John Portman honored for his international endeavors

By Maria Saporta

Internationally-renowned Atlanta architect and developer John Portman was given the Lifetime Achievement Award Thursday evening at the revived Governor’s International Awards.

The awards were co-sponsored by the World Trade Center Atlanta and the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

For Portman, it was an opportunity to look back at the evolution of the global profile of Atlanta. He started design and construction on the Atlanta Merchandise Mart in the late 1950s and it opened in 1961.

“When I started, you could have a meeting like this in a phone booth,” Portman told the audience of 500 people who are involved in international business. “There was no one involved in international other than Coca-Cola.

Portman, who received his architectural degree from Georgia Tech, developed his global interests early in his career. He went to Brasilia in Brazil so he could see how one builds a new city from scratch.

“The president of Brazil wanted to get people from the coast inland with super highways as a way of developing Brazil,” Portman said. “I learned a lot — what to do and as much, what not to do.”

From there, Portman visited the Scandinavian countries to study the development of “satellite cities” in Sweden and Norway. At the time, Portman had his eyes on transforming downtown Atlanta.

“We did a master plan. We didn’t own the land, but it didn’t matter,” Portman joked. “Then we started building out the master plan.”

The idea for a merchandise mart caught hold as a place where buyers from around the country and the world could go to one spot to see what the market had to offer and then enter their orders.

“During that period, I came to the conclusion that we needed to be international,” Portman said. So he went to visit then Coca-Cola executive J. Paul Austin, who gave him two pieces of advice. “First of all, get you a strong local partner. Second, don’t be greedy; take a little and leave a little. It was a great philosophy.”

Portman went on to build an international trade mart in Brussels to serve the European market.

In accepting his award, Portman did not highlight his architectural firm’s developments in Asia — where there still is strong growth.

Portman also did not talk about how he and a few other Atlanta business leaders started the World Trade Center Atlanta in 1977, an organization he continues to support to this day.

Yes, Atlanta’s international community today no longer would fit in a phone booth (if one could even find a phone booth), and Portman deserves much of the credit for helping the foster the city’s global growth.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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