Jack Portman’s most recent honor from the American Institute of Architects was championed by the local chapter, but the man whose father designed much of downtown Atlanta has built his own name by bolstering the family firm abroad.
John C. “Jack” Portman III, son of architect, developer and artist John C. Portman Jr., ventured to China in 1980, pioneering the entry of John Portman & Associates and its related development company into a market previously closed to foreign firms.
While his father had credits like the AmericasMart, Peachtree Center and Westin Peachtree Plaza to his name, Jack, then in his late 20s, saw China as a way to help the firm diversify while indulging his interest in other cultures.
“I had become completely and overwhelmingly enamored with Chinese cultural reality, both past and present, and I saw it as fertile ground in which to plant my seeds,” Jack Portman told Global Atlanta in an interview at the Capital City Club. “Furthermore, it had never been done. It was impossible. People said I was crazy.”
It started when Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping visited Atlanta in 1979 while in the process of instituting market-oriented reforms that would open up the world’s biggest consumer market. Both the elder and younger Portman were on the host committee in Atlanta, with the elder later joining a high-level reciprocal mission to China with then-Georgia Gov. George Busbee.
Jack moved to Hong Kong and took the reins from there, betting that his firm could provide some of the design expertise Chinese builders and policy makers would need as they sought to create cities befitting their ambitious economic ascent.
“All logic pointed to the possibility, but political uncertainty was a big unknown,” he told Global Atlanta. “Left to some sense of market force dynamics, it was inevitable.” Still, things didn’t take off right away.
While visitors to Shanghai today are greeted by a horizon of endless skyscrapers and extensive transit infrastructure, Jack remembers a small airport with a tiny baggage claim area. With only one door, people bumped into each other while squeezing through with their luggage. The space where the Hongqiao Airport now sits was nothing but rice paddies, he said.
Political relationships – and those photo ops with Deng – helped Portman get its foot in the door in the mainland. Jack later brought the Shanghai mayor and Communist Party secretary on a tour of the U.S. that included stops in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where they even went to DisneyLand.
It was at the AmericasMart in Atlanta, though, where they saw the bustle and activity of a Portman-designed mixed-use environment.
“Our specialty seems to be – on the surface – hotel design, but in reality our specialty is mixed-use development, of which the hotel is usually the most dramatic piece,” Jack told Global Atlanta.
Portman’s Shanghai Centre would be no different. Anchored by a hotel, it would provide everything a businessperson would need to set up shop: restaurants, cultural amenities, office space and more.
“We weren’t necessarily trying to transplant any sort of American or Western building type, but what we were thinking about as we designed that was, ‘Who are the users going to be? Who was the customer? What did the customer need?’” he said.
Providing land concessions to foreigners was unheard-of at the time, and it took four years to get a contract hammered out that gave Portman the unilateral operating rights to the complex, which included three high-rises with a 60-story office tower at its center.
What started as a foreign enclave now has a mix of foreign and Chinese tenants, reflecting the new reality facing American architects in China.
“Now, regarding talent and technology, I’d put (China) up against anybody, and therefore now foreign expertise is not as valuable to them as it once was,” he said.
As China’s middle class moves into cities, environmental elements are becoming more important to developers, Mr. Portman said.
In a Portman-designed residential development targeted at aging retirees with accommodations ranging from active residences to full medical-assistance options the developer asked for locally sourced stone, enhanced natural ventilation, rooftop gardens and an orientation that maximizes natural light and solar heat in the winter months.
“As more people look for these features when making purchasing decisions, more developers will be motivated to get on board,” Jack said.
The complex is just one of a dozen landmark projects John Portman & Associates is working on in Shanghai and Beijing, as well as in second- and third-tier cities.
On the development side, though, Mr. Portman said it has gotten harder for U.S. firms to compete with Chinese companies that get preferential treatment in land deals and financing from state-owned banks.
For Portman Holdings, which has both investment and development operations, Jack sees better opportunities elsewhere in Asia.
India, for example, is showing promise. There, Portman is involved in the development of more than 4,000 housing units being built by the construction arm of the Tata conglomerate and other developers.
More so now than in previous years, Jack sees opportunities growing at home in Atlanta and throughout the U.S.
Portman Holdings recently announced that it would acquire and retrofit 230 Peachtree Street, a tower first built by the company 50 years ago as part of Peachtree Center. The renovated development will include a 203-room Hotel Indigo and nearly 300,000 square feet of office space.
As for next moves overseas, Jack personally has little interest in the frontier markets of Africa or the emerging economies of Russia and Brazil. He sees Portman remaining in Southeast Asia, building in India, and continuing the quest he began in China.
After all, the avid reader and painter is most at home in places where there are ample opportunities to cross creative and cultural barriers.
“The different relationships you can have in different places give you a composite of what life’s all about,” he said. “I don’t care who it is or what they do – you can always learn from people.”