John Portman, RE Legend On Lessons Learned


I am not much for looking back. I’m too focused on what I’m doing and what I’m going to do to be retrospective, I take what I’ve learned along the way and tuck it away for use with the next endeavor, but I haven’t done much navel-gazing about the past five decades. At 85, I’m too young to be nostalgic.

Seeing it all now , got me thinking. How is it that I’ve navigated the inevitable ups and downs of business, particularly the real estate industry, over the decades.

Five constant lessons stick out:

Be positive. If there’s been one recurring theme in my life, it’s the notion that you shouldn’t dwell on anything. It’s a lesson I learned from my mother. Negativism breeds negativism, which breeds nothing. You must not lose your vision, whatever adversity you might face.

The recession of the 1990s was the most devastating of all business cycles for me. When many developers left downtowns to focus on the suburbs, I swam upstream and remained true to downtown Atlanta. Perhaps it was naive, but I’ve done a lot of things in life because I simply didn’t know I couldn’t.

In New York during the 1970s, Mayor John Lindsay sought our help in revitalizing the deteriorating theater district in Times Square. The process took 14 years before we completed the New York Marriott Marquis hotel and theater. Some said we were crazy trying to rejuvenate a once wonderful theater district that had unfortunately deteriorated.

At times, it was like The Perils of Pauline, as New York City went broke, theater groups decried the razing of buildings with emotional significance, and critics openly mauled our design. But we persevered, convinced that the area would be reborn in a style befitting a great city. Time has proved us right.

Shut out the noise. You have to get out of the froth of everyday life, go within yourself and then come back out. Art has done that for me. So often people get caught up in things and lose a bit of humanity. We should treat things as servants to the human side rather than letting our lives be dictated by things–ringing cellphones, new e-mail messages and the constant noise that comes with increased communication and technology. Connecting with art, whether viewing a painting, hearing a fine symphony or participating in artistic expression yourself, allows you to get to the core of who you are, which inevitably shapes how you see the world and how you create solutions for the world around you.

Understand people. The best businesspeople are solution finders rather than sellers of things. I’ve always been a dedicated observer. By watching what people do, I try to figure out why they do it. Then I can better design something to meet their needs.

Working in Atlanta at the height of the Civil Rights movement, I saw firsthand the destructive nature of the racial discrimination of the 1950s and ’60s. This inspired me to collaborate with two dozen Atlanta chief executives to create the Action Forum, a biracial organization that helped turn the city into a role model for racial integration. We were not always popular, but doing the right thing is not about winning popularity contests. It’s about serving a greater good, which may be for your community, city or organization.

Many feared that I was putting my future on the line in those days by sticking to my convictions, but as in my approach to architecture, and to all aspects of my life including business, people came first. It’s all about people in the end.

Balance vision and pragmatism. Good ideas are a careful balance between pragmatism and vision. It’s like yin and yang, two opposing forces that are simultaneously interconnected and interdependent with one another. When vision and pragmatism come together, it’s a spectacular thing, but you can’t let one take over the other.

When my firm bid to help with the urban redevelopment of San Francisco in the 1960s, we evaluated the strategy of the local redevelopment agency, which offered five blocks of a decaying warehouse district. Developers could bid on half a block, one block or all five. It made sense that the most cohesive plan would be one where the entire district was under single control.

With David Rockefeller and the developer Trammell Crow, we bid for all five blocks. What emerged was Embarcadero Center’s five high-rise office towers and an atrium hotel, linked by a multilevel retail spine, pedestrian bridges and landscaped plazas–a city within a city.

Think about the long term and the greater good. It may sound absurd, but I’ve never been too focused on profit. I’ve been more focused on contribution. But the two don’t have to be at odds–unless you make them. The emphasis on contribution often results in greater long-term profitability, because you’re focused on the long term and the greater good rather than short-term financial gain. It’s what drove me to become a developer-architect. Rather than concentrating on one great building, I could design and develop a great community, taking into account how people would interact with the adjacent structures.

Someone recently reminded me of a Henry David Thoreau quotation, “Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.” I can relate to that. I can’t help thinking: So this is what happens to someone who can’t keep from being busy. (credit forbes)


1 Comment

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One response to “John Portman, RE Legend On Lessons Learned

  1. Brenda Sauter

    This is wonderful advise, a true insight to values will placed. Thank you.

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