Readers Steve and Luis were on to something in those first guesses — it’s a model in the High Museum’s John Portman exhibit. But even if you hadn’t seen the model of our city in the “John Portman: Art & Architecture,” some of you might have recognized the distinct tip of SunTrust Plaza in Midtown.
It is among Atlanta’s tallest buildings and remains one of its most distinctive, with a busy streetscape at the base and a recognizable crown. The best view of many of Portman’s buildings is on the inside, but the exterior of SunTrust Plaza makes it stand out on the ground and in the skyline.
It’s 1.6 million square feet, 60 stories and has a tenant list including SunTrust Banks, lawyers and dentists. In the past, it held a Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia gallery.
When the building opened in 1992, it wasn’t SunTrust Plaza, but One Peachtree Center. A December 1992 review by critic Catherine Fox said it had an “ uncharacteristically postmodern silhouette on the skyline,” and that it seemed to respond to criticism of Portman’s “downtown fortresses” with the 2.6-acre, pedestrian-friendly plaza surrounding the building.
From the 1992 review:
Yet the $350 million, 60-story granite and glass tower – the intended showpiece of his downtown Atlanta empire – is as much a restatement of the philosophy and style that the Atlanta architect developed some 30 years ago as it is a departure.
Which is, as always, a mixed blessing.
The volumetric, 67-foot-high lobby, for example, exemplifies Mr. Portman’s forte, the creation of dramatic, complex interior space. But it also illustrates his penchant for gilding the lily, in this case with a slew of his own, regrettable sculptures.
Even as the building was under construction, articles and editorials warned of a bloated office market that didn’t bode well for filling the building. For Portman, there was debt, restructured debt, more loans, not enough sales, near-bankruptcy, more moves and eventually, deals that led him to relinquish ownership of several proejcts. Within a few years of opening, One Peachtree Center was renamed SunTrust Plaza, for the bank that moved its headquarters there from Five Points.
As Portman said in a recent AJC interview, “There is nothing that will bring you down to earth faster than signing the back of a note at the bank.”
The High exhibit doesn’t go into that kind of history or criticism of Portman or his buildings, but explores them for their artistry and influence. The entire Ann Cox Chambers wing is filled with his original paintings and sculpture, plus photos and models of his buildings.
During media tours, High officials explained that this wasn’t always an easy exhibition to put together. Portman, who told the AJC he’s “not a look-back guy,” didn’t exactly have the history of his life’s work ready to go, when he had that history at all.
And you can imagine why: Atlanta’s skyline is a living archive of what he’s done. The exhibit also features models of works — some planned, some built, some currently under construction — in other countries, as well.
The High’s exhibit is the first that looks back at so much of Portman’s work, but it’s not exactly the first retrospective. A smaller one was up for a few months in 1999. It was displayed in SunTrust Plaza.
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Want to go? “John Portman: Art & Architecture,” continues through April 18, 2010. $11-18, free for members and children younger than 5. High Museum of Art, High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-733-4444, www.high.org.