John Portman is a “Renaissance Architect,” Says Harvard GSD’s Mohsen Mostafavi

Metropolis sits down with Mostafavi and John Portman's son, Jack, to discuss the architect's legacy and a new book re-examining his legacy.
Portmans America Book

Courtesy Iwan Baan

“John Portman is a hybrid,” wrote Rem Koolhaas, critically, of the American architect and developer in 1995. Now 92, Portman continues to inhere age-old oppositions—creativity and profit—and does so seamlessly. His work, long-disparaged for its ostensible counter-urban effects, has gained a new generation of admirers; not least among them are students at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. A 2015 studio there used the stuff of Portman’s buildings—notably, the massive atria, stacks of balconies, zipping elevators—as a jumping off point for what GSD dean Mohsen Mostafavi calls “a new architecture, but one with a lineage.”

Mostafavi is the editor of Portman’s America & Other Speculations (Harvard University GSD and Lars Müller Publishers), whose release happens to fall on the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta. That hotel—the first of the architect’s “atrium hotels”—is credited with jumpstarting the city’s downtown building boom. In Portman’s America the Hyatt has been photographed by jet setter Iwan Baan, who shoots the hotel and several other Portman projects across the United States largely, but not always, empty and devoid of activity. As with other architectural photographers, he highlights the architecture’s repetitive elements as well as its connections (namely, sky bridges) to the buildings around it. But, with feigned nonchalance, he also lenses secondary, semi-public spaces and sidewalks, where people can actually be found. The city, then, seems to happen just outside and in the shadow of these buildings.

The photography, which includes older works by Andreas Gursky and Jordi Bernadó, accounts for most of the book’s bulk. There are essays, however, by Mostafavi, GSD professors Preston Scott Cohen and Jennifer Bonner, and, perhaps most memorably, Portman himself. A selection of student work rounds out the book’s contents.

Metropolis‘s Samuel Medina spoke to Mostafavi and Portman’s son Jack, who acts as vice-chairman of Portman Holdings, about Portman’s America, the architect’s relationship with Atlanta, and the lessons we can draw from his legacy.

What prompted the idea for the book and the format that it ended up taking, beyond the Hyatt Regency Atlanta anniversary?

Mohsen Mostafavi: The timing of the publication is really fortuitous, in fact. When we started we were working together in different ways with John and Jack Portman. But I personally wanted the GSD to do more research about John’s work after visiting his house on Sea Island, Georgia, some years ago. I was completely taken by the house that John had done for the family.

Subsequently, we also had an optional architecture studio at the GSD that was conducted by Preston Scott Cohen. The argument of that studio, which was called Portmanian Architecture, was to show how projects like the Hyatt and others in Atlanta could be the basis for creating a new architecture. Very beautiful, interesting work came out of that studio. So we started thinking it would be wonderful to produce a publication that was more generally about the firm’s early projects in Atlanta and, at the same time, would present the studio research work. Do you have anything to add to that, Jack?

Jack Portman: Mohsen had expressed to my father and me his fascination with the manner in which my father had expanded the definition of what an architect did—the fact that he had become a developer. That enabled him to have much more control over the design process because he was also responsible for the financing process as well.

MM: As I started visiting the buildings and inspecting them in more detail, I realized that John is in a sense a renaissance architect—he was doing the development, he was doing the design, he had done some beautiful furniture, he was even doing sculpture for many of the buildings. That range of activities questions rethinks the ways in which architects organize themselves and so expands the definition of practice.

Atlanta is important to touch on. The city in a sense propelled the growth of the firm, and vice-versa. Jack, can you talk about the firm’s deep roots in Atlanta, and how the work continues to grow in relation to its expansion and change?

JP: This is our home town. Though my father was born in South Carolina, he moved here when he was three weeks old. He went to Georgia Tech and started practicing architecture here. In the process of doing that, he hit upon the idea of trying to convince a building owner with whom he’d previously had a relationship to allow him to redesign that building as a trade show facility—a furniture showroom facility. At the time many North Carolina manufacturers were looking to Atlanta to expand their marketing horizons, but the owner was not interested. He was an office developer, so he offered my father the opportunity to lease the space floor by floor and suggested that he go out and try to set up a company. That’s what he did. That today is AmericasMart [1961–2008], the largest mart in the world.

That began his process of reinvigorating the downtown. This was in the 1960s when the suburbs were starting to grow and people were fleeing the city. In a sense he went against the grain by continuing to develop downtown Atlanta. From AmericasMart he developed the Regency Hyatt and then office buildings and more hotels. All together we have designed or developed about 20 million square feet of buildings in the area—basically, the central business district. Today, demographics have changed and the mentality about how people want to live has changed. The idea about coming back into the city is much stronger and has a lot of momentum. It’s all coming together to create a very interesting city.

Portman's America

Courtesy Iwan Baan

Many of these projects in Atlanta and elsewhere have prompted diverse cultural responses—Frederic Jameson’s about the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, Los Angeles, being the most famous. But in the book you also have the photographs of Andreas Gursky and Jordi Bernadó. Why does the architecture prove so enduring but also stimulating?

MM: John’s architecture deals with repetition, but at the same time, it has the capacity to be radically innovative in terms of formation, adherence, materials. The whole relationship between the spectator and the building is turned upside down. There is an emphasis on interiority that can be considered differently; for a photographer such as Gursky repetition is very important, while for Iwan Baan, a building’s everyday qualities—grit, mess—and its relation to the city are foregrounded. Whatever it is, the projects offer a multiplicity of readings. Iwan’s photographs in particular are probably a better way of seeing the buildings today. These buildings are 40, 50 years old, but if you think about them in terms of form, they still seem quite unusual. Some of the architectural moves are closer to what we might now call parametricism.

But also in John’s architecture is its relationship with the city, which exists as an interface. The street still exists but there is also a world of connections inside, and the interface between the two—interior and exterior—is quite interesting.

What you’re saying, I think, is how the buildings create an urban condition in one structure itself. A good part of that is how Portman exposes circulation, e.g. walkways, elevators. It’s more than diagrammatic though, but not exactly monumental. There were others who were doing this during this time, such as the Japanese Metabolists, but what makes Portman’s work different, even American?

MM: Well, most of the Metabolists’ work ultimately remained at the level of the individual buildings, which expressed a certain structure and a certain idea of growth. The exceptions to this—Kenzo Tange’s Tokyo Bay project, for example—were never realized, and so the relationship between architecture and a greater pull as a set of relations was missing. But I think John Portman did this. He built on the scale of the city, both architecture and more than architecture. The work constitutes a kind of new understanding of “urban.” I wonder whether he would have been able to do that if he had not also been involved in the development of these projects.

But it’s important to not forget the visionary dimension of these projects in relation to the American city of the 1950s and ’60s. It’s so correct that you’re mentioning things like the Metabolists even though I don’t know to what degree John would be thinking about parallels with them. It’s very relevant because there is a very strong visionary dimension involved in the design and implementation of these projects and the kind of lifestyle that they present. It’s become much more normal in some ways. We see there’s been the development of so many malls and the idea of the “big” interior.

Right. That is a standard criticism of these buildings.

MM: But when you meet John it’s interesting how much he emphasizes the role of the user. He has an incredible respect for them. In John’s buildings, you have a very unusual combination of commercial and socialization. There is a lot of attention given to patterns of lifestyle. I’ve never lived in Atlanta, but I can imagine that in the summer, when it’s very hot and humid, being within an environment where you can walk from your office to a public kind of interior plaza court to other spaces actually produces a sort of artificial environment that nevertheless is quite productive in many ways. At the same time you have lots of opportunities to link back to the city, to link back to the street outside. There’s always an issue about how much life you are taking from the street when you create these artificial environments.

It’s interesting that you point out the role of the user.

MM: Well, that being said, John’s practice is an entrepreneurial activity so it also has to work from a financial perspective.

Jack, how do these two roles come together in your father’s personality, his ideas and work?

JP: I think you need to first look at his basic philosophy of designing for people. Mohsen referred to them as “users,” but they’re people. His designs are thinking about what those people experience as they go through a space, whether it’s a narrow space or a large atrium. If you focus on satisfying the sensory desires of people then they enjoy being in the space. If they enjoy being in the space it becomes populated and then activated and can be commercially viable.

He became a developer when he realized during one of his architectural projects that the developer he was working for had total control over everything he did. Even though they disagreed on how certain aspects of the design, my father, as an architect, could not persuade the developer to do it the way he thought was right. At that point he decided what he needed to do was to better understand the mentality of the developer so that when he went to present his designs he could speak to the developer in his own vocabulary and, therefore, perhaps be more successful in persuading him to his point of view. It was an educational process, after which he realized he could do it himself.

Portman's America

The spaces inside Entelechy I, Portman’s family home in Atlanta, are formed by 24 cypress columns, which are hollow and, thus, “occupiable.” Courtesy Iwan Baan

One of the book’s discoveries, I think, are the two houses [in Atlanta and on Sea Island, Georgia] your father built. Rather improbably, they scale down and translate the vocabulary of the hotels to the home. How do you think he was able to do that?

MM: With the hotels and the office buildings, the drama is the interior, in the way it turns things inside-out and outside-in. But it’s very hard when you’re dealing with that kind of scale of building to really build relationships between the inside and the outside. What I find particularly interesting with the houses is how much attention is given to the outside as is to the inside. A kind of threshold condition exists in both of the houses. For example, in the Sea Island house the feeling is that of being in the interior of the landscape—it’s the interior of the outside. The exterior and the interior in that house are almost the same. They fuse together. The threshold is very malleable. I think that kind of experimentation is harder to achieve at the urban level. In a way there is something similar when using elevated passageways and walkways; things like that are mediating between the buildings. The houses occupy this inside-outside space, and they do it in a really exquisite manner. Part of that is how spaces are burrowed into solid elements, these large circular columns. A staircase or a bookshelf becomes occupiable space. A tree grows out of the inside of one of these hollow columns.

JP: It’s taking the column—the most elementary building piece—and exploding it. Rather than becoming an impediment, it becomes an exploded space that you can go through, you can use in a variety of different ways.

MM: They become spatial elements. These kinds of qualities in John’s work are not often discussed because the emphasis has been so much on the atrium. This is a sort of slightly more detailed level.

Today we look at atriums, and we may think of them as somewhat wasteful or inefficient spaces. Is is really possible to look at John Portman’s work without the atrium?

JP: I would just make this observation: Hotels, just by the nature of their program, lend themselves to much more creative solutions than other building types. When you include a grand space within that complex programmatic formula you have an opportunity to create some very special iconic buildings. Not all buildings have this opportunity. And so the hotels, because of their iconic nature, get an undue amount of publicity compared to all the other buildings we do that don’t have that complexity. If you really look at a more overall point of view, the impact is not just the atrium itself. It is the impact of how that atrium piece fits within the larger mixed-use urban development that creates a community and a center and a connection for all the people using the buildings around them.

In what ways did the GSD students discover Portman and find his work more relevant than they may have initially thought?

MM: The work of the students occurred within a very specific frame. They were trying to find formal ways through which to transform, distort, add, and loop John’s architecture. I think it’s a really interesting way to begin to understand his work and also construct a new kind of architecture. What transformative possibilities that exists within the architecture itself could be revealed and implemented to produce a new architecture?

And yourself? With what understanding of Portman’s legacy do you take away from this book?

MM: People say, “John Portman—he did the atrium hotels.” But I think it’s very important to recognize that he has done so much more. Perhaps the aspect of his work most relevant to contemporary practice is precisely the relation of architecture to development. As a profession we have not been able to investigate in sufficient depth our relationship with development. Because of that, much of what we do too easily falls within the realm of the service sector. I’m not suggesting for a moment that all architects should become developers. But I do think that there needs to be some room and discussion about the way architects can become more empowered in shaping the built environment. That is something John has been able to do precisely through development.

Of course, there may be other ways to think about empowerment. This I think has consequences in terms of our fees, salaries, and position in society. How much value are we willing to give architecture in our society? How do we change the perception of our discipline at this level? These things are interconnected, and that is part of the subtext of this book. How do we think through an expanded role for the architect today. John Portman can help inspire that conversation.

You may also enjoy “How the 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale Jumpstarted Postmodernism.”

Categories: Architecture, Interiors

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