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Mar 30 2015


How 1980s Atlanta Became the Backdrop for the Future

The Southern capital has set the scene for dystopian thrillers such as Divergent and The Walking Dead, most notably via buildings designed by the architect John Portman.

Kristi York Wooten

Downtown Atlanta contains very little brick and mortar. A westward view of the city’s skyline—the same image used in the opening credits of TV’s The Walking Dead—reveals this Southern capital’s history at a glance: It burned to the ground in the Civil War and was rebuilt as a transportation hub filled with pulsating veins of highways and eager Fortune 500 companies. A construction boom during the Reagan years gave the ATL shiny buildings buttressed by tons of cement, creating an army of concrete and glass in a landscape practically devoid of the past. Now, the city is crawling with movie producers looking for backdrops for their science-fiction thrillers, further bolstering Atlanta's growing reputation as futuristic cinema's go-to city.


Over the course of a century, the sci-fi genre invited viewers to travel through space and to dwell in the urban centers of tomorrow. A quaint cardboard rocket went to the moon in the 1902 silent film Le Voyage dans La Lune; the largest soundstage in Europe housed the models that became space stations and death stars in 1977’s Star Wars; and in 1999, The Matrix combined next-level special effects with airborne action, upping the ante for how characters interact with architecture on film. Today, film editors use software to build up and tear down entire civilizations in a matter of keystrokes without leaving their desks. Yet one architect’s work is luring movie franchises such as The Hunger Games and Divergent to the rooftops of Atlanta, where forty-year-old buildings—and computer-generated environments—are locked in a pixelated power struggle.


Insurgent, the second installment of the Divergent series (based on the dystopian young-adult trilogy about a world where free will is outlawed), was filmed in Atlanta and features aerial views of the architect John Portman’s hometown and mini empire, including more than a dozen blocks of real estate he designed and developed along the Peachtree Street business corridor. Although the 90-year-old Portman had nothing to do with the film’s production, images of his high-rise architecture inform the story as much as any of the sequel’s digitally enhanced action sequences. Portman’s buildings bring an element of realism to the movies in an age where the competition between physical structures and green-screen graphics is visual and tangible. Unlike video games and animation, live action requires both photography and architecture to convey a sense of place and time, even if that place is light years away.


Insurgent’s production designer Alec Hammond came to Atlanta looking for a location that could be manipulated into a post-apocalyptic megatropolis. For the film's fictional Candor faction's headquarters, the uniformity of Peachtree Center’s septet of Portman office towers fit the bill. Exterior shots were filmed from the roof of the Portman-designed AmericasMart, where protagonist Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) visits Jack Kang, the fictional leader of the Candor faction. Onscreen, Tris traipses past Portman’s skybridges and leaps through shards of glass. During these scenes, the audience also glimpses the iconic blue saucer that is the Polaris Restaurant atop Portman’s 1967 Hyatt Regency Hotel.


Decades ago, Portman never envisioned his buildings as dystopian fortresses or imagined Hollywood actors rappelling down his skyscrapers. In 2008, tax incentives sped Atlanta’s ascension as a film-production hub and alternative to Los Angeles. Thanks to hits such as Anchorman 2, The Internship, Selma, and TV’s The Walking Dead, the industry generated $5.1 billion for Georgia’s economy in 2014. Yet, movie producers stalked Portman buildings years before Insurgent’s stuntmen zip-lined over AmericasMart, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay relocated elements of Panem’s Capitol to the massive atrium of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis.


Clean lines and neo-futuristic forms made Portman’s architecture from the 1970s and 1980s camera-ready. Burt Reynolds was one of the first to film at Atlanta’s Westin Peachtree Plaza in 1981 and while on location there, he also recorded a 220-foot freefall stunt at the neighboring Hyatt Regency, using both hotels for the noir action movie Sharky’s Machine. After that film, other directors began to imagine Portman’s concrete obelisks and curved walls as they might appear in the distant future. Detroit’s Portman-designed Renaissance Center provided inspiration for the fictitious Delta City in Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop and appeared in other films including Out of Sight, Presumed Innocent, and Grosse Point Blank. The Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles, a classic multi-cylindrical Portman hotel, can be spotted in dozens of sci-fi action thrillers including John Carpenter’s Escape From LA as well as Strange Days, Mission Impossible III, and Interstellar.


“[Directors are] projecting a future by imagining how it would look in ruins,” said Michael Hays, a professor of architectural theory at Harvard. “All the flesh has been removed and you just see the architectural bones. I’ve always thought Portman’s buildings would make very beautiful ruins, because the essence of them is so powerful and so direct.”


Portman’s use of scale expands spatial perceptions from the human level to the colossal. In multistory buildings, elevators are the primary mode of transport from the lobby through a vast atrium; most of Portman’s elevators are made of glass. Both Clint Eastwood’s In the Line of Fire (1993) and James Cameron’s True Lies(1994) utilized the elevators in Portman’s Westin Bonaventure to convey the importance of scale and take viewers along for the ride.


“Directors refer to Portman’s famous glass elevators because they translate the idea of motion through large spaces,” Hays said. “It’s a parallax and contributes to the hallucinatory element of his work. This gives his buildings movement, and he choreographs that movement through space.”


Hays also believes filmmakers use architecture to represent societies that are forming or collapsing, and conceptual structures are too eccentric to symbolize the collective groups that dominate dystopian storylines. Portman’s work fits on film in part because his design philosophy straddles the modernism and brutalism handed down to his generation from predecessors such as Le Corbusier and Marcel Breuer, who strove to incorporate functionality and community into their buildings.


While Portman was earning his degree in architecture at Georgia Tech in Atlanta in the late 1940s, Frank Lloyd Wright visited the university. Portman asked Wright for advice, and the famous architect told him, “Young man, go seek Emerson.” Portman then set out to balance the tenets of scale and self-reliance in his blueprints—a direction that ultimately gave his work a humanistic touch and saved him from experimenting too deeply with post-modernism in the mixed-use commercial properties, offices, and upscale hotels he designed later in his career.


“It’s important to understand how we use and experience architecture,” Portman told me in an interview at one of his offices inside Atlanta’s 60-story SunTrust Plaza, which he designed. “The [buildings] serve the human being, not the other way around. I don’t think architects have spent enough time thinking holistically about how architecture affects people. Hopefully, we are headed in the way of developing our physical world into a human-centric environment. Architecture shapes how people live and perform. Everything architects do is for people.”


Portman has faced choruses of critics over the years, many of whom say his insular structures “turn their backs” on the true vibrancy and community of city life. But as his legacy continues to take shape, both the architecture world and civic organizations are beginning to revisit his work. The High Museum of Art exhibited a Portman retrospective in 2009; in 2011, he was the subject of the documentary, A Life of Building; and at an Atlanta award ceremony in 2013, he was honored by the former Atlanta Mayor and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, who, as reported by The Atlanta Business Chronicle, called Portman an artist and “a man who believed he could make something out of nothing.”


Portman’s architecture may not be as famous as that of some of his contemporaries, but he’s likely racked up more screen time than most. While the Frank Gehrys and I.M. Peis of the world have made their marks with idiosyncratic one-offs that dazzle and beckon, Portman seems more concerned with not standing out. If his exteriors appear forged by brute force and sharp edges, inside a heart beats in amplified rhythms. In refusing to join the race, John Portman has created a place for himself in the pantheon. The circles, the skylights, the quiet corners, the joyful repetition of form—these are things he shares with the likes of architects Louis Kahn or Renzo Piano. Portman has mastered the geometry, but the humanist in him will never let it win. "Seek Emerson," the voice of Wright echoes. If a building forgets about the people, it ceases to be architecture. At that point, leave it on the cutting-room floor.



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