An Impacful Pioneer
John Calvin “Jack” Portman III, visionary architect, devoted father, doting grandfather, impassioned artist and trailblazing businessman, passed away of natural causes at the age of 71 on Friday, August 28 at his home in Atlanta, Georgia.
Son of famed Atlanta architect John Calvin Portman Jr. and Jan Portman, Jack was born November 3, 1948 in Atlanta, Georgia. Jack graduated from The Lovett School in Atlanta, then earned a Bachelor of Architecture from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a Master of Architecture from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He began practicing architecture in 1973 at John Portman & Associates, rising from an Apprentice Architect to become Chairman of the firm, now known as Portman Architects.
Jack took over leadership of Portman Architects following the death of his father, John C. Portman Jr., in 2017. While exceedingly successful as a real estate developer, Jack was passionate about being an architect, particularly the creation of meaningful architecture with a focus on culturally sensitive design. He once said, “The challenge of the architect is to do something that seems to belong where it is situated.” Throughout his nearly 50-year career with the Portman Companies, Jack pioneered their international expansion, helping to transform the enterprises into the globe-spanning real estate design and development firms that they are today.
Most notably, Jack was one of the first American businessmen to recognize the enormous potential of the Pacific Rim markets in the wake of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China.
In January 1979, Jack traveled to Shanghai, Beijing, and Hangzhou to investigate possible business opportunities in China. 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.
Over the course of his long career, Jack became something of an ambassador for American architects in China. He pioneered a successful approach to practicing internationally by immersing himself in the culture, learning Mandarin, and building relationships based on a spirit of cooperation and collaboration. In awarding Jack fellow status within the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the organization recognized him as the embodiment of the AIA’s desire to expand the institution’s reach globally, provide a voice for the profession, and serve as a resource to aid the advancement of other members. His visionary leadership in Asia significantly boosted Atlanta’s image as a savvy player in the global marketplace.
Success in China led to work in India and beyond, including additional projects across the United States, where Portman Architects continue to prove their progressive design talents. Despite his sudden departure, Jack leaves the firm on solid footing with thriving offices in Atlanta and Shanghai. Portman Architects is growing and active under the leadership of long-standing principals who benefitted from experience working with both John and Jack Portman. Jack was perhaps most excited about the firm’s talented young architects who he characterized as coming out of school well-equipped to contribute in a big way right from the start.
In recent years, Jack has been instrumental in the establishment of a distinguished visiting professorship in architecture at Harvard GSD in honor of his father. The John Portman Visiting Chair in Architecture creates a special opportunity for Harvard GSD to bring internationally recognized designers to campus in a sustained role, and to engage in the life of Harvard while supporting research assistance, exhibitions, and publications. Additionally, Jack served on the board of Harvard GSD Dean’s Leadership Council & Georgia Tech China Foundation and was a member of the University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill Chancellor’s Global Leadership Council.
Jack was well known amongst family and friends for his mischievous sense of humor, impeccably unique style, love of design, and his exceptional generosity. He loved nothing more than when all of his children and grandchildren, along with spouses and close friends, joined him in the backyard, chatting and laughing. Often a grandchild would interrupt the adult conversation, begging “Daddy Jack” to play with them, and he always did. “Daddy Jack” was the most fun. Each of his grandkids knew that he would be up for anything, especially a second (or third) dessert, an impromptu painting session, or some exciting excursion way past bedtime. A voracious reader and a passionate artist, Jack pursued a lifelong enthusiasm for learning, painting, and traveling the world—experiences he considered his most important education—and he always shared the fruits of these passions with the ever-growing number of people who were fortunate enough to be a part of his life
Jack was a proud father to Joannah Portman Daley, Alissa Portman Beard, John C. Portman IV, Easan Everly Portman, and Eres Ever Invicta Portman. In addition to his five children, Jack is survived by his mother, Joan “Jan” Portman; his siblings, Michael Portman, Jeff Portman, Jana Portman Simmons and Jarel Portman; five grandchildren, Emerson Daley, Holden and Amelia Beard, and John Calvin Portman V and Everett Portman; and countless more relatives and cherished friends. Jack was preceded in death by his younger brother Jae Portman and his father, John Calvin Portman Jr. The family is holding a small private memorial service and, in lieu of flowers, suggests that memorial contributions be made to Art Papers, the Andrew J. Young Foundation or another charity of your choice.
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Images provided by Portman Architects and Portman Archives.