Viewpoint: Why John Portman mattered
It has now been a few weeks since the passing of John Portman Jr., and perhaps a good time to reflect on his true impact on Atlanta and the rest of the world. One thing is certain: he led a long and meaningful life, leaving his mark on Atlanta and other cities across the globe in a unique way.
Teddy Roosevelt gave the following advice when asked to reflect on his own life. He said “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” I think Portman took that advice to heart. Consider the following….by 1981, approximately halfway through his career, he had already built a project in Brussels, Belgium, had begun work on a major project in Singapore, and had hosted Chinese leader Deng Xao Ping at the Westin Peachtree Plaza Downtown. The buildings of AmericasMart were fixtures on the skyline and Jack Portman (John’s son) had traversed the Middle East, and had opened an office in Hong Kong.
Now this was before Andy Young became mayor; before the Carter Center; before Ted Turner built CNN into a worldwide brand; before yet another redo of the airport; before the Olympics; before the pieces of the Georgia World Congress Center had come together, including the building of the Georgia Dome; before Home Depot was founded; before the redo of Underground; and decades before the Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca Cola, the Center for Civil and Human Rights and the College Football Hall of Fame. John had already built the flagship Hyatt Regency Atlanta, and most of Peachtree Center; projects in San Francisco, LA, and Detroit were done and the New York Marriott Marquis was on the way. He had essentially designed and developed most of the convention infrastructure of Atlanta, and was altering other skylines across the country and the world. He had even secured the rights to the World Trade Center name and had made plans for the creation of a World Trade Club on top of Americasmart.
But it is much more than his architecture and developments that marked his time. There are countless issues that he had a hand in — many may not be aware of his early commitment to integrating restaurants in downtown when others were not, or that his voice was perhaps the most important in burying the north/south MARTA line under Peachtree Street when others were ready to have it run on top of Peachtree. Further, it is not widely known that capital contributions from Portman secured the major renovation of Underground in the 1980s and his commitment to planting trees around his downtown projects led to the beginning of Trees Atlanta. Just consider the thousands of jobs his buildings have and continue to create, and the amount of taxes his projects have paid over time. (I know he thought about that one a lot.)
His impact on other U.S. cities such as New York, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco was similar, as they all came at a time when others lacked confidence in the urban cores of American cities. Portman’s unwavering confidence in city centers was and remains unparalleled in the context of the era in which his projects were conceived and developed. None more impressive than Shanghai Centre located on busy Nanjing Road in the Puxi neighborhood of Shanghai. It is there that Portman’s 2-million square-foot development set a new standard for architecture and development in China’s most important city, and made him a household name across the Middle Kingdom.
But perhaps, most importantly is what John Portman left us in Atlanta: A living laboratory of space that speaks to innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship and best reflects the spirit of our city in the latter half of the 20th century. Atlanta has become a city that incubates new ideas and inspires individuals to reach new heights in all their endeavors. It has become a place of opportunity for people to seek their fortune and raise their families. In other words, it truly is a place of hope and nurtures those who are committed to its future. That, I believe, is the real legacy of John Portman.
If ever there was a favorite son of Atlanta, John Portman was highly qualified. He spent his entire career and most of his life here. He loved our city and our state and was committed to their collective future. We are blessed that he did what he did, with what he had, in Atlanta and the world, during our time.
Portman was a keen student of Ralph Waldo Emerson and all of his writings. Emerson said it best when he proclaimed:
“The true test of civilization is not the census, nor the size of cities, nor the produce of the land. No, the true test is the kind of man the country turns out.” John Portman was a true test of our civilization, Atlanta, Georgia.