Recognized throughout the world for his innovative design, Portman frequently did not follow traditional paths and he was eager to try new concepts.
Mr. Portman graduated from Tech High in 1944, and he was immediately drafted into the Navy. While on active duty as an aircraft weapons armorer, a friend convinced him to compete for one of the precious few fleet appointments to the Naval Academy that were available to the enlisted men then serving on active duty. After a series of highly competitive written and oral exams and evaluations, he was selected as one of the few fleet appointees. He attended a preparatory school, then reported to Annapolis in the summer of 1945 and was preparing to enter his first year as a cadet when the Japanese surrendered. The Navy offered the new cadets the choice of either staying at the Academy and earning a commission, or receiving a discharge and returning home. Portman chose the discharge and returned to Atlanta to enter Georgia Tech to study architecture. By then, he was married and a father, and he worked his way through Georgia Tech with the architectural firms of Ketchum, Gina and Sharp and H.M. Heatley Associates designing retail space for major department stores.
Mr. Portman received his Bachelor of Science in Architecture degree from Georgia Tech in 1950. After a three-year apprenticeship with one of the premier Atlanta architectural firms, Stevens & Wilkinson, Portman opened his own firm in 1953. As he told the story, he chose his first employee because the architect was not only capable, but he also owned a typewriter and Portman was hopeful that they would one day need to type up an invoice. In 1956, Portman partnered with one of his former professors from Georgia Tech, H. Griffith Edwards to form the firm of Edwards & Portman Architects. When Mr. Edwards retired in 1968, the firm was renamed John Portman & Associates.
Mr. Portman’s willingness to invest in his own projects and his personal commitment to art in architecture was evident from the start. When he opened his own office in 1953, his first commission was the renovation of the Fraternal Order of Eagles Building in downtown Atlanta on which he wanted to affix a contemporary metal sculpture of an eagle. The client liked the idea, but was unwilling to finance the art. Mr. Portman was so passionate about the idea, that he used his own funds for the purchase of the sculpture, and this was the beginning of his lifelong practice of incorporating art as integral elements within his designs.
At the commencement of his career, he pioneered the role of architect as developer in order to give himself more freedom in the implementation of his design concepts and to gain greater control of his projects’ destinies. His keen business sense and entrepreneurial spirit combined with his incredible design abilities and determined self-confidence enabled him to develop many profitable projects.
As he pioneered the role of architect as developer, he drew on a philosophy of self-reliance which was strongly influenced by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. His architecture was impacted by the teachings of Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Portman met when Wright was a guest lecturer at Georgia Tech a few years after Portman graduated. Like Wright, Portman focused on the systems by which buildings were organized and the concept of organic unity as a design ideal. His two private residences, Entelechy I in Atlanta and Entelechy II on Sea Island, best exemplify Portman’s design philosophy.