You never forget your first love: An ode to John Portman

Living in Gin

My youth was pretty sheltered, architecturally speaking. While I had an interest in architecture at an early age, I was never really exposed to the big names like Kahn and Corbu until I began my undergrad degree in Chicago.

My first love? The architecture of John Portman, back when I was in high school in northern Florida and Atlanta was the center of the universe. The first monograph I ever bought was his, and his Marriott Marquis in Atlanta was the first bit of Architecture with a capital "A" that I ever went out of my way to visit -- even though it meant sneaking away from my church youth group during a visit to Atlanta, while they were having lunch at the Varsity. (That expedition via MARTA was also the first time I ever rode a real subway.) The larger-than-life atrium space seemed to have been lifted right out of a sci-fi movie.

Portman was a bit of a pariah at the time; Urbanists hated him because his projects were seen as inward-looking megastructures, and the architectural elite hated him because he was also a developer and not particularly theoretical in his design approach -- at least not in the way that was in vogue at the time.

But times change, and Portman finally seems to be getting some overdue respect. His detractors of the time -- New Urbanists who touted anti-urban, faux-historic greenfield developments like Celebration, Florida, and the postmodernists whose projects now look as dated as rolled jeans and popped collars -- have fallen out of favor, and elite firms like SHoP Architects are now being applauded for their innovation when they take on equity stakes in the projects they design.

Portman's way of designing -- with the human experience at its core -- seems to be gaining momentum again, and being a fan of his work no longer seems like a guilty pleasure. It feels good to be vindicated. Part of me has always hoped to design a huge atrium hotel like the Marriott Marquis or the Embarcadero Hyatt, but my own design sensibilities have evolved, and the building codes now make it almost impossible to build a monumental-scale atrium lobby like the Hyatt or the Marquis today.

But you never forget your first love. Here's to you, John Portman.

Aug 29, 16 4:32 pm

back in the day, when I first say the Hyatt Regency in SF, we all thought it and Embarcadero center was it - many years later - I worked on 3 floors of TI design in Embarcadero 4

Aug 29, 16 6:09 pm  · 

John Portman was severely criticized  for building a home on one of the exclusive Georgia Islands that was about four times the size of anyone else's. The atriums in his hotels were magnets for the suicidal jumpers as well.

Aug 29, 16 6:16 pm  · 

I think Rem Koolhaas hated on Portman (Essay in S, M,X,XL) because he did not (re)invent the Atrium the way Portman did. Thats a purely theoretical assumption.

Aug 29, 16 7:23 pm  · 

Thats a great article, thanks David. Gotta love the fashions and "cuisines" in that video...

Aug 29, 16 7:24 pm  · 

Olaf: Ironically, during my lunch break today I was just thinking about how Portman's monograph describes "exploding" the parti of the Peachtree Center Hyatt (his first big atrium hotel), and the parallels between that and OMA's approach to the Seattle Public Library.

Aug 29, 16 7:30 pm  · 

David as I look for a possible online version of said Essay I found this

Aug 29, 16 7:49 pm  · 
Bored in church as a young lad, laid in the floor & the soaring ceiling above...later...a visit to DC & the classic buildings there...always looking up...that's where the action is...
Aug 29, 16 7:54 pm  · 

this person qoutes Koolhaas from that essay their conclusion is also interesting...."In other words, after Manhattanism, Portmanism. If Portman hadn’t existed, Koolhaas might have had to invent him, so interested is he in resuscitating the ideas of a certain set of third-tier architects, smart men who went the way of commerce and developed forms that, once copied, they could not control. Wallace K. Harrison falls into this category (see the XYZ Buildings on Sixth Avenue), as well as Victor Gruen, father of the mall, from whom I think Koolhaas derived his now-passed theory of “junkspace.”"

Aug 29, 16 7:59 pm  · 

Portman's Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles was an early milestone for me.  I visited just after it opened in the late '70s, and those interiors were mind-boggling.  And still are, literally:  I was in there last year and found it impossible to navigate the 4-5 lobby floors whose visual connections (up, down, across) are completely ubiquitous, yet whose actual physical connections (stairs and bridges) are very few.  I sort of felt trapped for about 5 minutes.

I think I drank my first proper cocktail in that rotating lounge on the top floor, too, so that's a big moment from high school.

Wonderful construction view:

Aug 29, 16 8:10 pm  · 

I made a point to visit the Bonaventure when I lived in Los Angeles, and I absolutely love that lobby space, even if it's confusing as hell. It's the type of space I actually enjoy getting lost in. I should've had a cocktail in one of those floating cocktail pods.

Aug 29, 16 8:13 pm  · 

recent visit - New York Marriott Marquis

Aug 29, 16 10:04 pm  · 

David, I can appreciate your 'first love' feeling for Portman's architecture. There seems to be something consummately late-20th-century-American about it, with a strong dose of regionalism as well. Could Portman's architecture be seen, in Cold War terms, as capitalist antidote to Soviet Triumphalism?

I'm not sure I see the regionalist connection; his concepts were pretty consistent regardless of what region of the country they were in. Maybe I'm thinking of regionalism more along the lines of David Miller's granola-flavored critical regionalism.

The capitalist antidote to Soviet triumphalism, I can see... Some of his projects remind me a bit of the utopian brutalist megastructures proposed by Paul Rudolph, et al, but appropriated for capitalist purposes.

Oh, for the days when architects had cojones of solid brass... 

Aug 29, 16 10:44 pm  · 

On a more technical note, am I correct in thinking that such atrium spaces would now be completely forbidden under IBC unless all the corridors were enclosed with a one-hour rated partition or glazing with deluge sprinklers? I appreciate the need to mitigate smoke travel, but that seems like complete overkill.

Aug 29, 16 11:00 pm  · 

At AIA National in Atlanta in 2015 many architects, including me, were completely blown away by the Portman atriums. We did study Portman in Arch History in my school, so I had seen a lot of the work through photos, but yeah. Standing in the atrium of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis was literally breathtaking.

I can't find/remember who the original architect of the now-Conrad NY hotel was, but Monica Ponce de Leon did a very cool renovation of its atrium.

Aug 30, 16 9:05 am  · 

As an Atlanta resident, I always have appreciated his atriums. This has been my iPhone's background for a good 2 years now.


Aug 30, 16 9:56 am  · 

I actually had a room booked at the Mariott Marquis for the AIA convention, but had to cancel my travel plans when my housing situation in NYC fell apart. The 2018 AIA convention will be in New York, so maybe that will be my chance to stay in the Times Square Mariott Marquis.

Aug 30, 16 10:00 am  · 

Olaf Design Ninja_

I think your critique of Koolhaas does not hold weight. You're referring to his Atlanta (ca.1996) essay, where he claims that Portman's building are anti-urban because they are large introverted developments where the user never has to actually interact with Atlanta. Which is true. You must remember Portman was also a developer so the longer the user stayed in the Peachtree Center, the more money they made (similar goals in casinos, malls, etc.). Although the building did have beautiful atriums, they also provided light and fresh air so people could feel connected to outside world without actually going outside. 

Also, in regards to him not "(re)inventing" the atrium, I suggest you take a look at any of his major works: Tres Grande Biblioteque, Seattle Central Library, Milstein Hall, Axel Springer, Prada NYC etc. etc. - all projects have subverted or really inventive vertical openings filled with program (unlike Portman's). Koolhaas's atriums are not just to create beautiful spaces but he's managed to find a way to make them habitable throughout the building. 

Aug 30, 16 10:03 am  · 

I love portman as someone who built big, idiosyncratic spaces. all of them are ugly, but fascinating and richly conceived. they have personality, even if it's domineering and callous.

his first project in shanghai is even in chinese known simply as the portman center. i have no idea why it looks like it does. his son gave a talk a while back about how they helped the city manage some difficult deals and got the far upgraded to something amazing to make this one work. it's a fortress!

i suppose the space underneath has some idea of localization to chinese vernacular, in a bombastic and surreal way. the arches make no sense at all. but it's genuinely a pleasant place to sit and have a drink day or night.

the second big project his office did in shanghai is otherworldy, a transformer waiting for a big enough bolt of lightning to strike and charge it up for launch. totally missing from all the tourist kitsch about the city, but really a neat building that sits surprisingly well in its corner of downtown. also a clear contender for a medal in phallistry.


Aug 30, 16 10:16 am  · 

Whoa, midlander, that second one is real? Crazy.

Aug 30, 16 11:37 am  · 

Ahhh, trying to remember the film that his LA building was in...?

Aug 30, 16 1:24 pm  · 

Towering Inferno

Aug 30, 16 1:33 pm  · 

My bad, that was SF

Aug 30, 16 1:38 pm  · 

"The Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites has been featured in many movies and television series over the years including: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,This is Spinal TapIn the Line of FireNick of TimeTrue LiesMidnight MadnessShowtimeHard to KillChuck, and was destroyed due to special effects in Escape from LA and Epicenter. It has also been showcased in episodes of CSI, the films Mission Impossible III and Hancock." 

Aug 30, 16 1:41 pm  · 

We did study Portman in Arch History in my school

That sentence make me feel so old.

Aug 30, 16 1:42 pm  · 

Quondam,  I envy your youthful spelunking through the Stokesbury mansion.  I just ran across that terrific website a year or two ago and have spend a lot of time reading all of those amazing drawings.  I always wonder what residing in a place like that must have been, when most of the public/ living rooms are actually circulation spaces.  (Having an army of servants would make things more convenient, I'm sure.)

As a kid, the few books on architecture at my local library were, not surprisingly, on mansions.  One house whose plan I spent hours and hours trying to figure out from interior and exterior photographs was the Harold Lloyd estate in Beverly Hills.  It's an amazing place, inside and out.  It was featured heavily in the movie Westworld; the grounds were cast as Roman World.

When I was in my late 20's, an old friend was hired by the new owner to do renovations and an addition.  She needed help doing as-builts, and asked me along.  I walked through that house like a 5-year-old in Santa's Village-- I was so friggin' excited to see just how all these rooms laid out, and how gorgeous it all was.  (Fun fact: according to Wikipedia, the 1927 house is 45,000 sq. ft. and 44 rooms.  And it boasted a one-car garage, about 12x20; when I visited, it held the security office and a couple of ear-piece wearing goons.)

Aug 30, 16 2:13 pm  · 

^ I just caught the silliness of adding on to a 45ksf house.  It never went through, so they must've stayed really tight for space.

Aug 30, 16 3:25 pm  · 

hhach, I agree to your first paragraph but here are my issues with the second paragraph and I'll borrow from someone I found while looking for this essay on line.

"In other words, after Manhattanism, Portmanism. If Portman hadn’t existed, Koolhaas might have had to invent him, so interested is he in resuscitating the ideas of a certain set of third-tier architects, smart men who went the way of commerce and developed forms that, once copied, they could not control. Wallace K. Harrison falls into this category (see the XYZ Buildings on Sixth Avenue), as well as Victor Gruen, father of the mall, from whom I think Koolhaas derived his now-passed theory of “junkspace.”" link

This is clearly Rem's mode of operation and his architecture in a sense.  To take "commercialized" concepts and over intellectualize them and turn them into art and then re-inject them back into architecture - as Architecture with a capital A.   I would argue not a (re)invention, since Rem already stated Portman did that, rather a Rem Koolhaas adaptation.

Your note about Portman's atrium's not having program is nonsense, just look at the photos above.  One has gym equipment, another a lounge, etc...As far as habitable, the Marriott absolutely is.  I know an engineering equipment rep who uses that space as his office, and in the sense of Delirious New York, the Marriot is an oasis in the middle of Time Square (on the interior).  The only difference between Rem's Delirious New York and Portman's Atlanta, is containment - Manhattan is an island.

Does Rem like Portman? (p.839):

"John Portman, artist-architect, is said to be a very rich billionaire, his story shrouded in rumors of bankruptcy.  He works in office crowded with his own Pollock-like paintings.

He is undoubtedly a genius in his own mind."

What business is it of Rem to bring up bankruptcy rumors and accuse the man of considering himself a genius in his own mind? Is this not a statement of contempt?

Rem qoute's John Portman writing "I consider architecture frozen music." I bet ya'll thought Frank Gehry said that?

“One day, Esa-Pekka said to me, 'If architecture is frozen music, is music liquid architecture?' ” Gehry said.

Rem then describes the architect as developer (Portman) and block by block redevelopment of Atlanta, etc...

This brings us to the Atrium, already quoted above, so will not repost (ODB Aug 29, 16 7:59 pm)

Then Rem goes Panopticon (a well played out motif by Mr. Koolhaas, at this point theoretically tiring unless you're a freshman in architecture school). Rem considers the Atlanta Marriott not "frozen music" rather "arrested maelstrom" (p.843)  Convulsive effort, is it beauty he asks?

"ersatz" downtown....again read above post or link above to find the conclusion of this mild rant by Rem.

It's clear to me Rem had a bit of contempt for the man beyond his urban designing contributions, but we'll continue

p.858 concluding remarks

"Now, maybe as a personal testament, he wants to bring the European city to the heart of Atlanta: arrogance or sentimentality? A rip-off of Leon Krier's "community" emblem: glass pyramid over pedestrian plaza supported on four pylonlike buildings.  When I asked in Portman's office whether he was inspired by Krier, I was officially told, "Mr. Portman doesn't need inspiration.

Portman has three identities according to Portman: artist, architect, developer.   He has yet to discover a fourth: that of the thinker or theoretician.  He could assert that each city is now an Atlanta - Singapore, Paris - what is the Louvre now if not the ultimate atrium?  He could have been - or maybe is - disurbanist to the world." (1987/994)

Rem basically accused Portman of not being intellectual, if not dumb?


Trying to imagine this entire scenario.  A dutch architect calls up Portman's office and says "hej, can I come and hang out?"  Rem hanging out watching a firm that probably makes money and pays it's employees with great benefits and becomes disgusted by designers designing a building in one day and the best thing he can come up with is to ask a successful business man's staff  if he was inspired by an academic? Rem probably posed this question to some Georgia state educated farm boy of all people, who probably couldn't wrap his head around such prodding passive aggressive academic questions. (g'damn Europeans and their heuty tuetiness)

Rem might of well said - I think you suck Mr. Portman because I am an artist, architect, and a theoretician - I don't like your reality.


I like Rem for all things I listed and I admire his amazingly hip cynicism, I really do.  I like Portman for all the things Rem lists about him and for actually building a vision.  Just wanted to point out, I think there is more to Rem's criticism of Portman than purely theoretical.

Aug 30, 16 9:04 pm  · 


I think you're out of scope and your distaste for Rem (for whatever reason it may be) blinds your ability to properly analyze and critique his architecture. Yes, Portman re-invented the atrium and his contributions to architecture are undeniably significant. However, I suggest you look at Rem's buildings to see how he has transformed the atrium and vertical openings rather than over-analyze what he has said because as we all know, Rem is great storyteller who is great with words and its difficult to understand his true intentions.

Great discussion

Sep 1, 16 7:13 am  · 

hhach I wouldn't say I have a distaste for Rem. I would suggest I have the same intellectual cynicism he has towards all things stable. I have read a good bit of Rem's writing and made the effort to re-write Junkspace altered, much like Hunter S. Thompson would type the "Great Gatsby" out to get the feeling. So I would suggest, although I may be wrong, I have a good understanding of Rem to a degree. Unfortunately I have not experienced any Rem atriums so any analysis would be limited. I think David who started this thread could probably speak to it?............One point I would like to further stress with regard to Rem and much of S, M, X, XL and some of the writing on China and perhaps best exemplified in the analogy of the New York Athletic Club and Manhattan in Delirious is his clear obsession for contained programs that are essentially complete realities in their own right - urban programs in one building. Which brings me back to Portman. Why are Portman's buildings so wrong?

Sep 1, 16 7:54 pm  · 

Quondam, you lucky bastard.  I'd hoped to see the BH house after being tortured as a kid by the way those interiors failed to match the exterior.  ("How could that room just beyond the foyer have a window at that side where another room would have to be?"  "What happens behind those curvy walls in the foyer, when all the other rooms are rectangular?" and on and on.)

( rope belts > Jethro, aka Beef Jerky)

Sep 1, 16 9:03 pm  · 

Yes, I understood... still, that's a big thrill, especially to get that same view through the gate.

You're the best person on here to ask: did you ever search for or find a floor plan of the house?

Sep 2, 16 2:51 pm  · 

Yes, that's a great book... clearly drawn by one of us.  

I started a thread a few years back called TV Architecture on this subject of architects' observations and frustrations with... well, you know.  I always love to hear others' stories.

Sep 2, 16 6:11 pm  · 


I've had the pleasure to tour the Harold Lloyd estate "Greenacres" several times.  It's a wonderful place.  The courtyard of the house is beautiful, and the gardens still retain their character, although they are a small portion of the original estate.  Much of it was chopped up and sold off many years ago.  The estate originally featured elaborate themed gardens, an incredible hillside water cascade, and a small private golf course.  Amazing stuff.

I've spent a lot of time there, when my firm was hired to design an elaborate estate on the adjoining property to the south.  We worked on the planning of the property for two years, then our client walked away.  The parcel is still undeveloped.

Sep 3, 16 12:35 pm  · 

Thanks, EKE, and I'm  envious.  Yes, I remember the house's "cortile" / courtyard and amazing main rooms and bedroom suites.  That stair is fantastic, too.  And all those gardens!

I'd've been gobsmacked in any situation, but getting to see it after poring over the  photos and description in that old library book when I was 9 or 10 was fantastic.  I'd love to visit again someday.

P.S.  As a result of that very small architecture section in my town library and its focus on books about big or famous residences, I can accurately sketch floor plans of the White House and easily point out set design errors on tv shows and movies.  (I'm looking at you, House of Cards.)

I wish I could monetize this goofy skill...

Sep 3, 16 2:14 pm  · 

For a while, around the dawn of online commerce, I used to buy and sell architecture books.  The only one I still have - because I absolutely positively could not sell it anywhere - is a John Portman monograph. Eventually I read it.  My impression is that his work is about compositions of repetition of "flatter", lower buildings, all just stacked on top of each other and slightly scaled, rotated, twisted...  

Sep 3, 16 3:19 pm  · 

tell us more.  sounds a wee bit OMA, no offense.

Sep 3, 16 3:41 pm  · 

Gotta go with B, D, G, and I.

Side note: Yesterday I got a nice note from Portman's executive assistant saying this thread had been printed out and left on his desk, and that he appreciated it. Always nice when a piece of fan mail gets acknowledged.

Sep 3, 16 4:53 pm  · 

that's pretty cool David and this is actually a rare thread.  Quondam I'm going with B and H.

Sep 3, 16 5:10 pm  · 

@David Have you by chance seen Iwan Baan's somewhat recent photos of Portman work? Including EntelechyII - house or Americas Mart?

Also, found this chat ft John Portman + Jack Portman with Mack Scogin really fascinating when I first watched  a few year back.

Sep 7, 16 12:55 am  · 

Portman's atriums are one of the biggest factors that put me on the career path of architecture.  For us ATLiens they were some of the best pieces of architecture available to us and its comforting to see his buildings put the zap on others like they did on me.  He gets so much hate, and maybe deservedly so, for making his buildings so insular, but the payoff you get from penetrating through those brutal facades are some really amazing spaces buried inside.  There's something to be said about architecture that offers such discovery, and there's nothing wrong with simple, raw concrete forms either.   

I haven't posted on Archinect in an age, but I just had to come on back to say:  "Damn good post bro."

Sep 8, 16 10:22 pm  · 

The GSD video I was referring to.

Back in 2010 (while they were re-skinning the building following a 2008 tornado) stayed at the Westin Peachtree Plaza. Such a great room/view. Plus of course, that "seven-story tall lobby atrium"!

Nice to see/hear from you @Apurimac

Sep 8, 16 11:39 pm  · 

This is my favorite critique of Portman's Bonaventure Hotel (and downtown LA) by Ed Soja.

Dec 31, 17 10:24 pm  · 

Thanks Orhan. This is a terrific critique by Mr. Soja. Spot on.

Jan 1, 18 11:57 am  · 

Interiorization of architecture.

Bruce Wayne's castle under the ground — Moscow metro.
The Moscow Metro is perhaps the most beautiful bomb shelter in the world. And while 007 was playing golf outside, we heard a knock on the inside.
We are underground people. We can to appear in the most unexpected city location.
Once you go under the ground — no one, but you knews where to come up.
Plan of Moscow University and Palladian Kedleston Hall - The Great civic architecture that Aldo Rossi dreamed, visiting Moscow in 1954 at the age of 22.
Rem Koolhaas, also visited Moscow for the first time when he was 22. This trip became decisive in becoming architects for both of them.

And tragedy is that Portman pulled from the underground, what should remain there. 

Sep 6, 18 8:38 am  · 

Block this user

Are you sure you want to block this user and hide all related comments throughout the site?

  • ×Search in: