John Calvin “Jack” Portman III, 71, died Aug. 28 of natural causes at his Atlanta home. He’s survived by five children, his mother, four siblings and five grandkids. A private family memorial was planned.
Admirers said Portman’s refusal to be intimidated and his well-grounded self confidence was balanced by a warm, engaging manner, insatiable curiosity, notable honesty and a healthy dose of humility. He designed and developed trend-setters such as Shanghai Centre, a three-towered development encompassing high-end office space, apartments, luxury retail, a theatre and a five-star hotel which opened in 1990. He labeled it his all-time favorite.
Yintai Centre, Beijing PR China. Shot 5/2010 for John Portman and Associates USA.
Credit: Paul Dingman
Credit: Paul Dingman
Other skyline-changers followed: Tomorrow Square in Shanghai, Yinchuan Greenland Center in Yinchuan, China; Marina Square in Singapore and Capital Square in Kuala Lumpur.
Because of him the firm was the first foreign one to build in China following their opening to the West, said Mickey Steinberg, Portman’s longtime chief operations officer.
Another former principal in the firm, now president of Central Atlanta Progress, A.J. Robinson recalled that they learned that then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev planned a 1989 visit to Shanghai as part of a mission to learn how China was embracing capitalism.
“(Portman) had the idea to put up a giant banner, in Russian, at the top of Shanghai Centre. The banner said ’Welcome comrade Gorbachev. Wouldn’t this look good in Moscow?’” Robinson said.
“I don’t know if Gorbachev saw it, because we never did any deals in Moscow. But we sure had fun making that sign,” he said.
Portman went farther than most businessmen He learned Mandarin, the culture and customs to aid his conversations with Chinese government officials and business people. He moved his family to Hong Kong and later to Shanghai.
Wanting to be near such ‘ground zeroes’ sometimes led to the risk of danger.
Robinson and Portman were in Shanghai as the Tiananmen Square student pro-democracy protests built to a fever pitch, ultimately turning into a massacre.
“Jack was all set to go to Beijing and check it out. I said we should go to the airport and go home. That might be the only argument I won in 22 years,” he said.
Steinberg said Jack Portman was unafraid to go into troubled parts of the world like the Middle East to explore development, working with the later-assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and prospecting for business in Saudi Arabia.
Colleagues said he mentored young architects, worked to establish a visiting chair in architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and served in leadership roles with both Harvard and his alma mater Georgia Tech.
Atlanta architect Mack Scogin, who chaired the Harvard design school’s department of architecture from 1990 to 1995, saw Portman’s drive and imagination up close.
“They (father and son) put the profession more into the business world. They did it in creative ways and with incredible integrity,” he said,
Steinberg characterized both father and son as workaholics. But they worked as hard at building family connections as he did on the architectural drawing boards or in the boardroom.
He spent a lot of time with them, said Steinberg, delighting in such things as impromptu excursions, artistic painting sessions and family vacations.
“He had to be doing something exciting all the time.”