John Portman looks back

By Maria Saporta
Friday, October 9, 2009

John Portman may be Atlanta’s ultimate Renaissance man.

During his lifetime, Portman has painted 380 works of art and created 257 sculptures. Add that to the numerous pieces of furniture and lighting that he’s designed.

At the same time, Portman the architect has designed 152 projects around the world that have been built or are under construction, and he’s produced countless conceptual designs and master plans.

Plus, he has been his own developer with one of his many claims to fame the development of the largest wholesale mart in the world (8 million square feet), right here in Atlanta.

The High Museum of Art will feature an exhibit of “John Portman: Art and Architecture” beginning Friday, Oct. 17, and running through April 18, 2010. It will be the first time Portman will have received such recognition in his own hometown.

“I went into it reluctantly,” Portman said when the High approached him about the idea. “But after I got into it and had to walk through my life, it made me do something I never take the time to do. It has forced me to look back.”

And then Portman takes a moment and says: “I don’t know how in the hell I did it all.”

Portman, who will turn 85 this December, shows no signs of slowing down. When people ask him if he’s still working, Portman answers: “No, I’m still playing. It’s fun for me. It’s not a job.”

Portman has “played” in cities around the world — changing the skylines of Atlanta, Detroit, San Francisco, Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou, among others.

Michael Shapiro, director of the High Museum, became closely acquainted with Portman when they were developing exhibits from China.

“I realized that here was an extraordinarily talented major figure in architecture and art in our own hometown, and it made sense to explore a project that celebrated that,” Shapiro said. “Sometimes we tend to overlook the native son and talent right in our midst. That was the lightbulb that went on in my head.”

As the idea took shape, Shapiro and other folks from the High went to see “Entelechy II” in Sea Island where they were given a personal tour by Portman.

“It is an absolute experience and extraordinary vision, and it confirmed to us that we were on track of something really important to celebrate and articulate,” Shapiro said. “It felt like a journey through John Portman’s mind and vision.”

Outside of his family, probably no one knows Portman as well as Mickey Steinberg, who was executive vice president of the Portman Companies from the 1960s through the 1980s. Steinberg went on to become chairman of Sony Retail Entertainment, building theme parks. But now he’s back with Portman as senior adviser to the chairman.

Steinberg said that Portman is usually recognized for his architecture and his art, but that’s too narrow a context.

“His life is more interesting than the work he’s produced,” Steinberg said, adding that people have “no idea of the totality of his work.” He marvels that Portman is still running three different businesses and working on projects around the world.

“He’s so much more than an architect,” Steinberg said. “He’s not only a great businessman; he’s a philosopher. I love being with him.”

Portman can’t be pigeon-holed. Although he was trained in the Bauhaus, modernist style, Portman’s work really could be called post-modern, even though that term did not exist. “John is the ultimate risk-taker,” Steinberg said. “Risk doesn’t bother him. I think he thrives on it.”

It was Portman who built a hotel unlike any other.

It was so different that he couldn’t get a hotel company to put its name on it until he met up with a Chicago family that had a small Hyatt brand.

Then came the Hyatt Regency Atlanta with its expansive indoor atrium — a design that changed the face of hotels around the country.

In a proclamation given to Portman by Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin on Oct. 5, he was credited for transforming 19 blocks in downtown Atlanta. “Since the 1970s, he helped take Atlanta nationally and internationally,” Franklin said. “He’s a man of vision, a brilliant designer, who is deeply committed to his community.”

Portman’s career has not been without controversy. He’s been criticized for moving urban life to the interior of buildings or on skywalks above the street. Some of his projects have been described as fortresses that don’t blend in with their surroundings, particularly Renaissance Center in Detroit. But others defend his designs as being appropriate for their time.

Now his works of art and architecture will be on public display in a way they’ve never been seen before, which creates “a bag of mixed emotions” for Portman.

“I’m not worried about it,” Portman said. “Everything I do is in the public arena. It’s exposed to everybody. That’s what architecture is. The furniture, sculpture, paintings and lights — people are not aware of it. I’m trying to be true to my own uniqueness, whatever it is.”

Shapiro noted that the High’s exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci is overlapping Portman’s exhibit.

“It’s a very happy coincidence,” Shapiro said. “We do have geniuses in our midst, in our own time, who are able to work in many areas at one time. We have someone who is dreaming about the way cities can be. Here is a man who has changed the face of our city, who is changing the face of other cities in China and Korea. He’s had an extraordinary career and an extraordinary life.”

Even Portman has been amazed at the “mass” of his work and play.

“If you’re so busy paddling the canoe, you’re looking downstream. But looking back, it blows my mind,” Portman said. “But if you live as long as I have, there ought to be something to show for it.”

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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