The Man at a Crossroads: Architect, Developer, and Artist John Portman


Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Red fabric sculpture by Daniel Graffin. Photo: Jaime Ardiles-Arce.
Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
Red fabric sculpture by Daniel Graffin. Photo: Jaime Ardiles-Arce.
John Portman.
John Portman. Photo: Tom Hamilton, Spitfire Studios.

It’s difficult to sum up John Portman. He exists at a multitude of crossroads in art, design, and industry: he is an architect, an artist, a developer, a businessman, a visionary–the list goes on. One of the first architects to integrate large artworks into his spaces, he is the architect’s architect, and the everyman’s designer. His creative philosophy centers on the basic needs of people experiencing his structures, while his work pushes forward the edges of architectural schemas to become iconic.

Hailing from the largest city in Georgia, Portman cut his professional teeth on projects in downtown Atlanta. His first commission was the renovation of the Fraternal Order of Eagles Building in 1953, on which he wanted to affix a metal sculpture of an eagle. The client liked the idea but was unwilling to finance the art. Portman invested his own money for the sculpture.

John Portman
Fraternal Order of Eagles, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Photo: Gabriel Benzur.

After the Fraternal Order building, Portman began incorporating art as an integral part of his work as an architect, and pioneered the role of architect as developer to allow more freedom in implementation of his design concepts, leading to one of the most storied, varied careers in the industry.

“It is not as if I have to stop and put on a different hat to address each aspect of my personality,” says Portman. “It is just who I am – how my mind works. I have done a lot of things in life simply because I didn’t know I couldn’t.”

The cross-disciplinary nature of his practice has allowed for Portman to expand into spaces and shape them in previously untold ways. His real estate group, Portman Holdings, often collaborates with the architecture firm at which Portman is principal, John Portman & Associates. Teams from both practices are able to leverage architectural vision and strategic development in concert, creating unique spaces that also happen to be world-class investments. Portman’s philosophy hinges on designing within development parameters.

“One-Eyed Jack” by John Portman sits atop a column that rises up through the two-leveled lobby within SunTrust Plaza. The sculpture is made of painted aluminum. SunTrust Plaza, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Michael Portman.
“One-Eyed Jack,” a painted aluminum sculpture by John Portman sits atop a column that rises up through the two-leveled lobby within SunTrust Plaza. Photo: Michael Portman.

“There was a time when the concept of architects as developers was frowned upon, because it was thought to be a conflict of interest,” he says. “But to understand development, analyze feasibility, and design accordingly is an architect performing at the highest level.”

But vice versa, the architect John Portman influences the developer John Portman. His ambition as an architect to create not just buildings, but communities has propelled his development ambitions. “I have always believed that architects have a responsibility to society to direct growth in a way that is conducive to productive life,” he says.

And he extends this careful balancing act to his multiple creative disciplines. “Being both an architect and an artist, I approach each project as an opportunity to merge the mind (the technical and functional side) and the heart (the spiritual side),” says Portman. “The architect in me looks for the reason for being. The artist looks for the best way to express it.”

Ultimately, Portman’s work is greater than the sum of its parts. Portman masterfully unifies his separate disciplines in the same way that he masterfully unifies his artwork and his design.

“Architecture and art, particularly sculpture, can both be elevated to a higher realm by their impact on each other when properly fused,” Portman says. “This is a constant, as true today as it was in the 1950’s when I first started my practice.”

John Portman
“Beilei I” by John Portman in the Lower Lobby level of SunTrust Plaza. This sculpture is made of sheet bronze. Beilei translates to “budding flower.” SunTrust Plaza, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Michael Portman.