For jaded downtown urbanites, one emotion will likely dominate Wednesday at 8 p.m. as filmmaker Ben Loeterman’s visually dazzling documentary “John Portman: A Life of Building” has its Georgia broadcast premiere on GPB — Guilt. As the modern benefactors of the native Atlantan architect and developer’s 50-year-old reinvention of downtown, we routinely stare up at Portman’s skyscraping handiwork, the Westin Peachtree Plaza, SunTrust Plaza, Peachtree Center, AmericasMart, Marriott Marquis and the Hyatt Regency, not realizing the impact Portman has made not only on Atlanta’s impressive skyline but on downtown development as well.
Like Andrew Young, another one of the 57-minute film’s octogenarian interviewees a downtown street is named for, Atlantans tend to take John Portman for granted. He’s seemingly always been here, a part of the city’s concrete-and-steel framework. If nothing else, Loeterman’s fascinating film urges us to reconsider Portman’s gifts to his hometown (a tip for viewers: DVR this doc. You will want to hit pause throughout to take in the film’s gorgeous time-lapse photography).
For the Boston-based, Emmy-winning Loeterman, the foundation for “A Life of Building” was poured back in 2009 while he was in Atlanta working on his “The People v Leo Frank” PBS documentary and happened to take in an exhibition of Portman’s career at the High Museum of Art.
“The exhibition had everything but the guy,” Loeterman recalls. “I wanted to know about the person who did all this. As great as it was visually, it lacked humanity. I’m not an architecture aficionado. I like people.” For starters, Loeterman thought the 87-year-old Portman was dead. When he discovered otherwise, he immediately set out to win the trust of the notoriously private Atlanta icon.
Explains Loeterman: “Once he saw that I wasn’t out to get him, that I was genuinely interested in what he had to say, he began trusting me with the gift of his stories.” Portman’s words narrate and provide the film’s framework. Better yet, Portman gave the green light to his children and his wife to talk on-camera to relate personal stories. Most stunningly, toward the end of filming, Portman even granted Loeterman and crew access to Entelechy I, the private Portman family home in Atlanta built by the architect in 1964 and its 1986 seaside sequel, Entelechy II at Sea Island.
“Nobody sees the Atlanta home,” Loeterman says. “This is where Mrs. Portman is and Mrs. Portman is called ‘The Chairman.’ Film crews just are not invited in. The Portman family is very close-knit, very private. There’s a cone of silence. That insight and that access was such a gift for this film.”
For most Atlantans, the prolific Portman’s more recent work in Shanghai and Beijing will likely come as a surprise (notably, his Chinese lantern-inspired, breath-taking trio of Yintai Centre towers in Beijing erected early in the new millennium).
“John Portman’s legacy goes from Peachtree Street to Detroit to Madison Square Garden to San Francisco, Shanghai and Beijing,” says Loeterman. “It was incredibly exciting to capture that legacy on film.”
“John Portman: A Life of Building” airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. on GPB. For more information on the doc, go the film's official website.