The recent passing of John Portman has led me to a lot of thinking about what parts of Atlanta he saved and what he could be said to have destroyed. Arguably, downtown would have completely turned into cement bunkers, surface lots with no pockets of life left at all. Extremely ambitious projects that dovetailed back and forth, re-inforcing one on the other were his strange gift: he thought the largest wholesaling trade center in the South would be good for business, but you need world-class hotels nearby and the Henry Grady, Piedmont and Dinkler hotels weren’t gonna cut it, so build the enormous Hyatt Regency across the street. Piggy back on that with another block of marts and another full block of a hotel, then another than another. Sure, there were some elevated pedestrian tubes but you could argue those were as much to protect visitors from the summer heat as anything else.
OK, that gives you a bunch of out of towners mingling with the law firms that still called downtown home. By the time those firms started migrating to midtown and Buckhead, downtown was a real place again. A different place, a place dominated by cars and one way streets but still a place.
I have mixed emotions about what he did, but some of the things he did were ambitious in strange and very urban ways. The compact Rockefeller Center that is Peachtree Center had the Midnight Sun theater and restaurant complex and tons of class A office space at a time when most of downtown was at best class B. Sure, the theater and restaurant both folded but they succeeded in just the idea that those things could be tried downtown. Polaris lasted for 40 years.
It still amuses me that his first commercial design ended up as downtown’s Playboy Club in the eighties.
But back to how he did it, he sold magazines from street to street downtown in the 1920’s when downtown was at its pedestrian and streetcar zenith. He knew the store fronts, he knew the owners, the mixes of types of businesses. Not just of any city, this city. That tells me I should accept he did things for as much of the right reasons as are possible. My first thought was that his knowledge of those property owners in the 20’s and 30’s might have helped him assemble all those little properties into entire block spanning behemouths, but by 1949, they were already kind of starting to get assembled on their own:
About the only full structure still standing is the Capital City Club just left of center, but a surprising number of the old buildings were already long-gone by the time he started assembling parcels of land he would need. So he was already looking at a thread-bare rug-of-a-city when he walked these streets in the late fifties. Here are those same four blocks today:
Rationalized, certainly, but the only surface lot left is the one owned by the Capital City Club. Can’t blame him for it! For the record, he was a life-long member of the club and I understand each year he would submit a proposal to purchase the club’s property and each year they would vote to not sell. He was a complicated guy, he was loyal to the city.
You hear people say he ruined Times Square with his Marriott, he ruined San Francisco with the Embarcadero, Detroit with Rennaissance Center. I just don’t know. When he visited the made-from-scratch, completely planned Brazilian capitol in 1960:
At that time in my life I’d never anticipated anything with the kind of excitement I had for this trip. Well, when I got to Brasilia, I was devastated. It was heartless, lifeless, cold. Everything my teachers had told me was crumbling. Over and over, I thought, ‘We don’t need new cities, we need old cities restructured in such a way that they respond to human needs.’ So I started thinking about how different parcels of land up and down Peachtree Street might work when developed on a master plan. I also started thinking about new forms for buildings. The Merchandise Mart was just a simple cube. There had to be something different.
I guess, I’ll take him at his word and be happy for what he was able to do.