Neofuturist architect John Portman bet on cities just as people fled them

August 31,2016

It’s fair to say Andrew Young understands the South, and the city of Atlanta, better than most. A longtime politician, pastor, activist, author, and ambassador, Young successfully ran for mayor at the behest of Coretta Scott King in 1981, earning the right to boast that he led a city that had once put him in jail for civil disobedience. With such a deep background in politics and civil rights, he knows exactly how far Atlanta, especially the downtown, has come since the ‘60s. “When I moved to Atlanta in 1961, the tallest building was about 20 stories,” he said. “There was almost nothing downtown. It was as if the city still hadn’t quite recovered from Sherman burning it down.”

A decade later, parts of downtown were beginning to buzz again, he says, thanks in part to the work of a maverick architect and developer named John Portman, Jr. In an era which saw Americans flee cities towards the endless sprawl of safe, ready-built suburban housing, Portman placed bold bets on urban revitalization. "Architecture is about life, and it all comes back to people," he said. Decades before the urban exodus flipped into today’s mad rush for downtown real estate, the designer chose to redevelop in neighborhoods others had written off.

His urban projects were megastructures, massive developments, shopping centers and hotels such as the Peachtree Center, Merchandise Mart, Peachtree Plaza, and the revolutionary Hyatt Regency Atlanta. Opened in 1967, the stunning space blew apart (and blew open) previous notions of boxy, rectanlinear hotel design. The huge, open 22-story atrium was something very different, a blend of Italian piazza, neofuturist monumentality, and soaring balconies lined with ivy. Guests in the ‘60s lined up by the hundreds just to ride the glorious glass elevators—at $35,000 per cab, the custom systems were the most expensive in the world.\