John Portman, the pioneering and highly influential architect, died Dec. 29, 2017 at the age of 93. From humble beginnings in South Carolina, through determination and years of hard work, Portman became a widely renowned architect and real estate developer with projects around the world as well as one of Atlanta, Georgia’s most influential businessmen.
Portman revolutionized the modern atrium with innovative multi-story designs, such as those at the groundbreaking Hyatt Regency (completed in 1967) and Marriott Marquis (opened in 1985) hotels in Atlanta. His vast interiors provided open space in dense urban settings at a time when American cities were on the decline. He was also a prolific sculptor who included his artwork at many of his projects. In what could be seen as an unpremeditated tribute to his inventive designs, Portman’s projects have appeared in numerous films, often providing the setting for a futuristic plot.
We at Thornton Tomasetti were saddened to learn of John Portman’s passing. Those of us who had the good fortune of working with Portman recall his innovative approach to design and attention to detail.
With the Hyatt Regency Hotel, completed in 1967 in Atlanta, Georgia, Portman introduced the atrium to contemporary hotel design. Photo by Hi Sun Choi.
Hi Sun Choi, senior principal: I had the privilege of working with John Portman about 10 years ago on the Incheon 151 Tower in South Korea. His elevated bridges, such as those connecting the Incheon 151 towers and at the Peachtree Center in downtown Atlanta, work to create a community environment. The attention he paid to every detail in his designs, from the carpet pattern to the sculptures at the entrances, is remarkable. With his signature atrium and podium concepts, featuring glass elevators and green leafy balconies, Mr. Portman became one of my favorite architects. His work revolutionized public spaces and enriched corporate/commercial city life around the world. John Portman has left an incredible and lasting legacy.
Incheon 151 Tower at Songdo Landmark City in Incheon, South Korea. Rendering courtesy John Portman & Associates.
Dennis Poon, vice chairman: John Portman’s artistic inventiveness and attention to detail in his projects extended into every structural component. When we worked together on Incheon 151, he was very hands-on throughout the entire project. It was such an honor to work with an exceptionally talented artist, architect and developer. John Portman was a visionary who has left his mark and influence on cities around the world.
Tomorrow Square in Shanghai, China, features an innovative design that shifts into a diagonal square above the tower’s middle floors.
Tian-Fang Jing, senior principal: Matthys Levy (principal emeritus) and I worked on the Tomorrow Square tower in Shanghai, China, designed by John Portman and completed in 2003. In order to meet the fast-track construction schedule, we provided structural design development services in just three months, based on the concepts developed by Portman’s in-house engineer. The 1.4-million-square-foot, mixed-use complex features a 60-story tower with offices, executive apartments and a 342-room luxury hotel, which is linked by a sky-lit atrium to a six-story podium with retail and conference space. The tower is topped by a pyramidal spire that contains the telecommunication systems. The high-rise building features an innovative a 45-degree twist in plan at the 37th floor. This reorients the façade and completes the structural transformation from the concrete beam-framed slab floors below to the flat plate floors above. The structural transfer utilizes the exposed exterior triangular fins without losing any functional interior space. John Portman created a dramatic, sculptural high-rise landmark for Shanghai, which serves as a tribute to the city’s vitality.
The 1,892-room New York Marriott Marquis hotel, completed in 1985, spans a full city block in Times Square.
Matthys Levy, principal emeritus: I first met John Portman in 1980 when I was contacted by his partner, Mickey Steinberg, to come to Atlanta to be interviewed for the New York Marriott Marquis hotel project. I was shown the current design for the hotel with its characteristic central atrium, but with a series of five-story packages of rooms stepping forward and backward over the height of the Broadway façade. Each of these was shown to be supported by story-high trusses. I proposed removing these trusses and treating the five-story rooms as Vierendeel trusses using the columns and floor beams as the structure. This sold Portman on our firm, and we were offered the project, for which I was the principal engineer. We have had a continuing relationship with Portman’s firm as the hotel project has undergone numerous changes over more than 30 years since it was completed. Portman was a truly visionary architect who reintroduced an old idea of the interior atrium, which was common in late 19th century hotels, and thus creating modern hotel edifices.
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