ATLANTA—There are many notable things associated with Atlanta. From great food to great music, it’s a burgeoning city with a lot to offer. And visionary John C. Portman, the city’s native son, worked to enhance the city’s growth, taking Atlanta to new heights with the downtown Peachtree Center.
The multi-block development in downtown Atlanta was created in the 1960s and totals 22 buildings, spanning 14 city blocks. The development, which celebrated 50 years in November, is comprised of restaurants, retail outlets and hotels connected by sky bridges. Among those buildings are Portman’s famous atrium hotels including the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel, Hyatt Regency Atlanta and Atlanta Marriott Marquis.
On 2 November, Harris Street in downtown Atlanta was renamed John Portman Boulevard. The street passes through Peachtree Center and is next to the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, or as Portman described it in his remarks during the dedication ceremony, the street passes “through the heart of my life.”
John C. “Jack” Portman, vice chairman and CEO of John Portman & Associates and the son of John Portman, said in an email that his father was always involved in the Peachtree Center’s evolution throughout the decades, noting that the Peachtree Center highlights the firm’s approach to architecture. “The concept of enhancing the human experience and making a positive contribution to the community through the built environment is what drives our work,” he said.
To create a timeless infrastructure such as the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, a notable hotel in Portman’s architectural oeuvre, Portman’s plan was to change the landscape of hotel design far beyond the city of Atlanta.
“The major benefit to acting as architect and developer is greater control over the execution of design vision. Because Portman served as both developer and designer of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, he experienced more freedom to develop his own philosophy and ideology,” Jack Portman said.
A unique design aesthetic
John Portman’s much-touted atrium hotel design was born when he noticed the accommodations for travelers were dismal, unwelcoming and created no community environment. His first foray was developing the Hyatt Regency Atlanta—also an atrium hotel—in the early 1960s.
When the Atlanta Marriott Marquis came to be 20 years later in July 1985, Portman’s atrium concept used the “interior urban space to uplift the spirit and enhance the guest experience,” Jack Portman said. The 1,675-room Atlanta Marriott Marquis “took interior space to new heights.” ”Occupying most of the city block, it’s parabolic concrete forms rises from the large rectangular podium base,” creating a dynamic experience with ever-changing views, he said.
|The atrium in the Atlanta Marriott Marquis was designed by John Portman in 1985 and leaves guests awestruck.
But it’s the dramatic 47-story atrium at 470 feet—once the highest atrium in the world—that leaves guests awestruck.
“When meeting planners come to our site, and they walk into our building, they call it breathtaking, and what I love most about being a GM is being in the atrium and watching guests come in for the first time,” Erica Qualls, GM of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis said.
“It’s timeless. We’re the pregnant building. There’s a bubble; it’s distinctive and unique and guests love it, and they’re awestruck when they walk into the building,” she added. “It’s about how we feel—how we create a different environment.”
Creating a legacy
In his tenure, Portman also was responsible for the New York Marriott Marquis, which opened a few months later in October 1985. There are four Marriott Marquis in the United States; the other two are located in San Francisco and San Diego but were not designed by Portman and don’t have lobby atriums.
The Marriott Marquis have all the services of a Marriott hotel but are a bigger and grander version.As far as Marriott is concerned, the Marquis brand is timeless. “Anytime we say Marriott Marquis, we’re talking about an iconic brand. We want an iconic hotel,” said John Hogan, VP of design and project management for Marriott’s full-service brand, the Americas.
“(The atrium) defines the aesthetic for the hotel … Each architect has his own signature and own handwriting or style and that certainly defines John’s style,” he said.
“I can tell you what we would be trying to achieve, and the same philosophy was to create an iconic space that gives the guest coming in a ‘wow’ factor and sense of arrival,” Hogan said. “It’s memorable, and it’s all about creating an iconic landmark.”
Additionally, Portman’s legacy transcends his accomplishments within the Atlanta region. “I will tell you for Atlanta, we call him the architect of Atlanta,” Qualls said. She said people walk in to the atrium to take photos of the unique space. “They always ask questions. They ask about the designer, and we’re thrilled to share Portman’s story.
A visionary’s goal
“To understand Portman’s vision for Peachtree Center, you have to first realize how much he loves the city of Atlanta,” Jack Portman said. “He grew up here. Recognize that at the time, in many cities throughout America, businesses and people were abandoning the inner city in favor of the suburbs. Portman did not want to see that happen in Atlanta. By stimulating trade and tourism, Peachtree Center was the catalyst that established Atlanta as one of the nation’s premier convention cities.”
With the help of Portman, Atlanta’s downtown area has changed into a thriving business and tourist center. Peachtree Center employs more than 38,000 people and with 48 million visitors entering the city every year, the economic impact on the city is upwards of US$68.2 billion, according to an economic impact analysis in 2010 by C.H. Johnson Consulting.
The Marquis itself just went through a US$138-million renovation, but one that did “not change the aesthetic of the building,” Quall said. “It’s a breathtaking tribute to his design.”
Portman’s vision for Atlanta certainly exceeded expectations, even drawing inspiration to some of its most avid supporters including Qualls.
“I remember coming to the city, and we were waiting for a meeting (at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis) for another brand I worked for,” Qualls said. “I walked into this (building) and said to my husband, ‘Look at this. This is the reason I’m in the hotel business.’ I didn’t know it then that I would be the GM here. Anyone walking into this building—this building is special and magical and Portman created it.”