Renowned alumnus John Portman, ARCH 1950, HON Ph.D. 2012, died on Dec. 29, 2017, at age 93. One of a relative few architects and developers to achieve “household name” status in his lifetime, Portman followed a distinct and uncharted path in his profession, and his influence has significantly impacted cities around the world, especially his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. His success has also been a credit to his alma mater, Georgia Tech, and in 2012, he received an Honorary Ph.D. from the Institute, one of only 35 people so honored in the Institute’s history.
Portman’s enterprising, entrepreneurial inclinations can be traced to his childhood, when he sold chewing gum outside what is now the Rialto Theatre downtown.
In high school, he asked his teacher if he could learn architectural drafting instead of mechanical drafting. While he was at Georgia Tech, a photo story in the Atlanta Constitution described him as the leader of a student project to “do over” an old house.
Since founding his firm in 1953, Portman has been a pioneer in his field, introducing the very concept of architect as developer. For more than 60 years, The Portman Companies have developed and/or designed more than 50 million square feet of space around the world.
Portman’s mission as an architect was to “design innovative, engaging, and memorable spaces that serve the people that use them and benefit the community,” and no city benefited more from his vision than Atlanta, whose downtown he revolutionized, most notably with the 14-block Peachtree Center complex.In 2009, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art presented the exhibition “John Portman: Art & Architecture,” which featured not only photos, plans, and models of his architectural projects, but also furniture, sculptures, and paintings he created. Portman’s architectural awards include the 1976 Elsie de Wolf Award from the American Society of Interior Designers, New York Chapter; the 1978 AIA Medal from the American Institute of Architects; the 1981 Silver Medal Award from the Atlanta Chapter of AIA; and the 1984 Urban Land Institute’s Award of Excellence for Embarcadero Center.
To enrich and expand the graduate design studios in Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture, Portman funded both the Portman Visiting Critic program and the Portman Prize Studio Competition, initiatives created to foster design excellence and student creativity, with monetary prizes and a coveted summer internship at John Portman & Associates for the winner. Portman was a member of Georgia Tech’s Hill Society in recognition of his generous philanthropy to his alma mater.
Both professionally and philanthropically, Portman has made an enduring impact on Georgia Tech — and the Institute on him. When the endowed Dean’s Chair in the College of Design (formerly Architecture) was named in his honor, he said, “Georgia Tech is a jewel in Atlanta’s crown, and the College of Architecture played a pivotal role in shaping my life. I am honored to partner with the institution that means so much to me, while it aims to ensure generations of aspiring architects have a world-class educational foundation on which to build their dreams, contribute to the field, and improve the lives of people everywhere.”
John Portman designed a sculpture for Georgia Tech as part of the Institute’s Arts@Tech initiative. Named Koan, for a puzzle Buddhists use during meditation to help them unravel great truths, the sculpture consists of three forms that merge and support one another as they rise 40 feet into the air, representing the magic that happens when knowledge, research, and creativity intertwine. The sculpture will be mounted on a granite base and placed in the northeast corner of Tech Green, just steps from Clough Commons, Van Leer, and the College of Design. The sculpture will create a landmark that can easily be seen from great distances as well as by students, faculty, and guests walking from building to building and class to class.
Additional philanthropy is sought to complete the fabrication and installation of the sculpture, which will stand as both an inspiration to the Tech community and a tribute to Portman’s life and work.
To inquire about making a gift to support the John Portman sculpture, contact any development officer, or Vice President for Development Barrett H. Carson at barrett.carson@dev. gatech.edu or 404.894.1868.