Dezeen Magazine

John Portman 2004

American architect John Portman dies aged 93

Atlanta-based architect and developer John C Portman Jr, renowned for his buildings designed around vast atria, has died aged 93.

Portman's architecture firm made the announcement the day after his death on 29 December 2017, which was followed by a string of tributes from the international architecture community on social media.

Zaha Hadid Architects director Patrik Schumacher described him as "one of the very few true innovators of our field", and architectural historian Bart Lootsma called him "one of the greatest architects of the last 50 years".

"Farewell to John Portman, architect that sculpted many American city centers – and gave us atrium hotels," said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at MoMA.

"One of the unforgettable figures of 20th century American architecture, and a romantic modernist to the end," said critic Paul Goldberger. "He made architectural drama accessible to millions."

GM Renaissance Center Detroit by John Portman
John C Portman Jr's notable buildings include the GM Renaissance Center in Detroit

Portman's best-known projects include hotels like the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Hyatt Regency branches in Atlanta and San Francisco, and many more from Los Angeles to New York – each laid out around soaring internal atria.

"As a kid from the sticks, being in a John Portman atrium was one of the first times I understood the power of architecture," said graphic designer Michael Bierut.

Stairs by John Portman
Portman designed many hotels across the US, including the Hyatt Regency Atlanta. Photograph by Michael Portman

Portman also designed the Renaissance Center in Detroit, which comprises interconnected skyscrapers that stand prominent on the city's skyline, and included the tallest hotel in the western hemisphere until it was surpassed in 2013.

Portman was a prolific developer, and made great efforts to save the downtown areas of his home city and other American metropoles during the so-called "white exodus" to the suburbs in the second half of the 20th century.

Atlanta skyline for John Portman
His contribution to the skyline of Atlanta included the multi-block Peachtree Center. Photograph by Kinka Wong

This resulted in the 14-block Peachtree Center in Atlanta, where he designed and built a series of towers connected by sky bridges to create a bustling business district.

BIG partner Kai-Uwe Bergmann thanked Portman for "bringing spatial awe to my Atlanta youth and thus paving the way for my own architectural adventure".

John Portman
Portman also designed several projects in Asia, including the Beijing Yintai Centre. Photograph by Beijing Yintai Property Co

Completed in 1965, the Peachtree Center is still home to John Portman & Associates, which also has an office in Shanghai.

The firm's focus shifted towards Asia from the mid-1980s, where demand for similar large-scale hotel and office developments was growing. These projects included the multi-tower Beijing Yintai Centre, Shanghai Centre, and Tomorrow Square also in Shanghai.

American Cancer Society Center Atlanta by John Portman
Portman's other buildings in his home city of Atlanta included the American Cancer Society Center

Portman was born in 1924 in Walhalla, South Carolina, but grew up in Atlanta. After graduating with an architecture degree from Georgia Tech university in 1950, one of his first contributions to the city was to transform form an old parking garage into a furniture mart.

American Cancer Society Center Atlanta by John Portman
Similar to Portman's hotel designs, the American Cancer Society Center was designed around a vast atrium. Photograph by Matthew Lee

Originally called the Merchandise Mart and now known at the AmericasMart, the building includes eight million square feet (743,000 square metres) of space, and will host a memorial service for the architect on Friday 5 January 2018.

"His was a compelling typological innovation," added Schumacher. "A new building type: towers with continuous internal navigation/communication voids. We (ZHA) are finally starting to catch up with him, continuing his work – the best compliment and respect one can give to an architect."

Photography is courtesy of The Portman Archives, unless noted otherwise.

More images

Westin Peachtree Plaza Atlanta by John Portman
Westin Peachtree Plaza Atlanta
San Francisco 1989 John Portman
Photograph by Timothy Hurlsey
Hyatt Regency Atlanta by John Portman
Hyatt Regency Atlanta
Hyatt Regency Atlanta by John Portman
John Portman 1998
Photograph by Polich Tallix
Chair by John Portman
Photograph by Michael Portman
Sculpture by John Portman
Photograph by Haigwood Studios
John Portman 1990
John Portman 2014