GSD: John Portman in Retrospect

Two words from Frank Lloyd Wright – and a short stint designing Atlanta storefronts – dramatically altered the career trajectory of one of America’s best-known architects.

“Seek Emerson,” were the words a young Georgia Tech student heard from the lips of America’s greatest 20th-century practitioner. His architecture class had gathered to hear Wright speak, and afterwards each student was granted two-and-a-half short seconds with the master.

“It changed his life,” says Jack Portman, John Portman’s son – who’s not only a Georgia Tech grad himself but an alumnus of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “Emerson became the bedrock of what he designed and how he designed for people – it shaped everything for him.”

As a young architect Portman worked for a company that specialized in storefronts, designing mannequins and dressing them to create conditions – then watching for public reaction. He began to realize that through design, he could shape those reactions and influence people’s moods. “He saw that the design experience creates a symphony of sensory experiences that enlivens the spirit of the user,” he says.

Portman discovered that by making a sensory experience rewarding and fascinating, users would come back. “It makes the environment conducive to return and consumption,” he says.

Portman applied that understanding to hotel lobbies, restaurants, shopping malls, office lobbies and commercial space. “He made the user the star of the show,” he says. “He played to their wants and desires and feelings.”

He also expanded the role of what an architect could be, when he became developer as well as a designer – giving himself more control of what a project could look like. “He was responsible for financing and the bottom line – without that, he would have not been able to do the creative design,” he says.

Through the efforts of Jack Portman, a GSD chair has been established in his father’s name, bringing in the likes of Jeanne Gang to speak. And Harvard students now incorporate Portman’s design philosophy into their own projects and program. “It’s about design and space and people and scale,” he says. “My father, inspired by Emerson, seeks truth in the circumstances – first solve the problem, and then the shape and the design will evolve as you find that solution.”

Because of the course and the way that Portman changed the nature of architecture, the dean of the GSD elected to publish “Portman’s America,” a book that demonstrates the 93-year-old architect’s impact on American design and the architecture profession.

And as anyone who’s walked past, driven by, or overlooked Atlanta’s Peachtree Street from above can attest, Portman’s contributions are no small or unlikeable affairs.

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