This review of Portman's America: & Other Speculations featured in the September 207 edition of Architecture Today
John Portman is one of those great figures in architecture whom other architects do not quite know what to make of. Clearly a brilliant designer who invented novel forms of space, much like Jon Jerde his incredible commercial success, and the unapologetically vast scale of his projects, has rendered him somewhat suspect in a profession that is beholden to the mystique of the uncompromising artiste, of the creator who somehow manages to not sell out.
This is of course a myth as silly and dangerous as that of that of the deified symbol of Libertarian Individualism, Howard Roark. True architecture, the stuff that changes the way we go about our daily lives, the stuff that bends societies in new directions, is always hand in fist with capital of the largest scale and most inscrutable might.
No one has managed to straddle the divide between the raw might of money and finance, and the artistic perfectionism of the Roark-ian visionary better than Portman. Both architect and (spectacularly successful) developer, he refashioned an entire city -Atlanta- in his image, as well as creating megacomplexes in others, from Detroit to Shanghai and San Francisco, finally realising the Modernist megastructural dream at scales unimaginable up to that point.
Not only did these projects generate vast wealth for himself and other investors, they also consistently (and profitably) pushed the boundaries of how dramatic, theatrical, and awe-inspiring otherwise banal programs could become when joined together and supersized. John Portman never answered to a client, John Portman answered to John Portman, and in an age where so many are lamenting the death of the role of the architect, of the profession’s being side-lined and of its general ineffectuality, Portman’s fusion of the roles of client and architect seem to show a uniquely appropriate way out of that impotent impasse.
“Portman’s America & Other Speculations” is a timely and welcome publication for such an iconic figure who on the one hand designed what Frederic Jameson has cited as the most emblematically Postmodern of building interiors -his Westin Bonaventure Hotel- and whom on the other can be seen as the apotheosis of corporate American Modernism. The book is deliciously illustrated with a series of new photos by Iwan Baan, which manage to perfectly capture the inventive bravura, and lost-era feel of Portman’s works, as well as the kind of future-past urban environments that they generated.
A fascinating fly-on-the-wall conversation with Portman reveals his upbeat, relentlessly positive and charming personality, as well as some of the stories behind his singular path, from when he’d just completed two or three houses and he decided he’d “never making a living on this,” to his relationship with financiers in which he states, “I don’t get to know bankers, they get to know me.” His projects are shown in a rather concise and matter-of-fact manner, and while It would have been wonderful for the architectural drawings to be given more space, and for further anecdotal and interpretative information or material to be provided on each, they present the coherence of his output well.
The two essays, and series of Portman-inspired projects by Preston Scott Cohen’s students, are positive first steps towards architecturally and critically re-engaging with Portman’s body of work. They perhaps however work better as illustrations of quite how much fertile ground there is for further critical assessments and formal analyses of his oeuvre and methodologies, than they do as robust investigations in their own right.
As Mohsen Mostafavi points out in his introduction to the book, even Rem Koolhaas could only bring himself to partially appreciate the city of Atlanta and Portman’s work when visiting in the 90s, stating that it was “a convulsive architecture that will eventually acquire beauty.” As this book now makes clear, and hopefully this will be the first of several assessing his profuse legacy, we now have enough distance from their inception to look upon these projects and see in them the terrible beauty -a uniquely American beauty- that they embody.