Portman: architecture on a human scale, but with a sense of drama

If there is one architect who can claim to have designed Atlanta's skyline, it is John Portman. He has made his mark on a number of other skylines, too, particularly with his hotels: San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, to name just a handful.

Gleaming glass cylinders, multistory atria, and exposed ''bullet'' elevators, tourist attractions in themselves, are his hallmarks.

But for all his use of dramatic space, he stresses the need for maintaining human scale. A keystone of his design philosophy is the concept of the ''coordinate unit,'' a sort of urban village based on the distance one is willing to walk - typically seven to 10 minutes - before seeking other forms of transportation. Taking his inspiration from Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens and the sidewalk cafes of Paris, he strives to give people opportunities to watch other people.

He is so enthusiastic about designing with water - fountains, waterfalls, interior brooks - that he even put a brook through the living room and dining room of his home.

Portman is unusual for being not only an architect but a developer as well. He has extensive property interests, including the Atlanta Market Center, which he developed. Wearing two hats ensures that his designs will get built, and also keeps him attuned to the practical side of his art.

In a recent interview with the Monitor Portman discussed, in his soft Southern drawl, his urban design philosophy. On urban density:

Density per se is not bad. You can have a great deal of density if it's handled properly. What we've tried to do is to recognize what we call a human scale. Our cities started off in the first place with the first crossroads, with one little building on the corner. And then the corners were built up with little buildings, and then they went up and down the street, and then they got another corner and they started growing up as well as out.

As the town grew up, however, there was still the same sidewalk and the same street that was there when they had only one building and very little traffic. In other words, the infrastructure did not expand as density expanded. What we have tried to do is recognize that public space has to expand as private space expands.

This is really what brought about the atrium in the (Hyatt) Regency (Atlanta) years ago. Here's the busiest street in the city, and we wanted to create a hotel with a great space inside that would take you away from this highly congested area. As you enter, you're transported into a resortlike atmosphere. On nature in the city:

There was only one tree in downtown Atlanta before I started bringing trees back in.

We're all creatures of nature and we have an indigenous need for nature, so we try to bring as many elements of nature back in as possible to create a peaceful environment. Architecture as public art:

What we must do is not design for a specific element of our society, the architectural critics and the aesthetes any more than we design for what we think the lower element of the scale might be, laborers and so on. What we need to do is understand the extremes just within the human being and try to discover those things that are common denominators to all of them. On the coordinate unit:

The coordinate-unit idea was trying to bring a planning area back to human scale. In this country we figure it ought to be the distance a person is willing to walk before they start thinking of wheels, and that's about seven to 10 minutes.

If you were to walk and time yourself for 10 minutes, and use that as a radius, it would encompass a tremendous area. If within that area you planned, for instance, all the housing on the periphery and all the things that are needed by everyone at the core, everything you need would be inward from your home. You could walk to the corner drugstore, you could walk to church, you could walk through a park. All this movement (by automobile) is a tremendous waste of time and energy. You don't have time to smell the roses. On whether Atlanta can recover a ''coordinate unit'' scale:

I think there is a tendency toward that. There are several factors at work. You have the older people who really want to get back into where things are convenient for them.

The younger people are getting married much later, if at all, and having children much later if at all, and this younger group doesn't necessarily buy my generation's (suburban) living style. In fact, my son, who lived across the street from me, sold his house and moved in to Ansley Park (in Atlanta proper).

Working women don't want to live 45 minutes away from where they work. They're not going to do like most of us in the suburbs after World War II who spent most of their lives coming to and from work. On using cars like grocery carts:

I have wheels, as everybody does. Even if I lived in a coordinate unit, I'd still have wheels. To get away to the mountains for the weekend, for example.

But instead of owning wheels for that purpose, what if you had a pool of cars you could use? It would be like using a grocery cart. Once you're finished with it, you'd put it back and let someone else use it. A 1,000-unit apartment complex might need 300 cars. On how his hotels relate to their cities:

Our cities need space. People say, you're turning your back on the city. Well , that's not true. We're adding a new dimension to the city. We believe we have to open buildings up.

There's no detriment to adding lungs to our highly densified cities. Our cities have been so closed. We're trying to open them up, let them breathe.

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