Maverick who designed soaring atriums

Mr John Portman in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Atlanta, which he designed, in 2006.
Mr John Portman in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Atlanta, which he designed, in 2006.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Mr John Portman, the architect and developer who revolutionised hotel designs with soaring futuristic atriums, built commercial towers that revitalised the downtowns of decaying postwar American cities and transformed Asian skylines from Shanghai to Mumbai, died last Friday in Atlanta.

He was 93.

Mr Portman's family announced his death. No cause was given.

One of the world's best-known and most influential architects, Mr Portman, over half a century, redefined urban landscapes in the United States.

He built the Peachtree Centre in Atlanta, the Embarcadero Centre in San Francisco, the Renaissance Centre in Detroit and scores of hotel, office and retail complexes in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Fort Worth and San Diego.

His buildings often evoked oohs and aahs from the public, but were not always a hit with critics, who called them concrete islands, self-contained cities within cities - serving their patrons yet insular, even forbidding to outsiders.

But by combining architectural talents with the savvy of a real estate entrepreneur, Mr Portman was hugely successful and a rarity among contemporaries: both an artist and a tough businessman.

In the 1960s and 1970s, his signature hotels - skyscrapers with escarpment atriums, cantilevered balconies overlooking interiors big enough to contain the Statue of Liberty, whooshing glass lifts, waterfalls, hanging gardens and revolving rooftop restaurants - offered thrilling antidotes to the standard lot of dreary hotel lobbies, claustrophobic box lifts and shotgun corridors lined with cells for the inmates.

An Atlanta maverick who defied architects' ethics codes by plunging into real estate development, Mr Portman, who had no money to start with, made and lost millions co-financing many of his own projects.

From the 1980s, he designed and built hotels, retail marts and office towers in China, South Korea, India, Malaysia and Singapore - including the Marina Mandarin Singapore - and more complexes in Europe, the Middle East and the United States.

As they proliferated in the US, his atrium hotels, many built for the Hyatt Corp, were widely imitated by other architects who sought to capitalise on the dizzying exhilaration of patrons soaring 50 stories in a Buck Rogers glass capsule, or dining under the stars as the city moved in a circle with the galactic night.

There were setbacks for the atrium concept. The 40-storey Hyatt Regency Kansas City, designed by three local architects with an atrium imitating Mr Portman's, was the scene of a collapse of two aerial walkways in 1981 during a dance competition in the lobby.

The collapse killed 114 people and injured 216 others in one of the nation's deadliest structural failures.

By the late 1980s, with atriums in the Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles, the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco, the Marriott Marquis in New York and dozens of others, the design was so common that some motels had what passed for atriums. Travellers were no longer impressed and critics said Mr Portman had repeated himself too often.

But his atriums were laced into popular culture.

In the 1977 film, High Anxiety, Mel Brooks, as an acrophobic psychiatrist facing a sheer drop at the San Francisco Hyatt, inches to his room clinging to the walls. And in the 1993 film, In The Line Of Fire, Clint Eastwood's Secret Service agent outlasts a would-be presidential assassin in a glass elevator at the Los Angeles Bonaventure.

As federal support for urban renewal faded in the 1970s, Mr Portman's commercial towers were hailed as downtown saviours, bringing back tourists and suburban shoppers, and renewing economies and crumbling landscapes.

But some failed, and a rising chorus of critics derided his structures as islands of exclusion, paradoxically cut off from the downtowns they were intended to rescue.

Influenced by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Mr Portman said his own buildings, especially hotels, were designed to enhance the experiences of people who used them.

"Anyone can build a building and put rooms in it," he told The New York Times in 2011.

"But we should put human beings at the head of our thought processes. You want to hopefully spark their enthusiasm. Like riding in a glass lift: Everyone talks on a glass lift. You get on a closed-in lift, everyone looks down at their shoes. A glass lift lets people's spirits expand. Architecture should be a symphony."

Colleagues said Mr Portman, like his buildings, was proudly self-contained. Tall, soft-spoken, with a gentle smile and wavy hair, he worked incessantly, was not given to small talk and never shed his slight air of Old South formality.

John Calvin Portman Jr was born in Walhalla, South Carolina, on Dec 4, 1924, to government worker John Calvin and beautician Edna Rochester Portman.

He grew up in Atlanta, where he played football and graduated in 1943 from Tech High School.

In 1944, he married Joan Newton. They had six children. Besides his wife, he is survived by four sons, a daughter, 19 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and three sisters.

At 86, he was still running John Portman & Associates.

"A fish got to swim and a bird got to fly," he told The New York Times in his Southern Comfort drawl. "I'm here six days a week and it'd be seven if I didn't make a commitment to my wife to take a day off." He never retired.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2018, with the headline 'Maverick who designed soaring atriums'. Print Edition | Subscribe