John C. “Jack” Portman III has said many called him “brilliant” or “visionary” for moving to Hong Kong in 1979 to pursue development and design opportunities associated with China’s opening to the world.
But for Mr. Portman, whose family announced this week that he died of natural causes at his Atlanta home Aug. 28, that wasn’t the whole truth behind his unrelenting drive to expand his father’s namesake architectural and development firm to what was then still a closed society and an extremely risky bet.
To hear him tell it, as he did in Global Atlanta’s last interview with him in 2017, he was simply following a lifelong quest for knowledge that had led him to explore unconventional modes of thinking.
Urged on his father — renowned architect John C. Portman Jr., who preceded his son in death in 2017 — Jack embraced a particularly intentional style of travel where he presented specific objectives to his father before trips were approved. He then used the cross-cultural experiences as an opportunity to gain new perspectives and question assumptions.
“It didn’t have anything to do with intelligence,” Mr. Portman said of his setting up shop in China before a 40-year economic boom that has yet to fade.
“It had to do with the curiosity that led me to be there. By being there and seeing it and feeling it and talking to people and getting to know people, I came to some realization that perhaps a bright future was lying ahead, but at no time ever did I imagine that it would be anything like it is.”
Global Atlanta last spoke with Mr. Portman in his capacity as a board member of the Georgia Tech China Foundation, a vehicle for fundraising in the country to support the university’s new campus in Shenzhen.
It was November 2017, and he had just helped organize an alumni event in Shanghai as Georgia Tech officials were in town for a basketball game against UCLA that brought many alumni from around Asia to the Chinese mega-city.
The venue? The Portman Ritz-Carlton, the hotel anchoring the Shanghai Centre, a mixed-used development that stands as a testament to the tenacity needed to open what the company maintains was the first such foreign-owned development in the country.
Many skyscrapers and historical restoration projects later, the firm known as Portman Architects’ success in China can seem like a fait accompli, but an 11-year gap existed between leader Deng Xiaoping’s fabled visit to Atlanta in 1979, Mr. Portman’s move to Hong Kong later that year, and the opening of the Shanghai Centre in 1990.
In the 2017 interview, Mr. Portman reflected on the educational experiences that fed his unquenchable curiosity and pondered how best to encourage those few students today for whom international engagement would become a lifelong pursuit rather than a brief detour.
The fascination with China fittingly was fanned at Tech, where Mr. Portman took a class on China’s Cultural Revolution during the thick of it in 1968. Chaos aside, he was interested particularly in the way young cadres from cities were sent to learn from the peasants on farms.
The next year, he took an around the world trip, he explained, rattling off the itinerary as if the ticket were sitting on the table in front of him: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Taipei, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Bali, Delhi, Agra, Cyprus, Israel, back to Cyprus, Egypt, Athens, and then back to Atlanta.
“On that trip, I went through Hong Kong and it blew me away. I said, this is my kind of place. It was the energy of the people, the vibrance of the city and the romance of the landscape and the harbor. I was completely enthralled, so much so that I moved there 10 years later.”
That happened to be six years after he’d begun practicing in 1973 at what was then John Portman and Associates following a bachelor’s in architecture at Georgia Tech and a master’s at Harvard University‘s Graduate School of Design. (He eventually became chairman.)
According to a tribute released by Portman Architects, he also traveled to Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou in early 1979 to look for opportunities:
Jack worked to get in front of the right people to open minds to new possibilities. His efforts led to the design and development of Shanghai Centre, the first project in China to be undertaken by a foreign architect and developer who was not ethnically Chinese in decades.
His all-time favorite project, Shanghai Centre 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.
Mr. Portman downplayed the idea that his life had a master plan, saying instead that curiosity was the thread that tied his early pursuits to later pathways.
“(Travel) was all to try and learn. It’s funny how things work, but I didn’t realize while doing all this that it would really create the foundation of what my life has become. It’s a logical evolution, but it was not as though it was pre-planned in my mind. It just sort of was an incremental series of experiences which culminated in the realization that it prepared me very well to engage in a global environment.”
Mr. Portman, who learned Mandarin and spent much time in China, was grateful to have been able to live his life across multiple places, giving him a sense of comparison that enriched his experience of the world.
“You all of a sudden have more than one point of view,” he said, noting that learning a language has a similar effect to changing geographies.
Mr. Portman became somewhat of an ambassador for foreign architects in China, and success there enabled the Portman architecture and development firms to spread its wings in other Asian markets. Early on, that meant Southeast Asia and Japan, but later included Korea, where the company’s vision of a 151-story tower was never realized, as well as projects in India and Southeast Asia.
When he was honored as a fellow by the American Institute of Architects, Mr. Portman was singled out for his role in helping expand its reach globally, as well as for his openness to serving as a resource for other members.
The honor meant a lot to a man who’d had early success in real-estate development but really wanted to establish himself as an architect and bring his cultural sensibilities into designs, according to the tribute. He also worked to established the John Portman Visiting Chair in Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in honor of his father, which focused on bringing in international designers to campus.
In June, Mr. Portman bestowed the John C. Portman Global Leadership Award on behalf of his late father to AGCO Corp. CEO Martin Richenhagen during a virtual World Trade Day conference hosted by the World Trade Center Atlanta. The Portmans were influential in Atlanta’s early links to the global economy, including by founding a trade club that would eventually become the city’s World Trade Center.
With Mr. Portman’s death, Atlanta loses a strong link to Asia. Mr. Portman was always ready to represent his hometown, whose cityscape his family has been so influential in shaping, in the places where he found himself.
Mr. Portman is survived by five children and five grandchildren, along with his mother Joan “Jan” Portman and four of his five siblings: Michael Portman, Jeff Portman, Jana Portman Simmons and Jarel Portman. Younger brother Jae Portman died in 2003.
Read more Global Atlanta stories on Jack Portman and the company he helped lead: