Midnight Sun

Because my alumni newsletters have long gone straight into the recycle bin, I had not known that Emory eighty-sixed its only John Portman, the Dobbs University Center, last summer. Emory is not known for its sentimentality, but I doubt that anyone felt this particular demolition as a loss. Even so, finding myself on the campus last weekend, I wanted to see the aftermath for myself. The last time I set foot in the DUC was to see a production of The Cherry Orchard at the Mary Gray Munroe Theater, with a professor friend of ours in the role of Fiers. (I remember this because our friend, a tall medievalist, had to severely bend himself to play the sentimental old serf.) This afternoon, its glassy new replacement was not yet well enough along to make a statement, but it was uncanny to see the Italianate façade of the Alumni Memorial building in the open air instead of embedded, Petra-like, in the wall of a cafeteria.

I work in a Portman. That is not the same as saying I work in a Wren, a Jefferson, or a Mies, just as working in downtown Atlanta is not the same as working in downtown Chicago. Not long ago we spent several days in downtown Chicago, sleeping and waking beside and among Mieses, and I felt I knew them better after only a couple of days than I know the “coordinated units” of Peachtree Center despite many months coordinating by sky bridge between the International, Harris, and Marquis One Towers, the Hyatt, and the Marriott—or for that matter, despite having grown up in Atlanta while Portman’s grand vision was still a work in progress, and the starship Polaris still featured in promotional representations of the city skyline. Like the city itself, Peachtree Center is vertically about money and horizontally about food; that much I have figured out. But I had had no late capitalist epiphanies, nothing like what Rosalyn Deutsche, with inspired snark, has called “men in space” moments. Compressed in tunnels, released into voids—I get that, too, just as I have gotten it in Oak Park on your basic Frank Lloyd Wright House tour. Where the Usonian meets the small-U utopian, however, is the point at which my mental associations end. And my Portman is small-U utopian, in the literal sense that I can walk around and around in it and never feel like I am getting anywhere. My suspicions were confirmed the other day, when I attempted to access the twenty-first floor of the North Tower, where a sky bridge extends 300 feet above Peachtree Street to the top of Portman’s debut creation, the Merchandise Mart. The elevator stopped at the fourteenth. When I crossed the street and tried to get there through the Mart, the concierge stopped me at the elevators and told me to show my badge or get lost. Of the sky bridge all she would say was that “it don’t work no more,” a sad epitaph to all the skywalking Southern Mad Men of Peachtree Center in its glory days.

It was the second denial of entry I’ve experienced in as many weeks, though the last one was more painful: the deactivation of my graduate student user account. As I had not been a graduate student for some time, this was only just, and I cannot say if eighteen months of access to Springer and Elsevier was an oversight or a favor. In any event, I was given thirty days’ notice to predict the short-term course of my intellectual future—which has always been shaped to some extent by chance—and download pdfs on student engagement and persistence, the philosophy of science, adult literacy, the Finnish education system, mathematics teaching strategies, and Condorcet winners. Interior urbanism and modern architecture did not occur to me. Nor did Giulio Camillo’s Memory Theater, which now comes to me whenever I step away from my desk, descend the escalator, and cross the Harris Tower bridge over John Portman Boulevard into the Regency Hyatt. It was my desire to know more about the Memory Theater that led to the happy discovery that JSTOR grants any deinstitutionalized Jude Fawley up to half a dozen articles for online viewing, but after browsing their archive I am still looking for somebody who can explain what the hell Camillo had in mind. Maybe that is the point: as Radcliff-Umstead (1972) put it, Camillo “employ[ed] cryptic language, so that only the scholarly few would be able to grasp the meanings of the mnemonic images.” It was obviously modeled on the old memory palace concept, but so overlaid with Judeo-Christian-Neoplatonic allegory as to be a masterpiece of in-crowd allusiveness. It may, incredibly, even have been built not just once but twice, first in Venice and again in Paris, though I have not found evidence that anyone ever used it. The idea was that by standing at the center, one was literally looking up into a tiered amphitheater (i.e., the universe) yet figuratively looking down (i.e., from God’s perspective) on each growth ring of cosmic history. A knowledgeable individual on the stage would, in theory, be in a position to expound on anything and everything, no doubt sounding for all the world like Fredric Jameson.

Or Frank Lloyd Wright, when he lectured on the Georgia Tech campus in 1951. Portman was there. It took considerable digging to find out what Wright actually said at this lecture. Portman himself recalled asking the maker of Fallingwater for words of wisdom. Wright advised him to “go seek Emerson.” Portman’s old mentor and teacher Harold Bush-Brown, the classically trained yet open-minded head of the architecture school at Tech during the Bauhaus revolution, is surprisingly little help, recording in Beaux Arts to Bauhaus and Beyond (1976) only that after Wright made his presentation in a packed gymnasium, he had the great man to his house, where Wright admired his art collection. But according to a small item in the Gainesville Sun (the architect’s next stop after Atlanta was the University of Florida), the octogenarian Wright had held forth, from what I can tell not always coherently, on everything from education and American culture to capitalism and the United Nations, saving the best for last: “We’ve got the kind of architecture we deserve. We did it. It wasn’t done to us. We just didn’t know any better.”

Whatever Wright had to tell his Georgia Tech audience, the master would have been the embodiment of iconoclasm, Emersonian in the spirit of “Circles”: “No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with no Past at my back.” (Indeed, he was then in the midst of his plans for the Guggenheim.) Students and recent graduates of the architecture school would have treated him like a rock star. In his lavishly illustrated manifesto The Architect as Developer (1976), co-written with Jonathan Barnett, Portman writes that “I follow Emerson in saying that in the light of new knowledge I will take a new position, even if it conflicts with what I have said or done in the past.” Still, I can’t picture Portman writing Whim on the lintels of a door post, and not just because he wasn’t a door-post kind of architect. The amount of money involved in a Portman venture did not leave much room for caprice for its own sake, gondola elevators notwithstanding. Emerson’s own architectural bons mots, moreover, leave a mixed impression, sometimes Wrightian (“The Gothic church plainly originated in a rude adaptation of the forest trees, with all their boughs, to a festal or solemn arcade”) and sometimes Robert Moses-esque (“You admire this tower of granite, weathering the hurts of so many ages. Yet a little waving hand built this huge wall, and that which builds is better than that which is built. The hand that built can topple it down much faster”). Even if we restrict Portman’s Emerson to “Self-Reliance,” which he seems to be channeling in Architect as Developer, there is this verdict to contend with: “And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance.” In short, the Sage of Concord would have condemned much of the Portman business model.

Reading Wright’s Kahn Lectures inside my Portman in the pre-dawn hours, as a restoration-transformation crew taps and drills away somewhere in the pit of the old shopping gallery atrium, is a little like reading Walden on a camping trip: appropriate, yet naggingly inauthentic. This is where Wright first declared that form follows function, where Japanese architecture was praised for its Shinto-inflected simplicity and absence of waste, and where the Prophet of Usonia predicted that the city as we knew it was destined to outlive its usefulness. Like his Princeton audience, I am captivated; unlike them, I succumb to nostalgia rather than optimism when I read: “A common sense is on the rise that will sweep our borrowed finery, and the scene-painting that always goes with it, to the museums, and encourage good life so to live that America may honorably pay her debt to manhood by keeping her promises to her own Ideal.” I’m sure Wright really believed this stuff, and even after the Princeton lectures put him on top again, when he made good on his promise to build a single family home for under $5000, it wasn’t because he needed the money (though he likely did), but because he was serious that housing should be beautiful, abundant, and affordable to all. Portman asserted something like this about his own philosophy in Architect as Developer, to the effect that architecture should satisfy the universal human need for harmonious environments by designing spaces in which all of the senses are attended to. “Architecture is not a private affair,” he declared, before going on to cite as an example his own very private residence, the fantastical Entelechy (1964) mansion north of Atlanta, which anticipates one of the architect-developer’s signature motifs, the cylindrical-column-as-manmade-tree. Though even a rank amateur like me can recognize the influence of Wright’s Johnson Wax building, the consummation of this idea in the crystalline trunk of the Peachtree Center Plaza Hotel is still impressive, particularly to anyone who grew up in the city in the first decade of its construction. Pat Conroy, like Portman another South Carolina boy who made good, once wrote that Atlanta was a city they built in the forest and then kept the trees. Driving to my Portman every morning, I see fewer and fewer of the latter, and a lot more housing, though not the affordable kind. For that matter, I don’t see much of Peachtree Plaza either, perfectly eclipsed east-southeast as it has been since the 1990s by the pinheaded grandiosity of 191 Peachtree Tower.

I was surprised to learn from an Australian, Charles Rice, that John Portman didn’t originally intend things to turn out this way. As president of Central Atlanta Progress in the late 1960s, Portman and his colleagues drafted a study for the development of downtown that would have transformed three blocks of Peachtree Street between Baker and Ellis streets by submerging Peachtree itself below grade and creating the New South’s answer to the Piazza San Marco, with what looks like the as yet unbuilt Plaza tower as the campanile. In his 2016 book Interior Urbanism: Architecture, John Portman, and Downtown America, Rice reproduces the original renderings of this project, which would have been called Peachtree Promenade. I could have left my desk, descended the escalator to the botany- and tangerine supergraphics-laden space then known as the Shopping Gallery, crossed the square at the treetop level of the garden court with its yellow umbrellas, and merged effortlessly with a gentle current of international visitors, shoppers, suits, and (who knows?) maybe eventually hipsters, mimes, and buskers. To hell with the North Tower-Merchandise Mart skybridge (though someone must have liked its futuristic symbolism enough that they included it in the sketches).

Even as a kid half-asleep in the backseat on the shortcut home from the airport or some point south, passing under one blue mercury lamp wave after the next along the backstreets of the Old Fourth Ward when it really was old, I suspected that downtown was a prop, though that didn’t discourage me from wondering what show was playing that the prop was for, and whether I might enjoy observing or taking part in it. You can’t suppress this kind of curiosity, I’ve found, even in middle age. At least once I’ve ventured into what is now a generic food court in search of any trace I can find of the Midnight Sun restaurant, knowing full well that the only snapshot I’ve found of the sole surviving Portman “trees” (quotes in the original) that ringed its interior dates from my early teens. I can find photographs in Architect and online that help me construct for myself the high concept character of the place, its grotto exclusivity and Francophile fare converging with the aesthetic of the lounge and the surreality of an escape room. (That’s me in a past life, on page 104 of Architect, at one of the fountainside dinner tables with the Bond girl and a guy preparing our flambé.) It took me a while to realize that the evidence I was looking for was not underground, but at grade, the Swiss kinetic sculptor Willi Gutmann’s The Big One, formerly poised, Venus-like, among the cascades of the restaurant fountain but long since elevated to street level, where it was visible from our mezzanine all summer until the crew tossed a magician’s tarp over it a few weeks ago; it has since vanished. But other structural enigmas of my Portman may never be solved, even the ones which, I was excited to find, appeared to be right above my head, such as the Midnight Sun Dinner Theater, which operated out of a kind of postmodern gothic loft in what was once known as the Top of the Galleries. I have no idea what Portman was thinking when he approved this feature, except that it had to accommodate a thrust stage with its crossover projecting out over the plaza like the angel of death. Forbidding as it always seemed, I have tried numerous times to access this space, this Dinner Theater of Memory, riding the escalator one story higher (its limit) and experiencing a kind of vertical compression upon arrival, the ceiling having dropped at least a foot, an effect which, along with the common Portmanian experience of coming face-to-glass with a (presumably temporarily) empty office suite, leaves me looking for an exit which appears in the form of—what else—not just one but two skybridges, as if to say, This way to the egress.

“The system fails to generate any kind of spatial predictability whichever way it is analyzed,” wrote one Mahbub Rashid, a Tech academic, of my Portman in 1997. This is the only writer I have managed to find who undertook to understand Peachtree Center from a “spatial syntax” point of view. This approach, which regresses pedestrian “movement densities” on the configurations of a built space, is a curious fusion of architecture and sociology, so it is ironic that the complex left much to be desired in both areas for Mr. Rashid. The same could have been said of the city itself for much of my lifetime up to now, with image management and brand-building at the leadership level never quite squaring with life as the natives knew it—a perennial disconnect immortalized in Chipp Jamison’s photograph on page 63 of Atlanta: A Celebration (1978) of people square dancing on the sidewalk in front of the North Tower. Which is probably why, in the twenty years since Rashid’s analysis, the natives have been steadily edged out in a variety of ways—from taxes and congestion when Rashid was writing to foreclosures and gentrification in the aughts—and replaced, in some cases by a ratio of what sometimes feels like three to one, by transplants who are not only not averse to density but whose appetite for it now drives the boom in intown residential construction. Portman’s penchant for hotels and convention centers in retrospect now seems emblematic of a city that thrives on transience, as I was reminded only today when I arrived to find they were taking away my escalators. I suppose they didn’t work no more, though they had for me.

One of the ironies of the institutionalization of Portmanism is that the Hyatt, the Memory Theater I have been able to descend to so freely all these months, the atrium that shook the world, was a virtual translation of a Wright original, the Rogers Lacy Hotel which was to have been built in Dallas but never advanced beyond Wright’s sketchbook. Even the idea of a pedestrianized New Southern downtown stitched together with skybridges, Rice reveals, was apparently derived from a 1956 urban renewal scheme for Fort Worth, also never realized. Long after I had outgrown my crush on the imagined, and in any case inaccessible, downtown of my childhood, I developed a real fixation on Philip Johnson’s sole gift to the city, the IBM Tower (now One Atlantic Center; Atlanta place names have always been as disposable as the real estate they identify) and its faceted emerald peak, which struck me even in my teens as a neoclassic rebuttal to the Plaza and a bid for Midtown as where the action really was. (Yes, 191 Peachtree also sprang from the workshop of Johnson-Burgee, but I have already weighed in on that subject.) Checkmated by the so-called enfant terrible of American architecture, Portman’s penchant for borrowing—and, it could be argued, improving—proved his undoing. There was simply no way to replicate Johnson’s iconic pyramid top without flattering it sincerely. SunTrust Plaza was Portman seeking his inner Emerson by contradicting his better aesthetic instincts, thereby paying a forty-year debt to the Taliesin Oracle and taking the old man’s advice in the most ostentatious way possible. The venture, famously, coincided with the collapse of the real estate market and nearly forced the wildly over-leveraged Portman to file for Chapter 11.

“Establishing the desirability of a location is an intuitive process akin to the mysterious mechanism by which an architect arrives at a concept for a building,” writes Portman’s co-author Jonathan Barrett in the lengthy essay that concludes The Architect as Developer. “It requires skillful observation and deduction and an understanding of the importance and relationships of factors that cannot be measured exactly.” Barrett depicts the architect wandering on foot around unspecified downtowns, perhaps around the world, in search of the “structure and dynamics” of an area; though the idea of Portman, coiffed and impeccably bespoke as he publicly was, as a part-time boulevardier rings false to me, there’s no mistaking the deeper connotation: the artist as city-dweller. I know that Portman liked to paint, but if the man carried a camera, I’d like to know it. Researching the history of my Portman, I found a couple of my grandfather’s photographs on the website of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, illustrating its evolution. My grandfather was an architectural photographer of some distinction, and one year before he took his own life, he made some pretty good shots of the newly erected Merchandise Mart, presumably for Edwards and Portman. There’s a blindingly white Mart, caught in full sun from a south-southeast perspective soon to be obscured forever by 230 Peachtree Tower. Other pictures suggest an after-hours shoot. There’s a glimpse from a darkened lobby into the offices of Edwards and Portman with its scoop chairs and modern art (nice touch: the recessed lights are switched off and two fluorescents left on over the reception desk, so the space is halved theatrically into diagonals of light and shadow). And there’s the Top of the Mart, snapped at a low enough shutter speed to arrest the twilight receding behind the restaurant’s illuminated frieze. Again, to hell with the North Tower skybridge. Granddad was a Sunday painter, too.

In A Behavioral Theory of the Firm (1963), Richard Cyert and James March posited that as coalitions of individuals, organizations are prone to goal conflict; that, on close examination, the path of organizational decision-making is frequently streaked with the mineral traces of individual preference or bias, especially of those in strategic positions. And yet, while an organization is therefore no more rational an actor, in the economic sense, than the individuals who comprise it, it usually manages to thrive. March, in future collaborations, would go on to expand on these ideas as they applied to the management of colleges and universities, and fruitfully, but the more I think about Portman, the more I wonder what the authors of A Behavioral Theory might have made of the key stakeholder with inherent role conflicts, or as Portman himself once put it, of a Leonardo who is his own Medici. Barnett made a point of describing Portman’s ability “never [to lose] sight of his role as an architect despite his immersion in real estate marketability, finance, and management,” and in any case, as the chief titleholder to his developments, Portman “had only to convince himself” when confronted with a big change of plans. In one anecdote, the arcade of supporting columns for the cylinder of the Plaza was to be plated with mirrors, a perfectly hideous idea for what was to be, and is still, the most satisfyingly cathedral-like of Portman’s atria I know—even if I had to get there by crossing the street—and one the architect-developer rescinded only after the colossi were poured and the mirrors ordered, though even Barnett insinuated that had Portman been a mere hired hand, he would likely have been powerless to persuade a client to rethink such an expense. To the 1976 reader, already in the REM sleep preceding sky’s-the-limit Reaganism, the idea of a master builder conducting his own market analyses as part of the creative process must have seemed bracing. Nor is it unheard of today, and John Portman & Associates still exists, by every indication, grandly. But I miss the idea of the Mad Man as builder of imaginary cities, student centers, subterranean lounges, escalators, who knows he could be doing more than that.

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