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Saturday, May 30, 2015

John C. Portman, Jr.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Looking up at the soaring, Hyatt Regency atrium dome
is as dizzying as looking down from it.
Architect, John C. Portman, Jr.
When writing about architects, very often their many famous buildings have a tendency to outshine their own persona as masters of human edifice design. That's the case with John C. Portman, Jr. Who? Right, I was of the same reaction. Yet, I'd heard of, and read about, one of his earliest, best-known buildings starting almost fifty years ago--Atlanta's groundbreaking Hyatt Regency Hotel. I'd always wanted to see its 26-story atrium, gazing up from its spacious lobby and down from its dizzying highest balcony at the ant-sized hotel guests below. Little did I consider the possibility that I might one day be one of those guests. This past week, my wife and I had a room for three nights on the fifteenth floor of the Hyatt. It was undoubtedly the most unforgettable hotel experience I've ever had. And I owe it all to the man I'd never heard of, John C. Portman, Jr., Neofuturist architect.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Looking down from the top, Portman's twenty-six balcony
levels of the Hyatt Regency take on an abstract quality.
Portman's Hyatt Regency is not one,
but three towers, now dwarfed by
more recent hotel and office additions
to Atlanta's Peachtree Plaza.
The Hyatt Regency opened to the public in 1967--forty-eight years ago. At the time, the design concept was so radical as to be considered "risky." It was 21st-century architecture more than thirty years before the dawn of the new millennium. Even from photos at the time, I recall my reaction was, "WOW"!! Carefully maintained and periodically renovated in the years since, simply walking into the Hyatt atrium today elicits the same reaction, but to the tenth power. Though not Portman's first completed structure, it was the one which "made" his name...and coincidentally made Hyatt Hotels a world-famous name as well. He became "the" Hyatt architect...also latched onto by hotel rivals Marriott and Westin. Atlanta's Marriott Marquis and Westin Peachtree Plaza are neighboring Portman hotels anchoring the city's massive, downtown Peachtree Center.

Portman's Renaissance Center in Detroit dates from 1973-81.
Portman's Greenland Center,
Yinchuan, China.
John Portman is now ninety-one years old. In a career spanning nearly fifty-five years, his firm's past, present, and future undertakings are as dizzying in number and conceptual daring as the heights of his trademark atriums. They number more than eighty separate structures, though some are grouped into major urban commercial centers like his original Peachtree Center in Atlanta, and his more famous such grouping, Detroit's Renaissance Center, which consists of seven glass towers (many cylindrical in shape) of varying heights. Today, Portman's hotels and office towers are spread around the world. Many of his firm's current and future projects are concentrated amid China's soaring city skylines. Portman's Greenland Center (right) in Yinchuan, China is typical of his firm's 21st-century undertakings.

Atlanta's Portman-designed Peachtree Center with the cylindrical
Westin rising above it all in the background.

Copyright, Jim Lane
The futuristic sculpture springing upward as a
center of interest in Atlanta's Hyatt atrium.
Unlike many architects of Portman's age and era, his works are very often more impressive from the inside than outside, where the standard glass box or multiple cast concrete window units predominate. He's particularly partial to glass elevators, glass walls, glass skywalks, and decorative abstract sculptures rising unfettered up through his multi-storied atriums. The one in the Atlanta Hyatt Regency (left) springs upward about one-hundred feet from the hotel's sub-basement level. In actuality, Portman used the Hyatt Regency as a testing ground for later hotel design breakthroughs. His cylindrical Westin Peachtree tower was first demonstrated on a smaller scale as an adjunct tower to the nearby Hyatt. Portman's multi-storied Marriott Marquis atrium from 1985 was a direct result of the popular success of the Hyatt atrium.

The Marriott Marquis lobby
The Marriott Marquis
The revolving Polaris Restaurant
atop Atlanta's Hyatt Regency.
The Portman's Marriott Marquis stands apart from other elements making up the Peachtree Center due to is unique shape, oval at the bottom evolving into a rectangle at the top (above, left). The waitress at the revolving Polaris Restaurant atop the Hyatt referred to it at the "pregnant lady." Inside, the Marriott lobby (above, right) does tend to have a sort of "bone structure." Speaking of the Polaris Restaurant (it has been known by various names over the years), the UFOish crown atop the Hyatt was quite revolutionary for its time, perhaps aping Seattle's Space Needle. Today, what once must have been an astounding view, has since been "hemmed in" by the more recent, much taller Peachtree Center towers making it something of an anachronism by today's standards. Nonetheless, the view was quite interesting as we watched Portman's Atlanta skyline glide by from our table.

Atlanta's Peachtree Center complex.
Our "room with a view" from the fifteenth floor at the Hyatt Regency.


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