Real estate developer and architect John C. “Jack” Portman III has died at the age of 71 of natural causes according to a tribute shared by the eponymous global architecture firm founded by his late father, John C. Portman Jr., in Atlanta in 1953.
A graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), the younger Portman began practicing at the firm in 1973 as an apprentice architect and, at the time of his death, held the title of chairman and CEO, a leadership role he had assumed following the death of the elder Portman in December 2017 at the age of 93. Portman was an instrumental force in the firm’s real estate development arm during his nearly five-decade career with Portman Architects (formerly John Portman & Associates).
While Jack Portman was a scion in the truest sense, the paths of he and his father diverged yet both contributed significantly to the growth and renown of the iconic Southeast firm.
Regarded as a visionary, the elder Portman is best known for reshaping the modern skyline of Atlanta with the Peachtree Center complex and three vast downtown hotels famed for their atria-centered interiors that could have effortlessly served as backdrops in any science-fiction film or TV show released in the 1970s or ’80s (and some of his buildings have). While his father made his mark by designing idiosyncratic, neo-futuristic hotels and other projects in major American cities, the younger Portman lead the charge in expanding the firm abroad. Most notably, Portman set his sights on China and the design and development of Shanghai Centre, which per the tribute, was the first major project in China to be headed by a non-ethnically Chinese architect or developer in several decades when it opened in 1990.
Shanghai Centre was said to be a personal favorite project of Portman as it “represented a triumph of perseverance and diplomacy, harmonized cultural references with a vision of the future, and served as a catalyst in the rapid evolution of the practice of architecture in modern-day China.” Portman is credited for opening the floodgates for other Western architects looking to establish working relationships with clients in China and other Asian markets, and as such, was “viewed as somewhat of an ambassador for American architects in China.” After establishing himself first in Hong Kong in 1979, Portman led numerous projects for John Portman & Associates in mainland China, including Shanghai Centre, as well in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and later India and Korea. During these years, Portman lived largely overseas.
Outside of Atlanta, Portman Architects continues to operate a busy Shanghai office, which was established in 1993.
“The Portman organization is more known in China and India than it is in America, and that’s due to Jack,” A.J. Robinson, president of nonprofit community development organization Central Atlanta Progress, told Atlanta news website SaportaReport.
“He was a guy with an insatiable appetite for culture, travel, and people. He couldn’t sit still. He really wanted to conquer the world,” added Robinson.
Portman returned to his native Atlanta in 1998 and shifted his focus to more domestic projects although he continued to play an active role in the continued expansion of the firm’s sizable international footprint. The tribute noted that while international real estate development dominated much of Portman’s career, he was, at heart, a passionate architect who championed the “creation of meaningful architecture with a focus on culturally sensitive design.”
Portman, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects, was also active at his alma mater. He established the John Portman Visiting Chair in Architecture professorship at Harvard GSD in 2012 in honor of his father to “bring internationally recognized designers to campus in a sustained role, and to engage in the life of Harvard while supporting research assistance, exhibitions, and publications” according to the tribute. He also served on the board of the Dean’s Leadership Council at Harvard GSD and on the board of the Georgia Tech China Foundation. (Portman received his undergraduate degree in architecture from Georgia Tech and his father was an alumnus.)
Proceeded in death by his father and a younger brother, Portman is survived by his mother, five children, four siblings, and five grandchildren. In addition to his globe-spanning professional achievements and active family life, Portman was an avid artist, prolific reader, and natty dresser. He was at his home in Atlanta at the time of his passing.
Portman Architects suffered another major loss last year when president and principal Grace A. Tan, a 30-plus-year veteran of the firm, passed away at the age of 58.