (the Hyatt Regency in Houston) it turned out to be a doppelgänger. In attempting to navigate that 29-storey, shades of Logan’s Run atrium – Portman often gets tagged ‘neofuturist’ – I was confronted by a gaggle of drunken young ladies dressed up as Snow White. I left the premises approximately twice. When you found the bar in those Hyatts, you stayed there; either too scared or too gobsmacked to do otherwise.
Portman’s pizzazz became carrion with Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991); characterised as the opposite of what Portman said it was. For art directors he became reliably dystopian (The Walking Dead and Hunger Games) and James Cameron even stuck Arnie on a horse in a Bonaventure scenic lift for True Lies. Portman insists he’s a shrewd people-watcher, and that his work was about the human spirit. The photos of Andreas Gursky attempt a deadpan ‘reality’.
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It’s a further battle of words. Portman developments can either be seen as providing ‘variety’ or inviting ‘disorientation’. In their dominating geometries they might even be read as ‘authoritarian’, or ‘totalising’. Even in the office, his meeting room was a glass-sided box on three sides in the centre of the drafting floor. He wanted to be seen to be in the thick of it, to others it looked rather panoptic.
Away from the compromises inevitable with civic work, Portman also produced two extraordinary houses in the spirit of Knossos. Entelechy I, the family home in Atlanta, and Entelechy II, his beach house in Georgia, are shocking, but somehow perfect renditions of Portman’s largesse. Entelechy I (1964) is a forest of giant columns, eight foot in diameter and made up of eight panels each, and so is Entelechy II, pretty much, if you extend the forest over a couple of football pitches and appear to run a stream through it. Both indicate, to all intents and purposes, that one might live best within a giant hotel lobby, or at least test one’s capacity to do so. That Portman remains married to his first wife, with whom he has six children, is testament to their success. To say they are showcases would be disingenuous, they were the mechanism by which the world-changing architect demonstrated what he could do, politely and intimately, over dinner.
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Stereotypically ill-disposed to reflection, he cuts the figure of city father; preacher crossed with entrepreneur. Ever looking to the next thing, he was even reluctant of an Atlanta-based retrospective in 2009. His Wikipedia entry says almost nothing. He co-wrote The Architect as Developer (1976) but (mysteriously or not) only the sections about his architecture rather than the development process. Portman became his own client to build his projects as he wanted them, but with myriad companies he soon became his own hotel operator and restaurant operation, even designing the mini-skirt outfits of the waitresses.
Paul Goldberger, architecture critic of the New York Times, has perennially been relied upon to provide further commentary; there were two GA’s (28/57) and one large monograph from L’Arca in 1990. In Britain he made it into the RIBA Journal in 1977 but otherwise scholars should look to the business magazines.
However, curiosity has revived. Charles Rice produced his authoritative Interior Urbanism in 2016 in an attempt at rounded discussion, and this features some helpful diagrams. And a brand new title – Portman’s America & Other Speculations (edited by Mohsen Mostafavi) – probes this self-made phenomenon further. But Portman does not fit comfortably within architecture’s current (mind) set – an architect ‘too damn busy to worry about personality’ is unusual these days; as is spotting phonies at a glance. It is therefore a rather odd book, combining the straightforwardness of Portman’s ‘can do’ with wonky ‘Portmania’ done by students that is anything but. However, it is well laced with documentary photography (inclusive of people) as well as appreciative interviews with the man himself.
So for all his soft centres, the lesson of Portman’s architecture is rather hard-boiled. It may be brutal, but so is the USA, and so is late capitalism. That his architecture became synonymous with the system that created it is rather to his credit. Meanwhile Portman’s architectural ideas managed to demolish the notion of downtown as a mere skyline; he made it an immersive experience. Furthermore, with Atlanta’s Peachtree Plaza, he almost realised that vision of a completely authored world. Brasília this may not be, but, of course, Brazil (1985) it just might.
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Illustration by Max Knicker