John Portman: Postmodern Architecture

In Sina's Posts on October 23, 2011 by SN

Tamás and I are totally intrigued by the architecture around us (here, here, here, and here). We owe this fascination to one person: John Portman. John Portman, a graduate of Georgia Tech, is the key architect of downtown and chief agent of urban renewal in the Atlanta of the 1960s and 1970s. His company, Portman & Associates, designed many of the downtown buildings which encompass now about 17 blocks including the cylindrical Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel (below left) and the beige clones of the Peachtree Center (below center):

Downtown Atlanta: Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel (left), Peachtree Center (center).

The Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel is one of the signature buildings in downtown Atlanta. The 56-story building was opened in 1976 and intrigues through its glass facade. The mirrored glass of the Westin blends in with the surrounding skyscrapers and the sky. Its round shape make it a very soft architecture. Although the glass windows suggest a kind of permeability, the hotel guests are able to observe what is going on in the city, but not the other way around.

Peachtree Center epitomizes the idea of modernist architecture with its reduced and minimalistic style. It was opened in 1961, but it is a work-in-progress. All of the buildings of the complex have a very similar design: beige, square, and three-fold.  The arrangement of the towers reminds me of a 1960s utopian space-ship fleet ready to take off for the exploration of unknown territories. The upright-shaped windows support the vertical structure of the tryptic-like buildings. The symmetrical arrangement of the windows also underlines a sense of order and hierarchy. At the time of construction the Peachtree Center was a powerful symbol against the downfall of the inner city, white flight, and suburbanization.

The Center, however, is an enclosed system. It has a MARTA station, two food courts and shops on the lower levels, and offices in the towers. The individual towers are interconnected with each other through various walkways. That way the office workers do not have to use the street a single time when they get out of the Courtland Parking Garage or the subway to go to their offices. The enclosed architecture underlines the idea of a (very convenient) city within a city, but it equally functions to leave out undesired people, like the African American poor. The architecture reminds me a lot of Mike Davis’ account of the Los Angeles shopping malls in his book City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles which are also built to keep out non-affluent population groups.

Portman’s first hotel, the Hyatt Regency Atlanta (1967), revolutionized contemporary hotel architecture: the hotel consists of a 22-floor atrium while the rooms are the “walls” of the buildings:

Hyatt Regency Hotel: Atrium and Outside Elevators as Signature Structure.

The vertical structure inside the hotel is reinforced through visible elevators. Going up and down they are almost figures in a kinetic play. The abstracted tree to the right side of the above photograph serves to bring in a natural, round structure amidst the rectangular shapes in the atrium. The roof of the hotel features a blue futuristic looking round dome that juxtaposes the dominating beige color. The dome is the revolving restaurant Polaris which reminds me again of 1960s science-fiction architecture:

Hyatt's Polaris (center), the Suntrust Plaza (center right), and Peachtree Center (left), Marquis I Office Tower (corner right).

In the 1960s, Polaris offered breathtaking views over Atlanta and was a major sightseeing attraction. Hundreds of tourists came to marvel at the unique architecture each day creating long lines around the hotel.

Atlanta Skyline in the late 1960: Hyatt Regency with Polaris (right), Peachtree Center (left to Hyatt), and our crib The Landmark in front of the Peachtree Center standing diagonally (Source: Atlanta Then and Now, 82).

In later decades the Hyatt was tucked away between Portman’s Peachtree Center, the Suntrust Plaza Hotel (my least favorite, 1991), and the Marriott Marquis (1985). This iconic era ended in 2004 with the closure of the Polaris restaurant.

In contrast to the Hyatt Regency, the Peachtree Center, and the Westin Peachtree Plaza, the 1985-opened Marriott fascinates with its organic indoor architecture. While on the outside, the Marriott bears many similarities with the rectangular Peachtree Center, the inside has often been referred to as the body of a whale. When I explored the Marriott, the design of the floors reminded me more of ribs and the spine of a human body than of a whale. Well, see for yourself:

Marriott Marquis Hotel: Transcending Boundaries between the Body and the City.

The Marriott perfectionizes the idea of a city within a city. The two atrium levels feature shops, cafes, and a lounge. Yet, I must say that this “city within a city” feels weird because it confuses my understanding of public and private space, outdoor and indoor space. For example, sitting “outside” of the Starbucks, but being inside of this massive hotel causes a feeling of uneasiness and dislocation. Another consequence of this distorted space is that the streets of Atlanta are chronically empty because everything of importance takes place inside those massive spaces. Due to the fact that the buildings swallow city life Portman’s architecture was criticized by New Urbanists, who favor an integrated city.

In that sense, Portman’s architecture was characterized by Marxist cultural critic Frederic Jameson as postmodern architecture. In his groundbreaking study Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson discusses Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles as a “total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city” which is detached from its surroundings. The Bonaventure Hotel looks very much like the Westin Peachtree Plaza and shares the Hyatt’s iconic elevators. According to Jameson, Portman’s architecture is postmodern because it is a hyperspace that transcends the boundaries between the body and architecture. While the Bonaventure Hotel is Jameson’s main example of postmodern architecture, I think that Atlanta’s downtown is even more revealing in this regard.

Despite of criticism that Portman’s buildings produce small detached utopian islands in the midst of the city, his architecture has significantly shaped downtown Atlanta in the late 20th century. His buildings eventually triggered the revival of the inner city and have become stunning architectural landmarks. His achievements are increasingly acknowledged by the city, as well as in arts and culture. In 2009/2010, the High Museum of Art had a retrospective entitled John Portman: Art and Architecture.

High Museum of Art: John Portman Exhibition.

High Museum of Art: John Portman Exhibition.

Award-winning director Ben Loeterman produced a documentary entitled John Portman: A Life of Building.

Last, but not least, this video gives an excellent overview over Portman’s works in the past five decades:


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