John Portman, a famous architect who had a major impact on hotel design in the U.S., died in the last week of 2017. Portman was the architect who realized the atrium in commercial and hotel buildings – not only in design but in construction methods.
But the obituary I read didn't mention that, in fact, John Portman had one of the largest impacts on our building codes in the 20th century. John wasn't a fire safety professional; in fact, like many architects he saw fire safety regulation as a barrier to innovation. He had grand spaces in mind; building codes at the time were based primarily on the concept of compartmentation, the antithesis of grand soaring spaces. In particular, opening up stories in a high rise building, effectively removing horizontal compartmentation, violated many of the basic tenets of the building codes at the time. But John was a determined innovator and by working with fire protection engineers and building authorities to develop alternative means to provide equivalent safety, he persevered in his desire to create beautiful large interior spaces in public buildings.
These alternative means included fire sprinklers, smoke management systems, and other features which are now common in fire safety design and code requirements in highrise structures. His determination not only enabled a new form of urban architecture, but it also opened the door for a more scientific approach toward the development of fire safety design and building codes which has been applied to other innovations in building design. His signature design, Atlanta's Peachtree Center, the first Hyatt Hotel that featured a Portman designed atrium, was arguably the gateway to a revitalization in U.S. downtown urban environments. And for us, in the fire safety community, particularly at a time when once again fundamental tenets of our building codes (for example combustible facades and construction for highrise buildings) are being challenged, it's a reminder that we need to keep pace with building innovation with innovation in our own understanding and application of the principles of fire safety engineering.
Photo: John Portman & Associates website