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Architect John Portman, Famous For Modern Skyscrapers, Dies At 93

Jan 2, 2018
Originally published on January 2, 2018 5:46 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In many an American city, if you've seen the skyline, you've seen the work of architect John Portman, who died Friday at age 93. Portman designed futuristic-looking towers with soaring atriums. They were often built as efforts at urban renewal - the Renaissance Center in Detroit, the Peachtree Center in Atlanta, the Bonaventure in Los Angeles. Portman described his building philosophy this way.

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JOHN PORTMAN: Architecture is about people. That means it's about life. I wanted to understand how we could take architecture and add to the enhancement of life.

SIEGEL: For more on John Portman, we're joined by Christopher Hawthorne. He's architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times. Welcome to the program.

CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE: Thank you very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: You've been in several of Portman's buildings. Tell us; what does it look like when you walk inside?

HAWTHORNE: He was really best known for those really dramatic atriums that you mentioned in this hotel projects. So you walk in, and immediately above you, you see this gigantic amount of open spaces in some cases big enough to hold the Empire State Building - acres of empty space above your head.

SIEGEL: Empty space indoors.

HAWTHORNE: Indoors - and his architecture was really associated with those interior spaces. On the outside, the buildings could be kind of nondescript or even generic kind of ciphers on the skyline - mirrored glass. And then all the drama was waiting for you inside.

SIEGEL: We just heard him a moment ago speaking of the aim of achieving the enhancement of life through architecture. Do you think that was an exaggerated hope in retrospect, or does he enhance life when you enter the Bonaventure, say?

HAWTHORNE: He really did at least in terms of populism. So when he said that architecture was about people, he really was a populist architect. And he really wanted to create spaces that would be destinations in their own right. It was really not the case that hotel interiors' atriums would be destinations. But I grew up in the Bay Area, and I would go as a kid to see the interior of the Hyatt Regency on the Embarcadero in San Francisco as kind of a destination just to go inside that hotel. And I don't know if that was the case before Portman started working on hotel architecture in the 1960s.

SIEGEL: John Portman's heyday was I suppose in the '70s and the '80s, a time when many people were leaving the country's downtowns. How did his project fit into that moment?

HAWTHORNE: So they were often funded - financed by redevelopment agencies, as was the case with the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. Or they filled space that had been cleared by urban renewal projects. And so they were kind of contradictory in that sense. They were symbols of a return, at least a hoped-for return to the downtowns of America. But they were produced at a moment when there was a lot of anxiety, uncertainty about the fate of the American downtown.

SIEGEL: What about the criticism that he was building effectively islands in the midst of cities that didn't connect very directly to the city outside?

HAWTHORNE: I think that's a fair criticism. I think it's certainly in retrospect. It's hard to say exactly what that meant at the moment in the '60s and '70s, but now looking back, certainly those were buildings that were entirely aloof from their surroundings. One of the Hyatts that Portman designed described what you could find there as indoor sightseeing. So the idea was that you could find all the attractions of a city without having to step outdoors. But there was a kind of optimism in that effort, in those designs.

Herbert Muschamp, the architecture critic of The New York Times, described Portman's approach as architecture at happy hour, which I think really nicely sums up the optimism of the moment. So there was certainly a lot of anxiety and wariness about the place of these buildings in an urban landscape. But once you were inside, you were meant to forget all of that.

SIEGEL: Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times, thanks for talking with us today.

HAWTHORNE: Thanks very much, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.