Between the late 1960s and early 1980s, few architects or developers could rival John Portman’s impact on America’s downtowns. And few built in such intensely polarizing ways.
With the rare luxury of being both an architect and developer on his projects, Portman, who died in December at the age of 93, brought the promise of urban revitalization from New York to Los Angeles through his signature cylindrical glass and concrete slab hotel complexes with unforgettable interiors.
The Atlanta native is most celebrated for designs that exposed the guts of his buildings—elevators, stairwells, corridors—to create a voyeuristic spectacle visible from every floor. Prada, an architecturally savvy fashion brand, recently used these elements charmingly in a 2017 short movie, The Postman Dreams 2, a promotional film shot in Los Angeles’s Bonaventure Center.
But these works have often been criticized by urbanists for turning their backs on the places they appeared in. Urban sociologist William Whyte called out two specific Portman project in his 1980 film, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, saying of the Renaissance Center in Detroit that it presented itself as a place to “come in and be safe from Detroit.” L.A.’s Bonaventure Center, Whyte added, was scaled to the freeway, not pedestrians.
These were private-sector responses to the challenges facing big-but-struggling American cities of the 1970s and ‘80s that needed to attract business and tourism. It was thought that something like a hotel and conference center with easy car access and no need to venture out for a meal or an errand would make for a happy visitor.
But American downtowns have long since shed their image as decaying centers of crime, poverty, and disinvestment. And today’s traveler is just as eager to roam around an unfamiliar city as they are to photograph a Portman atrium for their Instagram. Can a typical Portman building change in order to best fit a 21st century city?
“I don’t think it’s that hard to solve,” says architecture professor Preston Scott Cohen. He headed a 2015 studio at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design called “Portmanian Architecture,” and some of the student work from it is featured in Portman’s America & Other Speculations, released last May.
Perhaps the best example of a Portman do-over is one of Whyte’s subjects—Detroit’s Renaissance Center. In the mid-1990s, General Motors agreed to relocate its headquarters into the vast downtown complex, which opened in 1977 but struggled to live up to its promise. So the company asked Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) to come up with a plan.
“We had to help GM understand how they would take seven of their product lines, merge them into one facility, and integrate the facility into Detroit,” says Bill Baker, engineer at SOM. “It had its back turned to the city and riverfront when it was conceived, so the goal was to change all of that and embrace those elements.”
So SOM removed the nearly 30-foot tall concrete mechanical bunkers facing the street. Inside, the hotel lobby was moved up from the main floor of the atrium, which was then turned into space for GM. A new Wintergarden facing the Detroit River opened in 2001. “When you’re inside the building now you can look out to riverfront and use it as a civic space, a place for product launches, restaurants, and retail,” says SOM partner Richard Tomlinson. “You can go down there to get a coffee and just look out at the river.”
Its new layout made for better connections to the outside, and addressed a particular flaw in Portman’s approach to the interior: “The unrelenting symmetry really was the main challenge,” said Tomlinson. “Everyone got lost, even people who worked there.” Still, SOM’s solution wasn’t to redesign so much as to find the right places to intervene.
That’s a philosophy that rings true for Cohen. “I don’t think the crisis of his work is as incompatible with the city as it may have been,” he says. As for the idea of addressing Whyte’s critique of the Bonaventure in L.A., “It works; it’s not having a problem,” says Cohen. “The blocks surrounding it can’t support pedestrian culture. Whether we like it or not, it happens to be right.”
For a Portman that has been changed for the worse, look no further than Atlanta’s Peachtree Plaza Hotel, which lost an immersive indoor water feature—much like the one inside the Bonaventure—to a renovation. Cohen describes the decision as a “neutering” rooted in practicality. “The water pushed everything out, now the check-in and bar are closer together. It’s programmatically better now —what’s beautiful about it made it harder to use.”
Despite the risks posed by the rise of Airbnb and online hotel booking sites, Portman hotels seem to be adapting well; their scale and grandeur have slid into middle age gracefully while the downtowns they’re in have been re-energized and repopulated. “It’s not only important to indict these buildings for their errors, but to see how they work today,” says Cohen, “and to try and stop hanging on to bad memories.”
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