If you’ve ever wondered why the Westin looks the way that it does or why there’s a spaceship on the top of the Hyatt, then The Architecture of Dragon Con: How John Portman’s Genius Built Our Home panel on Friday at 9AM on the Fan Tracks channel had the answers. Moderator Lisa Ellisor put together a thorough and academic-style presentation that walked the audience through Portman’s life and career.
Portman was an early entrepreneur even before attending the Naval Academy and then eventually Georgia Tech through selling gum and magazines. He had early award-winning success in his work with retail and fixture design and then eventually turned his attention to development as well as design. Portman’s building The Mart (now known as Americas Mart) was his first imprint on Atlanta and put the city on the map. Once The Mart opened in 1961, Portman started buying and developing the properties along Peachtree Street, turning an area that was mostly still farmland into a bustling urban center.
Looking any one of Portman’s buildings, which include the Westin, the Hyatt, the Americas Mart, the Marriott, and the SunTrust building, you can find most of his architectural signatures. A Portman building will almost always have exploding columns, atriums, hanging gardens, hanging art, and geometric patterns. His style combines Modernist and Brutalist elements, often with hidden design features to help soften the brutal pieces. For instance, the Americas Mart from the outside can look like an imposing block of concrete but hidden high above are wind chimes that are engineered to sound with their own song regardless of whether the wind is blowing.
The first hotel that Portman designed was the Hyatt Regency and it almost failed because Portman decided that the hotel would be integrated from its opening. Some of Portman’s original architectural elements have been removed, such as the original tile, but the lobby flower structure remained even after the 2010 renovation. The flower was intended to be a fountain because water is also an integral part of Portman’s design, but it just never really worked. As for the spaceship on the top, that was something Portman gave his little girl as a place to play before it became the Polaris restaurant that we know.
Portman’s design philosophy was “form used by people used to function” and he believed that activating the senses was an important part of a successful design. He incorporated trees and indoor lakes along with live birds into the design of the Westin, which was the first Portman building used for Dragon Con in 1994. Ellisor pointed out that for most of us, the sensory experience of returning each year to the host hotels that Portman designed is the way that we know that we’re home. Something about knowing that it was part of the plan makes it an even richer experience.