John Portman 07.07.10

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The soaring atrium of Portman's Atlanta Marriott Marquis hotel (image: Jaime Ardiles-Arce)

At the end of the 1970s, when New York's Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of the decade's architecture, it chose John Portman's Renaissance Center in Detroit for the catalogue cover. A clamour of dissent soon arose among younger architects then pioneering postmodernism: "Why Portman?" A few years later, theorist Fredric Jameson chose Portman's Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles as the epitome of a postmodern cultural artefact. This seemed outright puzzling. After all, it was a work of late modernism, with no historicising elements.

But Jameson and MoMA had a point. Portman's work has endured, and he is being honoured at Atlanta's High Museum of Art this spring with a major retrospective. He pioneered new frontiers in architecture that ultimately led to the postmodern city and a new vision of architecture that aimed to appeal to the senses. In the late 1950s, against conventional ideas of what architects did, he set out as his own developer for Atlanta's Merchandise Mart, a risky proposition that paid off. A decade later, he turned to hotel design, designing his first atrium hotel, the Hyatt Regency Atlanta.

Portman's hotels defined his career, treating architecture as an attraction in itself, like a Disneyworld thrill-ride. The massive atria are exhilarating: after passing through a low entryway, one is surprised by space that rockets skywards. The sublime qualities of these interiors have been immortalised by photographers, most notably Andreas Gursky, who has depicted their overwhelming scale on a number of occasions. Glass-walled elevators give a dramatic view of the interiors and, for some, inspire terror: Mel Brooks chose the elevators of the Hyatt Regency San Francisco for the comic vertigo scene in his movie High Anxiety, and Irwin Allen would set it on fire in The Towering Inferno. But this wasn't enough: to add to the experience, his hotels were generally capped with revolving restaurants. Portman made Morris Lapidus look tame.

A key player in the "urban renaissance" movement in American cities in the 1970s, Portman saw his hotels as attractions to bring tourists into declining city centres. Newsweek would call his Renaissance Center "Detroit's New Towers of Hope". But if it was a precursor to the Bilbao effect, this vision also had its flaws. His buildings were accused of being fortresses. The futuristic mirror-glass towers seemed dehumanising to some. The concrete bases on which the buildings stood were bleak, designed for the automobile and apparently impossible to access on foot. The cities-within-cities inside his hotels acted as substitutes for venturing outside, if one could ever find the way out of the labyrinthine interiors, while the above-street-level ramps that connected his buildings to surrounding complexes heightened the fortress-like qualities. The Renaissance Center became a symbol of the myopia of Detroit. Separated from the city core by a highway, its only link was a monorail that toured the ruined city's attractions.

Still, Portman has been hugely influential. Rem Koolhaas drew on these Piranesian spaces for Euralille, the Seattle Public Library and the TVCC building. Regardless of the failures of Portman's urban vision, his willingness to engage the city core was courageous at the time. More than that, though, at a time when architects such as the New York Five were turning away from the city or from large corporate commissions, Portman paved the way for a new generation of architects to carve out roles for themselves.



Kazys Varnelis

quotes story

At the end of the 1970s, when New York's Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of the decade's architecture, it chose John Portman's Renaissance Center in Detroit for the catalogue cover

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