Architect John Portman Gets His Close-Up in New Documentary

Back in the 1980s, architect and developer John Portman’s firm was slammed by the mushrooming S&L crisis. “I said to hell with this, I’m getting out of here,” he explains in Ben Loeterman’s new documentary John Portman: A Life of Building. Best known for revolutionizing modern hotel architecture (and the Hyatt brand) with soaring atria, Portman decided to head east—way east—and lined up some projects in Shanghai, only to watch as China suddenly coped with its own dose of chaos in the form of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Luckily, Portman is patient (his Marriott Marquis in Times Square opened in 1985—after a dozen years, three mayors, and countless delays), and his Shanghai Centre was the first of an ongoing series of ambitious projects in Asia. Today, at age 87, he’s something of a celebrity in China, where his name is far better known than it is in the United States. Loeterman’s documentary, now rolling out to public television stations across the country, helps American audiences catch up.

The film offers a glimpse into Portman’s life and work that is made mesmerizing by dramatic time-lapse footage that captures daylight washing over the facades and spaces of Portman-designed buildings from Atlanta to Beijing. Viewers learn about his formative trip to Brasila in 1961 and undergraduate encounter with Frank Lloyd Wright (his advice to a young Portman: “Go seek Emerson”) and how he rattled the American Institute of Architects by acting as both architect and developer, an idea that came to him at the age of 29, when he had opened an office but was struggling to get work. “I came to the conclusion that if I got the land and I was able to design the concept and able to get the financing, there was no damn question about who was going to be the architect,” he explains to students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

Footage of the man himself (at the Atlanta public housing project that proved so influential in his later work, at the Venice Biennale) is interspersed with interview soundbites from the likes of former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, Portman’s children and business associates, and Paul Goldberger, who consistently nails it with astute insights into work that evades easy description. “All of Portman’s work is theatricality,” notes the architecture critic as the camera pans through a multi-layered lobby. “There’s a flamboyance…he thinks very much in terms of how you move through it. It’s cinematic in a way. He has his own vision and his own way of doing things that are not like anybody else.”

We’re giving away a DVD of John Portman: A Life of Building to the first UnBeige reader who can name the city where the latest Portman-designed Hyatt opened (in March). Simply tweet your answer to @UnBeige. We’ll direct-message the winner, so make sure you’re following us.