Sequestered in Portman’s Atlanta

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By population alone, Atlanta has to be considered a capital of the south. It is a regional hub, like New England’s Boston, the Pacific Northwest’s Seattle, the Midwest’s Chicago, and the Rocky’s Denver. Atlanta’s place in the American pantheon of first cities rests on two main pillars. First, the immense Hartfield-Jackson Airport brings in air traffic and gives ATL the capacity to handle major events–like the 1996 Olympics. Dallas built their airport with the same idea in mind, and Chicago’s lifeblood in the conference business rests on its twin airports–Midway and O’Hare.

The other major pillar is the conference capacity of the city. Atlanta invested in its Peachtree Center in the 1970’s as the core of its conference culture and a beachhead for a new, un-blighted downtown. The problem with the idea of the “conference destination”–a facility attached to major hotels in very close proximity–is that in the end, the charm of the particular destination is replaced with the ubiquitous marquees of Marriott, Westin, Hyatt and Sheraton.

Peachtree Center is a relic of a different decade–the 1980’s and its business largesse. This era of hotel architecture was commanded by John Portman, Jr.

Portman was a master of designing hotels and buildings that turned their backs on the cities in which they resided, and looked inwardly for separation from the local masses. Corporations were looking for a safe, neutral and clean place to conduct business, and in the 70’s and 80’s, many downtown areas in the major cities were decaying from crime and neglect. Portman designed futuristic looking interior spaces–immense hotel atria, pedestrian bridges above the dark sidewalks of the urban poor and tunnels to the underground, and antiseptic food courts and common spaces.  These spaces are designed to create awe. Their immense size diminishes a human’s sense of scale. Portman did not originate the concept of architecture as a means to diminish the human scale. Cathedral architecture accomplishes the same feat, as did the architecture of the Fascist period. Both worked, for good and evil, to create the impression that the church or state was more important that the individual. And likewise, Portman borrowed the scale of the Vatican’s St. Peter’s or Mussolini’s EUR district to achieve a similar effect. He, like Speer, saw art in his architecture. However, like Pope Julius II and his St. Peter’s Basilica, the patron of Portman’s projects saw a new vocabulary for the 1980’s corporate culture.

The style offered an alternative to failed urban renewal programs in the cities. Portman created an interior corporate universe that didn’t require much interaction with the unique cities in which he developed.

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Detroit’s Renaissance Center, a cloistered hotel and conference center that also calls GM its corporate home.

Examples of this oeuvre abound in the US–the Detroit Renaissance Center that is segregated from blighted Detroit, the “town square”  at the New York Marriott Marquis on the 8th floor well above Times Square, and in my latest excursion, the Atlanta Marquis Marriott in downtown Atlanta.

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With the Atlanta Marquis, Portman achieved his magnum opus–an interior atrium reaching 48 stories in height, creating a surreal interior void reminiscent of the rib cage of a great leviathan. This space, separate from the streets of Atlanta would remain the largest interior space until the nouveau-riche Emirs built the Burj al-Arab in Dubai in 1999.

Experiencing a Portman building for the first time is of course, a unique experience. I was not immune from riding the glass elevators from the very top of the building right to the very basement without a sense of awe. However, the future as envisioned in the 1980’s doesn’t age well–like watching sci-fi flims that lack a touch screen panel or Bluetooth communicator. Sometimes the futurists just miss.

But once the initial awe faded, several ideas crossed my post-modern mind. Consider the incredible waste of interior space  Certainly the vast atrium could have held more room space, or made for a smaller downtown footprint. And how much does it cost to air condition a 48-story void in Hotlanta in August? This sort of building has acquiesced to the energy costs of the 21st Century and LEED-certified construction. It is no coincidence that it is the decadent oil Arabs who now build in the extravagant new-to-money ways that Americans did in the 1980’s. Oil-rich Dubai is the heir to oil-rich Dallas.

Americans have grown up a little, and are now seeking the best of what locals do in food, entertainment and culture. Value is placed on the small, unique and rare. When Portman built his New York model, Times Square was a seedy, blighted core. Portman made a bet in his monumental architecture that the street level was dead. Twenty years later, Times Square and the downtown’s of many US cities are on a comeback based on the desire and marketability of the locavore seeking quality over quantity. Those vast sequestered worlds are the useful ruins of a decadent decade that has moved into history. They are in a way, a living museum of the 1980’s.

Other charming areas of Atlanta are flourishing around that notion of embracing the street level. Midtown and Buckhead to the north are enjoying an urban renaissance led by the legions of twenty-somethings that are establishing a foodie and hipster territory inside of the city. Sadly, the downtown core remains burdened under the weight of its massive hotels. Peachtree offers what everytown USA offers the weary traveler–a Hooters or TGI Fridays, the occasion hotel lobby restaurant masquerading as haute-cuisine, and new immigrants filling the niches with Chinese and Indian cuisine fast food. A few blocks over, the tourist can discover the Centennial Olympic Park, the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca Cola, as well as the home of CNN. All is not lost in Peachtree, but the architecture of the past will do its best to keep the traveler locked up among towering, 40+ story sentinels connected by footbridges over a sad downtown, cement core.

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Post-Script: As a rule, dear Reader, poke your head into hotels when you travel. If you walk confidently through the lobby, you can find a nice public bathroom, usually. Also, some hotels, like the Atlanta Marquis are worth a look.

Peachtree Skybridge Photo credit: hoyasmeg / Foter.com / CC BY

Atlanta Marquis Marriott Interior Photo credit: mhaithaca / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

and  docoverachiever / Foter.com / CC BY

Detroit Photo credit: memories_by_mike / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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