By Joyce Leviton
August 11, 1975 12:00 PM

It’s a calculated effect of proven reliability. And the calculator, architect John Portman, dotes on watching it. “I like to sit in anonymity,” he confesses, “and observe people when they are not aware of me.” From a seat in one of the casual groupings he has strewn about the lobby of Atlanta’s space-age Hyatt-Regency Hotel, Portman can spot the unsuspecting tourist moseying through the low-ceilinged vestibule that leads in from the street. With his first step into the lobby, the visitor seems to have been dealt a karate chop to the nape of the neck. The head pivots back, eyes climbing vertiginously to the hanging plants and chandeliers, past the mezzanines, up 22 stories to reach not the open sky but the ceiling of this colossal atrium.

Glass elevators lit with rows of tiny bulbs crawl up and down the walls like sci-fi beetles. There are fountains and full-sized trees. In one corner a huge parasol-shaped Plexiglas roof, suspended from the ceiling like a Tiffany lampshade, demarcates a cocktail lounge. This cavernous space, to the astonishment of even the most blasé visitor, is inside the Portman-designed Regency—not an al fresco courtyard between its wings.

As the crown jewel of Atlanta’s Peachtree Center—which he developed as well as designed—the Regency, and its impact, delights no one more than John Portman himself. Its completion in 1967 (it was sold to the Hyatt Corporation in 1966) made him the most controversial major architect in the U.S. and certainly one of the most successful. Subsequent Portman hotels, all for Hyatt—each featuring refinements on the towering atrium theme—have dazzled San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston. Just two weeks ago, Portman renewed his option on a plot in New York’s Times Square where he intends to erect his biggest building yet—a $150,000,000 hotel which will be central to the rehabilitation of the decaying Great White Way. With the backing of Henry Ford, Portman is redesigning Detroit’s downtown river front. In San Francisco, David Rockefeller is a partner in the largest urban redevelopment project ever undertaken privately—the whole Embarcadero district.

“Before starting the Regency, I had thought a lot about existing hotels—dim, dark lobbies with a desk and a newsstand,” explains the 50-year-old Portman, taking an elevator up to his offices on the 18th and 19th floors of Peachtree Center’s south tower. “I wanted to do something different. I wanted to create almost a resort, a change of pace, to bring in nature. So I pulled the elevators out of the walls and opened everything up. The hotel people either laughed or were appalled. Conrad Hilton said, ‘The Regency will never fly.’ Several years later one of his executives told him, ‘You can’t build a hotel if you don’t understand the Regency.’ It has made people in the architecture profession very conscious of space.”

For the rediscovery of ways to in corporate large interior spaces in today’s cost-conscious buildings, the profession now, albeit grudgingly, thanks Portman. Much of the architectural Establishment is still wary of him. His designs have been called too Disneylandish, too sensational, to rank with the somber monoliths of I.M. Pei, Mies van der Rohe or Philip Johnson. And yet Portman’s buildings are so clearly superior to the kitsch-laden confections of Miami Beach or Las Vegas that his work is rapidly being appreciated as a new category of architecture altogether.

“People places,” Portman describes his projects. “We have to stop thinking of buildings as art objects and think instead of their relation to life and of the contribution they can make to people through spiritual enhancement. I know this sounds lofty,” apologizes Portman in his soft southern voice. “But think of Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens or the sidewalks of Paris,” he suggests. “It’s the spirit of the place. You don’t even notice the buildings.”

Portman dismisses his earlier detractors by placing them in historical perspective: “It’s like the first of anything—it’s new so it’s no good. The critics reacted to modern art in the same way.” Ada Louise Huxtable of the New York Times initially criticized Port-man’s work as “flashy, corned-up and badly detailed.” Later she recanted, heralding the architect as “a twentieth-century phenomenon” and praising his “bravura” and “extreme sensitivity to the human passages of urban design.” Since that kind of endorsement, Portman makes short shrift of remaining opponents of his work: “Jealous, I guess.”

And well they might be. Portman leads the way into his personal office, a vast duplex arrangement as crisply understated as his buildings are brash and vivacious. The decor is Danish modern—a design passion with Port-man, who happens to be the honorary Danish consul in Atlanta.

The lower level of Portman’s elegant office—beautifully decorated with works of art—opens onto his firm’s studios, where the drafting tables overflow with designs for projects in several countries. (Presently he is in delicate negotiations for a complex in a Middle Eastern country.) On the upper floor is Portman Properties, his development and real estate firm, whose very existence galls his peers in an ancient profession founded on the gentlemanly relationship between builder and architect. Portman is a shrewd and loyal advisor to all his clients but since the earliest days of the Peachtree Center project, architect Portman’s most frequent client has been himself. A pious clucking among some architects is meant to imply that Portman’s entrepreneurial initiative must somehow compromise his standards of design.

Pointing out the obvious—that the design features of a building are the first to be sacrificed when a client starts pinching pennies—Portman proclaims himself “the first architect/developer.” Admitting, “I violate sacred rules,” he proceeds unabashed in his dream of vitalizing blighted downtown areas in Atlanta and other American cities.

“I could never have brought Peach-tree Center into being if I had dealt with somebody only interested in bricks,” observes the architect, looking out his window at the integrated complex of hotel, office towers, shops, restaurants, cafes and inviting pedestrian spaces with which he has revivified the Capital of the South.

Portman’s conviction is rooted in bitter experience. A Georgia Tech graduate who had just completed the approved three-year apprenticeship to an old Atlanta firm, Portman hung out his shingle in 1953. He promptly designed a medical center so innovative it was lauded by the preeminent trade journal Progressive Architecture—and rejected by every financier to whom it was shown. Nearly bankrupted by his gamble for independence, Portman went into partnership with an established architect, H. Griffith Edwards, who had been one of his teachers at Georgia Tech. Acting on a tip from Portman’s father, a federal civil servant, that the government was about to vacate a downtown office building, the firm bought it and set up a regional furniture market. Encouraged by its instant success, the partners arranged local financing to construct a 22-story permanent home for the furniture mart. That structure became the cornerstone of Peachtree Center and marked the beginning of Portman’s unique melding of development with design.

Parlaying his architectural services into equity in Peachtree Center, Port-man has become a millionaire many times over from the sale of the hotel and generous rent paid for space in the prestigious complex. A critic has said, “I doubt that John Portman is really thinking about people as much as he is about money.” It is, most knowledgeable Atlantans would say, an unfair assessment.

Griff Edwards retired in 1968 and has since died. The firm was renamed Port-man Associates, and the architect has every expectation of maintaining his family’s grip for at least another generation. Michael, eldest of the architect’s five sons and one daughter, has worked for Portman Properties since studying real-estate finance at Georgia Tech. Next oldest son, John III, a product of Yale’s School of Architecture, designs for his father.

A dervish of an executive who “only uses the office for making phone calls,” Portman often begins his day with a visit to the drafting studios, where he may pause to counsel a young journeyman stymied on a specification for one of Portman’s grand designs. Next he might be whisked into conference with one of Peachtree Center’s new tenants or, sitting below in a favorite cafe, discuss a candidate for Dean of Architecture at Georgia Tech. (Portman is a member of the selection committee.) A fiercely loyal member of the Chamber of Commerce, and a participant in Action Forum, a bi-racial businessmen’s group, Portman recently learned that a big corporation was planning to move its regional office out of downtown Atlanta and into the suburbs. Immediately he borrowed a plane so that black Mayor Maynard Jackson could hustle north to the company’s headquarters and convince its executives to stay put. (“We must not erode the tax base of the city,” Portman says. “The suburbs can’t keep us alive.”)

Portman likes to say that architecture in general and Peachtree Center in particular are not just his life’s work but also his hobby. Although he golfs on Sundays at Sea Island, where his family is summering, Portman’s real fun is to “get on the boards” on Saturdays, joining his colleagues at the drafting tables, looking over designs, sparking new ideas.

Portman’s most cherished design is the house he built for himself, his wife, Jan (a pretty, blond, small-town Georgia girl), and their family on 20 hilly acres in northwest Atlanta. “I like it as much now as I did when it was finished,” enthuses Portman. “It’s not just a design, it’s my philosophy.” “The house of the circles,” as he calls it, is built around six-foot-thick hollowed columns used variously for storage, staircases or study and TV rooms. A little brook bubbles through the first floor; the dining-room table sits on an island.

Portman at home sheds his splendid executive’s attire for rumpled sports clothes and leads the way to a mossy knoll up back of the main residence. He has recently added a combination bath house and guest quarters there. “I had planned to build the house on this knoll but Jan wanted it closer to the road,” he muses aloud. “One of these days, I’ll give the house as a museum and live downtown near Peachtree Center.” Portman leans back against a tree. Downtown, the sunset can be seen flashing in the windows of the soaring and still unfinished Peachtree Towers. It is the saying in Atlanta that John Portman first built a house for Jan and then a skyline for her to admire from it.

Advertisement