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John Portman, 93, architect who made skylines soar

Erik S. Lesser/New York Times/file

Mr. Portman posed in 2006 in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta. His atrium hotels were widely imitated.

By Robert D. McFadden New York Times  

NEW YORK — John Portman, the architect and developer who revolutionized hotel designs with soaring futuristic atriums, built commercial towers that revitalized the downtowns of decaying postwar US cities, and transformed Asian skylines from Shanghai to Mumbai, died Friday in Atlanta. He was 93.

Mr. Portman’s family announced his death. No cause was given.

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One of the world’s best-known and most influential architects, Mr. Portman, over a half-century, redefined urban landscapes in the United States. He built the Peachtree Center in Atlanta, the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, the Renaissance Center in Detroit and scores of hotel, office and retail complexes in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Fort Worth, San Diego, and other cities.

His buildings often evoked oohs and aahs from the public, but were not always a hit with critics, who called them concrete islands, self-contained cities within cities — serving their patrons yet insular, even forbidding to outsiders. But by combining architectural talents with the savvy of a real estate entrepreneur, Mr. Portman was hugely successful and a rarity among contemporaries: both an artist and a tough businessman.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, his signature hotels — skyscrapers with escarpment atriums, cantilevered balconies overlooking interiors big enough to contain the Statue of Liberty, whooshing glass elevators, waterfalls, hanging gardens, and revolving rooftop restaurants — offered thrilling antidotes to the standard lot of dreary hotel lobbies, claustrophobic box elevators, and shotgun corridors lined with cells for the inmates.

An Atlanta maverick who defied architects’ ethics codes by plunging into real estate development, Mr. Portman, who had no money to start with, made and lost millions of dollars cofinancing many of his own projects. From the 1980s on he designed and built hotels, retail marts, and office towers in China, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and India — and more complexes in Europe, the Middle East and the United States.

As they proliferated in the United States, Mr. Portman’s atrium hotels, many built for the Hyatt Corp., were widely imitated by other architects who sought to capitalize on the dizzying exhilaration (some called it terror) of patrons soaring 50 stories in a Buck Rogers glass capsule, or dining under the stars as the city moved in a circle with the galactic night. You did not even have to rent a room.

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There were setbacks for the atrium concept. The 40-story Hyatt Regency Kansas City, designed by three local architects with an atrium imitating Portman’s, was the scene of a collapse of two aerial walkways in 1981 during a dance competition in the lobby. The collapse killed 114 people and injured 216 others in one of the nation’s deadliest structural failures.

By the late 1980s, with atriums in the Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles, the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco, the Marriott Marquis in New York, and dozens of others, the design was so common that some motels had what passed for atriums. Travelers were no longer impressed, and critics said Mr. Portman had repeated himself too often.

But his atriums were laced into popular culture. In the 1977 film “High Anxiety,” Mel Brooks, as an acrophobic psychiatrist facing a sheer drop at the San Francisco Hyatt, inches to his room clinging to the walls. And in a 1993 film, “In the Line of Fire,” Clint Eastwood’s Secret Service agent outlasts a would-be presidential assassin in a glass elevator at the Los Angeles Bonaventure.

As federal support for urban renewal faded in the 1970s, Mr. Portman’s commercial towers were hailed as downtown saviors, bringing back tourists and suburban shoppers, renewing economies and crumbling landscapes. But some failed, and a rising chorus of critics derided his structures as islands of exclusion, paradoxically cut off from the downtowns they were intended to rescue.

His Renaissance Center in Detroit was a glaring example. A cluster of four 39-story office buildings and a 73-story hotel with shops, restaurants and theaters was built in the 1970s to save a depressed city. But its gleaming towers on the Detroit River were as remote as a cloud-ringed Disneyland castle. Office workers, visitors and suburban shoppers could, drive in and out without ever setting foot downtown.

In 1944, Mr. Portman married Joan Newton. They had six children. Besides his wife, he is survived by four sons, Michael, John C. III, Jeffrey and Jarel; a daughter, Jana Simmons; three sisters, Glenda Dodrill, Anne Davis and Joy Roberts; 19 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by a son, Jae, and two sisters, Mabel Creel and Phyllis Tippet.